Healthy Ways to Handle Food Cravings

The answer commonly depends on if you are eating the food for fuel vs. mindlessly devouring it for its drug-like effect. If you find yourself on the verge of polishing off the whole bag of bagels, stop and ask yourself, "Does my body need this fuel?" If the answer is yes, you need to learn how to prevent the extreme hunger or deprivation that triggered the overeating.

If the answer is no, then ask yourself, "What am I doing with my feelings?" Over-eating a craved food can distract you from sadness, smother your emotions, and protect your from feeling alone and lonely. But you are using food for the wrong reason. No amount of bagels, chocolate, or chips will resolve the real problem: you are likely hungry for a hug.

Do certain foods over-excite the pleasure centers in the brain? If so, do those foods become "addictive"? The recent science (3) says there is no such thing as a "sugar (or food) addiction." Yes, it may have addictive-like qualities, particularly following a restriction/binge pattern of eating (1). In my practice, most people who binge have an unbalanced relationship with food; it has become too enticing, a primary focus for pleasure. The more they try to stay away from palatable foods, the more they want them.

While there is much we do not know about food and this controversial topic of food addictions, I encourage my clients to first rule-out hunger as the cause for cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. The physiology of hunger explains why we crave sugar; it's a survival signal for quick energy. When your blood sugar is low, your brain signals an urgent need for sugar. When your muscles are glycogen depleted, you experience carb cravings until the muscles are adequately replenished.

What can you do to overcome cravings and perceived "addictions"? First and foremost, experiment with eating heftier breakfasts and lunches to abate hunger. (No, you will not "get fat" by eating more during the day. If you listen to your body, you will observe you are less hungry at night and will simply be able to consume fewer calories.) Also try changing your attitude.

The mind is very influential. If you believe you are addicted to a food, you will have a hard time convincing yourself otherwise despite research that refutes the concept of food addiction and puts the focus on deprivation as a trigger to (over)eat.

The next time you have a craving for a specific food, relax, enjoy eating it slowly, taste it, savor the flavor, and linger over the treat. Do this several times throughout the week. Learn to enjoy the treat slowly, in moderation, without feeling guilty. Enjoy the foods you crave at every meal. For example, have a few Hershey's Kisses day after day, at breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. Eat them so often that you get sick of them. This may sound unhealthy in the short term but a week or two of excess chocolate will not ruin your health (nor your waistline) forever.

By learning your body's responses to different foods, you can at least become educated: food is not addictive and cravings are not bad. What's bad is trying to live hungry as well as denied and deprived of foods you enjoy. There is a possibility you can find peace with food.


References:
1. Pelchat M.
Food addiction in humans. J Nutr. 2009; 139(3)620-622

2. Corwin RL, and P Grigson. Symposium Overview--Food Addiction: fact or fiction? J Nutr. 2009; 139(3):617-619.

3. Benton, D. The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition 29(3):288-303, 2010.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) helps both casual and competitive athletes find peace with food. Her practice is at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners and soccer players offer additional information. The books are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

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