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April 6, 2001
A Craving for Control

first letter we all have food cravings from time to time. You may crave a chocolate dessert after a meal or have an uncontrollable urge to snack on potato chips while watching television. But for some of us, it's a daily struggle trying to keep junk-food cravings from controlling us. Such cravings can have detrimental effects like weight gain and poor nutrition.

photo: Elaine Gavalas, Nutritionist
Food & Fitness


By Elaine Gavalas

Snack attack

Cravings for refined carbohydrates such as chocolate and pastries are common. One of the most frequent causes of carbohydrate cravings is low blood-sugar. This is usually caused by a diet high in refined carbohydrates. When too many refined carbs -- pastries, white breads, and sugars -- are eaten, blood sugar rises quickly. Your pancreas responds to this high blood-sugar by oversecreting insulin, which may cause blood-sugar levels to drop too low, resulting in hypoglycemia. When blood-sugar levels and energy drop, the urge to eat processed carbohydrates or sweets can be very powerful.

Stress may also contribute to cravings. When stressed, the body attempts to boost the brain's production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of calm and well-being. This produces a craving for carbohydrates, which are one of the raw materials the body needs to manufacture serotonin.

People may also crave protein-rich foods when under pressure -- such foods have been associated with increased alertness, concentration, and performance. And women can crave chocolate and sweets during the seven to ten days before their periods; a premenstrual drop in serotonin may create an increase in appetite, and particularly a craving for carbohydrates.

Cooler weather can also stimulate appetite. Many people find themselves eating more and exercising less, which is a problem if you're struggling to maintain a healthy weight.

Controlling those cravings

The best medicine for controlling cravings is exercise and proper eating. With regular workouts, your mood lifts and cravings disappear. Exercise also reduces stress and increases your energy. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at the American College of Sports Medicine recommend thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily. Studies have found that even a brisk walk prior to a meal reduces one's appetite and the urge to snack.

Try to eat a varied diet that is low in sugar and has a balanced distribution of protein from low-fat animal or vegetable sources. Choose low glycemic-index carbs -- ones that don't raise blood-sugar levels as quickly -- such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. And eat healthy fats like olive and flaxseed oils. These foods will keep blood sugar at an even level and help prevent extreme blood-sugar fluctuations and cravings.


With regular workouts, your mood lifts and cravings disappear. Exercise also reduces stress and increases your energy.


In addition, consider keeping a food-craving diary for a few months. Note everything that you eat and drink and the times at which you crave sweets. By keeping a record you may begin to see dietary patterns in regard to your cravings, and you can customize your diet to avoid the things that trigger your desire for junk food. For instance, you may have a craving daily for a candy bar around 4 p.m. Try to anticipate this urge and instead, eat a healthful, low-fat, and low-calorie snack at 3:30 p.m. This will negate your urge for the candy bar.

Another strategy for preventing cravings is to eat healthful snacks -- fresh veggies, low-fat yogurt, or an apple -- every few hours throughout the day to keep blood-sugar levels steady.

When not at home, bring along protein-rich snacks such as nutrient-balanced energy bars, trail mix, nuts, seeds, or low-fat cheese strips for when your energy level drops and your cravings rise.

If you adopt these strategies, you'll be the boss of your body. And before you know it, you'll be controlling your cravings instead of having them control you.

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Elaine Gavalas is an exercise physiologist, nutritionist, and weight management specialist currently earning her Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she also received her master's degree. Elaine is a contributing editor and columnist for a number of online consumer health and beauty sites, and is the author of Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking (Penguin Putnam Avery, 1998).