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Behind the Nutrition: What is a Craving?

March 11th, 2010 No Comments

–By Nutritionista

Did I just give you a craving for french fries? I know looking at that picture gives me a taste for salty, carby goodness.

The power of suggestion is so strong when it comes to food. Advertisers know this. They aren’t afraid to let you know they know it. Remember that commercial for Dairy Queen where kids replay a drool-worthy DQ commercial in front of their dad to try to induce a craving so he’ll take them to get some?


I did it again, didn’t I? Now you want a Blizzard (or maybe I just want a Blizzard! But  sadly, no DQ for me).

So, what is a craving? And how does it differ from real hunger?

Cravings are a natural part of the human condition. We’re actually hard-wired to appreciate and pursue natural rewards, like food and sex, because of their critical survival value. But in a world of over-accessibility, the objects of our craving can become all too abundant. Moreover, just a small sample of the drug/food/rewarding activity can lead to more (what experts call the “salty peanut effect”).

Deciding whether a craving is worth indulging is a really tricky process. I’m going to offer some suggestions, but I have to point out once again that everyone is different, so get to know yourself before you implement any kind of craving-control strategy.

  • Know that cravings are instinctual and facts of life. No matter how many cookies you avoid, you may never be able to stop your cravings for one when you pass a Mrs. Fields. Having a craving doesn’t mean you’re unmotivated or doomed to failure. They’re extremely natural and we all have them.
  • Learn about your triggers. For me, having something in my line of sight is a recipe for failure. I don’t keep candy on my desk for that reason. Even watching the Food Network can trigger strong cravings even when I know I’m not actually hungry. For some, stress, lack of sleep, emotional duress, or just boredom can be triggers. Know yours!
  • Realize that you can have the food you’re craving anytime. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to eat it. You can eat it in 10 minutes. Or an hour. Or tomorrow. Many cravings are short-lived and if you ride them out, you’ll find they go away pretty quickly. If you can, physically remove yourself from the situation or try making a contract with yourself that you won’t act on the craving in a given amount of time.
  • Understand that some cravings are actual hunger! If you’re craving something unusual or random, it might be because your body is trying to tell you it’s lacking an essential nutrient. Learn your body’s signals for hunger, like a rumbling stomach, irritability, headache, dizziness, etc. A good benchmark for my actual hunger is if protein and veggies sound good. If all I want is cake, it’s probably psychological hunger or a craving. I’ve also heard experts talk about the “apple test”: If an apple sounds appealing, you’re likely actually hungry. This doesn’t work for me as well because I often crave sweets/sweet foods when I’m not actually hungry. Of course, learning how to practice intuitive eating is also extremely helpful.
  • If your craving persists, eat exactly what you want and don’t look back! One cookie, piece of cake, or order of fries will NOT make or break you or your eating plan. If that craving doesn’t go away, indulge it in a way that will satisfy it. Some people can eat a healthier substitute and be satisfied, but most of us probably need the real thing. Start with just a couple bites, since that often is enough to quench the thirst for whatever you’re lusting after. Above all, know this: There’s nothing inherently bad about indulging a craving (especially after following the steps above), so don’t let yourself succumb to feelings of guilt!