You’re not alone if you find yourself daydreaming about a certain food — there are both physiological and psychological reasons why cravings pop up. When you’re trying to lose weight it can feel like giving into cravings with a cheat day or putting certain foods “off limits” is the solution. However, this can backfire and suddenly you might find yourself overeating.
Here, a look at the science behind cravings and why sometimes the smartest thing you can do in response to a craving is actually eat.
“Food cravings happen for a variety of reasons,” says Jill Merkel, RD. “Some people eat for emotional reasons such as stress, loneliness or boredom. Others may eat at certain times of day because it has become habit.” Psychological factors such as “changes in hydration, hormones and blood sugar levels play a role, too.”
While anyone can experience cravings, some people are more vulnerable than others. “I see cravings more often in clients who are restricting their intake or who use food as their main means of coping with emotions and stress,” says Merkel. So if you’re currently trying to lose weight or consider yourself someone who eats in response to certain feelings, it’s important to take a look at how to positively react when cravings arise.
“From a psychological standpoint, when we restrict ourselves or make something completely off limits, it could set us up to overeat or binge later,” explains Rachel Goldman, PhD, a licensed psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. “This doesn’t happen to everyone, but it makes sense if you think about it. If you can’t have something, then many times you want it even more.”
Instead of swearing a food off altogether, “allow yourself smaller indulgences along the way to your goals,” suggests Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition. This helps ensure your eating plan is sustainable and enjoyable. For example, “if you love and crave pizza, allowing yourself to have it occasionally teaches you how to satisfy your cravings while still reaching and maintaining your health goals.” In other words, by learning how to incorporate the foods you crave into your diet without going overboard, you can enjoy them while still making progress.
The key here is indulging your craving once in a while rather than every time it strikes. Otherwise, you could end up eating that food you crave every single day — and that could stall your goals.
Here are three expert-approved strategies for making indulgences work for you rather than against you:
1. DEFINE YOUR HUNGER
“The first step is to be able to differentiate and identify true hunger versus emotional hunger,” says Goldman. “Before you decide what to do about a craving, take a quick time out and evaluate how you’re feeling physiologically and emotionally.” Here’s what to keep in mind to help you distinguish between the two:
- Comes on gradually
- Means you’ll eat whatever is available
- Feels like you can wait a little bit
- Doesn’t come along with guilt
- Comes on suddenly
- Only applies to a specific food
- Feels like you need to eat now
- Leaves you feeling guilty
If you take a step back to evaluate how you’re feeling and still really want a specific food, Goldman recommends eating and enjoying it slowly. “And don’t beat yourself up about it afterwards,” she says.
2. PLAN INDULGENCES AHEAD OF TIME
“If you’re craving a burger, plan to meet a friend at your favorite burger spot for dinner during the week so you can look forward to it,” suggests Zeitlin. Planning ahead also gives you the chance to make sure the meals leading up to your burger are packed with veggies and leaner proteins. Plus, you won’t be lured in by the fast-food burger joint you pass on your way home from work. By planning it out, you make the indulgence more special and satisfying rather than a last-minute binge you didn’t think much about or truly enjoy.
3. GO FOR THE REAL THING
When it comes to doing indulgences right, it’s all about being mindful and taking the time to truly enjoy the experience. “If you’ve been craving a cookie all day, take a break and go get your favorite type of cookie for your afternoon snack instead of mindlessly noshing on the in-office cookies that won’t be nearly as satisfying the same way,” Zeitlin recommends. “When you feel a craving come on, make a conscious plan to eat the food you’re craving in the most satisfying and delicious way possible for you.” Usually, that means going for the real thing over a substitute, paying attention to portion size and cutting out any distractions when eating.