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Food Cravings Explained: Why Do You Have Them? How Can You Combat Them?

By Ashton Jackson, RD, LD/N

Understanding food cravings will go a long way towards helping you to manage them. We all have cravings for specific foods and beverages every now and then. Our cravings are often limited to a specific type of flavor or even texture – sweet treats are irresistible to some while others can’t deny a crunchy, salty bite. Ever wonder what causes these items to have such power over your palate? Curious if it’s just in your head? Well, it’s not – there IS a physiological explanation for your chocolate “addiction,” and having a better understanding of what causes these desires may be just what you need to fight them off.

The Science Behind Your Food Cravings

Humans are naturally driven by positive-reinforcement…the sensation of feeling that we did something “right.” A built-in reward system in our brains actually links the act of doing (eating, in this case) something pleasurable with positive feelings. “Feel-good chemicals” such as dopamine (a neurotransmitter) are responsible for sending these messages of gratification to our brain each time we participate in a positive behavior. Not surprisingly, once an act of doing (eating) is linked with these feelings of joy, our brains want nothing more than for us to repeat this behavior over and over again!

Did You Know?

  • Foods which combine sugar and fat provide the greatest increase in dopamine.
  • The more multi-sensory (taste-bud stimulating) a food is, the more likely you are to crave it. A salted caramel brownie, for instance, combines fat, salt and sugar… your brain can’t get enough!
  • Research has shown that food cravings are physiologically comparable to drug addictions. Individuals who eat too many foods high in sugar and fat have elevated dopamine levels similar to those addicted to cocaine.
  • Food cravings are linked to environmental triggers like location, time, or activity. If you consistently pick up your paper at the local coffee house when you get your iced mocha, your brain will eventually pair reading the newspaper with this sugary beverage!

Understanding food cravings helps you to defeat them at the door.

What Should You Do When a Craving Strikes?

For those who are trying to stay on track with lifestyle change, combating cravings can be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome.   If your palate and your brain are accustomed to enjoying a bowl of chocolate ice cream after dinner, it will take time to break the habit. A great way to stay on track without the need for deprivation is to convert your cravings to an alternate, more nutritious option.

Try a few of these healthy food alternatives to satisfy your most common cravings without expanding your waistline:

For a Sweet Tooth:

Instead of this…Enjoy…
Ice CreamSugar Free Chocolate Pudding
Chocolate Candy Bar1 oz of Dark Chocolate (at least 70% cacao)
Peanut Butter CookiesPuffed Peanut Butter Cereal
Banana Split w/ Ice CreamBanana Split w/ Yogurt
Birthday CakeAngel Food Cake w/ Fresh Strawberries
Apple PieApple Cinnamon Oatmeal
MilkshakeSkim Chocolate Milk (try blending it with ice!)
BrowniesChocolate-Covered Strawberries or Bananas

For a Salty Bite:

Instead of this…Enjoy…
Potato ChipsLow Fat, Lightly Salted Popcorn
Tortilla Chips w/ SalsaSliced Cucumber w/ Salsa
French FriesLightly Salted Edamame in the Pod
Packaged Snack CrackersRoasted Chickpeas
Take-out PizzaEnglish Muffin Pizza
Mashed PotatoesMashed Cauliflower

If you struggle with understanding food cravings that are threatening to jeopardize your weight maintenance efforts, a consultation with a Registered Dietitian can help.

A registered dietitian can help you with understanding food cravings before they derail your efforts.

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