A Craving for Control
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.
Food & Fitness
By Elaine Gavalas
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
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).