Food Cravings That Wreck Your Diet

Stacey C. Slagle

Cravings are an everyday phenomenon.

If you’ve had a bad day at work, didn’t get enough sleep last night, are about to get your period or have any other stressful event going on, do you find that you’re suddenly craving a certain food?

Something sweet, salty or high in fat? That’s normal and common, says Tamara Sims-Dorway, a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric nutrition with the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, part of Orlando Health in Florida.

“Cravings are just your body telling you that you need something. Sometimes it’s an actual physical need or it may be an emotional need.”

Cravings can be triggered by many things.

Cravings are influenced by many factors, says Kailey Proctor a board-certified oncology dietitian at Leonard Cancer Institute with Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, California. A big one is stress — and using food to ease stress or to find comfort is very common.

Hormonal fluctuations can also trigger cravings, Proctor adds. “For instance, some women crave more red meat when menstruating since their body needs more iron during that time of the month.”

Following a restrictive diet can be another trigger, Sims-Dorway says. “When we totally cut out certain foods, we sometimes find ourselves wanting that food even more. When we skip meals, our blood sugar drops and we crave sweet foods or carbohydrates that will bring it back up quickly.”

Inadequate sleep or even just “the sight, smell or thought of food” can also send you in search of a doughnut, says Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

“Food cravings are caused by much more than just being hungry, and they’re often a sign that another part of our overall health needs to be addressed,” says Dr. Jason Doescher, chief medical officer at MOBE, a guided health solutions company based in Minneapolis. “The act of eating food is biologically hardwired into our brains to result in a neurological pleasure response.”

But cravings don’t have to wreck your diet. Here are seven ways to prevent cravings from short-circuiting your quest for healthier eating habits.

1. Plan ahead.

Cravings are inevitable sometimes, and planning ahead for them is one of the best ways of combating them, Sims-Dorway says. “Plan healthy snacks into your day and keep nutritious, portable snacks in your car, purse, backpack or briefcase and at your desk. This way, if you’re unable to eat a meal, you can have a quick snack and avoid a blood sugar crash that will send you searching for a sugary or high-carbohydrate food.”

2. Distract yourself.

Distraction can also help — particularly if stress is a trigger for you. Proctor recommends “finding other ways to deal with the stress besides eating,” such as:

— Going for a walk.

— Calling a loved one.

— Journaling.

— Doing a crossword puzzle, word search or other activity.

— Chewing gum to simulate the act of eating.

Weinandy notes that “realizing that cravings are like waves, where they become more intense and then peak and often crash down, may help you realize that you can ‘ride the craving out’ like you’re riding a wave.”

Doescher adds that “the challenge here is self-awareness. Coping with food cravings can be as easy as exchanging an unhealthy response with a positive solution that still provides comfort or distraction, but identifying that response and solution can be difficult. Taking a whole-person approach to a diet, and seeking out professional support — in order to focus on improving overall health, rather than eliminating specific food items — is the recipe for true long-term success.”

3. Consider why they’re happening.

“Take the time to determine what your body and brain are trying to tell you,” Sims-Dorway says. Ask yourself:

— Am I hungry?

— Am I bored?

— Am I sad?

And then write this all down in your food journal to see if you can spot patterns. Note whether you have food cravings at the same time each day, whether you crave the same types of foods and how long your cravings last. “Recording this information is a great way to incorporate healthy changes,” Sims-Dorway says.

Listen to your body, Weinandy says, and get to know when and why you have certain cravings so you can practice a more intuitive eating practice that can help you avoid cravings. “Intuitive eating is a skill worth practicing but takes time and patience.”

Doescher agrees. “Intentional, mindful eating is critical, and it’s important to seek out outside support in order to identify and manage the external triggers that drive cravings.”

4. Seek healthier food options.

If just ignoring the craving isn’t cutting it and you just have to have something, opt for a healthier food alternative. “Replacing an unhealthy food with a healthy version can keep you on track with a healthy diet,” Sims-Dorway says.

For example, if you’re craving something fatty or creamy, you’ve got options:

— ¼ of a small or ? of a large avocado squirted with lime.

— Light cheese wedge spread on a sliced red or yellow bell pepper.

— 1 tablespoon almond butter with celery.

— A low-fat mozzarella string cheese snack.

Proctor says her go-to for a craving for fatty food is some mixed nuts. But be careful about portion size. “Stick to ¼ cup, which only sets you back 160 to 200 calories, but provides you with heart-healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.

If salty foods are your Achilles’ heel, Sims-Dorway recommends trying:

— A cup of salted popcorn, but “skip the butter and use flavorings such as garlic powder or a sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese.”

— A handful of roasted edamame with sea salt.

— A sliced cucumber sprinkled with balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

— A dill pickle.

If you’re craving something sweet, Proctor recommends four dates and a tablespoon of peanut butter. “Dates are naturally very sweet but also high in fiber. In combination with the small amount of protein and fat from the peanut butter, this combination can make a filling snack or dessert.”

“Nature’s candy, aka fruit,” can also be a good option if you’re craving something sweet, Sims-Dorway says. She recommends reaching for:

— A handful of frozen grapes.

— A baked apple sprinkled with cinnamon.

— A cup of berries with low-fat yogurt.

Doescher adds that “anticipation of cravings and having prepared healthy solutions, such as fruit, nuts or vegetables at the ready can shape and remodel old pitfalls into good habits.”

5. Swap in a similar food.

Sims-Dorway says her clients typically crave one of three foods, but there are some easy swaps that you can make to scratch the itch.

Chocolate. “Try substituting 1 to 2 ounces of dark chocolate and take the time to savor it.”

— Chips. “Try replacing them with baked kale chips sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt.”

— French fries. “Try making homemade fries from fresh sweet potatoes instead.”

“Cravings don’t have to add a lot of calories to our daily calorie intake,” Weinandy adds, but you do have to be careful not to overdo it, even with healthier options.

6. Adjust your overall ratio of macronutrients.

Proctor also notes that if you frequently get certain kinds of cravings, it could be a signal that you need to shift the ratio of fats, carbs and protein you’re eating regularly. “If you notice you’re craving more carbohydrates or sugar, try increasing your protein intake to keep blood sugars stable. Protein is also a very satiating macronutrient, so you’re more likely to stay full and satisfied after a meal or snack high in protein.”

Weinandy says that overall, eating a balanced diet is “by far, the best thing you can do.” She recommends including complex carbs, lean proteins and healthy fats in all your meals and snacks throughout the day. “Eat regularly — don’t go more than four hours without eating — and learn to recognize if you’re truly hungry or just having a craving.”

7. Indulge the craving.

Sometimes only the cupcake or the fatty cut of meat will do the trick. In which case, go for it. “Sometimes the best way to get over a craving is giving in, especially if you’ve been wanting a certain food for days,” Proctor says.

In that case, “enjoy the food and make it an experience to prevent overeating on healthier alternatives that don’t satisfy you the same way.”

“All foods can fit into a healthy diet,” Sims-Dorway adds. Just be careful to “monitor your portions, eat at regular times of the day and take time to enjoy your food.”

7 ways to keep food cravings from wrecking your diet.

1. Plan ahead.

2. Distract yourself.

3. Consider why they’re happening.

4. Seek healthier food options.

5. Swap in a similar food.

6. Adjust your overall ratio of macronutrients.

7. Indulge the craving.

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