Dieting is hard enough, but when you've made the effort to change your eating habits only to experience powerful cravings, it can seem especially cruel. Unfortunately, many aspects of dieting are the very things that can lead to cravings, but others are emotional or lifestyle issues that you can overcome with practice. Learn to make your healthy eating a lifestyle rather than a temporary thing, and keep yourself occupied with non-food activities when you feel most vulnerable. You'll soon develop the strength to acknowledge the craving, then send it on its way.
If your diet is limited for any reason, you may find yourself craving the forbidden food. Whether you're cutting calories, reducing carbs or limiting fat, your body and brain are used to those nutrients. When they suddenly disappear, you may feel unsatisfied even if your belly is full. This most often occurs at the beginning of a restricted diet, for instance, the first time you replace your meat and potatoes dinner with a grilled chicken salad. Your salad filled you up, but it lacked the fat, starch and calories of your normal meal. Your body thinks something is wrong because it didn't get its usual dose of these nutrients, so even though your stomach is full, your brain still wants to experience the food it's used to. This is common especially in low-fat diets because fat is a main trigger of the hormone that tells your brain you've had enough food. When your belly is full of lettuce and chicken breast, that hormone may go unactivated. There is also the common psychological reaction of wanting the very thing you cannot have.
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Many people tend to self-medicate themselves with food. You may find yourself heading for the refrigerator after a bad day, during a stressful situation or even just when you have nothing better to do. Food distracts you, allows you to experience a moment of happiness and can even bring back comforting memories. Depending upon what you eat, the food may also operate on a chemical level to make you feel better temporarily. Chocolate, for instance, makes your brain release serotonin and dopamine, which create feelings of well-being. In other words, your brain reacts to chocolate the same way it reacts to narcotics. It doesn't matter if you've just eaten a full meal -- emotional eaters turn to food for happiness.
There are certain things in your life that make you crave food. Television is rife with food advertisements, created specifically to make you crave that cheeseburger. Social situations can also make cravings kick in -- if you usually eat unhealthy foods when you hang out with your friends, your brain associates that situation with certain foods. When you hang out but abstain from the food, your mind thinks the experience is incomplete because the food is missing. This association also applies to food routines. If you keep a bag of chips next to you when you work on your computer, your mind quickly learns to associate chips with the computer. You'll find yourself craving them every time you sit down to work.
Food substitutions are not always effective, and can actually increase the craving for the food being substituted. If you drink a low-fat protein shake when you crave ice cream, your ice cream craving probably won't go away. Your body wants the fat, and the low-fat shake isn't fooling it. The same goes with sugar substitutions -- when you crave something sweet, eating foods sweetened with aspartame or sucralose doesn't do the trick because these substitutes don't affect your blood sugar. Your brain knows this, so it thinks you haven't eaten enough -- this leaves you craving more food.
- University of Rochester Medical Center: Emotional Eating: How to Cope
- The Proceedings of the Nutriton Society: The Psychology of Food Craving
- International Journal of Obesity: Food Cravings and Energy Regulation: The Characteristics of Craved Foods and Their Relationship with Eating Behaviors and WEight Change During 6 Months of Dietary Energy Restriction