Imagine you’ve been on a healthy-eating kick. Everything is going great. You’re skipping the drive-thru, you’re passing up that second slice of pizza, you’re snacking on apples and adding a side salad to dinner. Then — wham! — out of nowhere a craving strikes and you find yourself elbow-deep in a tub of Rocky Road ice cream. In the moment, it can feel like cravings are this powerful force that can derail any resolution and let your appetites run wild. But in reality, it’s possible to get a grip on a craving’s pull and hold tight to your healthy-eating goals.
“I am a big fan of moderation,” says Traci Mann, PhD, professor of Social and Health Psychology at the University of Minnesota and author of “Secrets From the Eating Lab.” “I believe you will crave your favorite foods less if you know you can have them sometimes.”
It also helps to understand what you’re up against, she says: Hunger hits when your body sends the brain signals that it needs more food, and it’s influenced by things like how full your stomach is, your blood glucose levels, and certain hormones in your body. Appetite, on the other hand, has far less to do with when you last ate. It’s a desire for food that’s often triggered by seeing, smelling or thinking about something tasty, and it can also be influenced by everything from stress levels to medical conditions to certain social situations.
When someone’s appetite centers on a particular food (say, a bucket of popcorn as they walk into a movie theater or a piece of chocolate at the end of a hard workday), they typically call that a craving. And cravings can last for a few fleeting minutes (mmmm, those doughnuts in the breakroom look good) or for days (like when you find you’ve been dreaming of Sunday brunch since Wednesday).
The next time you feel an urge to eat something you’d rather not, you could try to double down on your willpower. But a better idea might be making a tweak, like switching to your go-to snacks or changing your default portions.
Here are five myths about cravings and appetite that might lead you astray, and five expert tips to help you conquer your cravings
Myth #1: A craving is a sign that your body needs something
Does your penchant for double cheeseburgers mean your body’s low on iron? Is that bag of salty pretzels calling your name because your body’s dehydrated and you need the salt? Probably not, says Sarah Haas, a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Chicago. “People think a craving for something means they must have it, but that’s rarely the case,” she says. It’s more likely that your penchant for salty, crunchy, fatty, or sweet foods is tied to habit or certain moods and triggers. If you tend to grab a granola bar every afternoon on your drive home from work, you may find yourself craving something crunchy and sweet right on cue when you climb behind the steering wheel.
Things like not getting enough sleep and water may also lead to an appetite uptick. “There’s no question that what’s going on in our lives affects what we eat,” says Haas.
Pro Tip: To tease out appetite (the urge to eat) from hunger (your body’s physiological need to eat), stop thinking enticing foods and start thinking boring snacks. If an apple sounds just as appealing as a bag of chips, you’re probably hungry. If not, those chips are probably calling to your emotional side — not your stomach.
Myth #2: Your body will tell you when it’s full
While many health experts will say that your body is the best source to tell you when you’ve had enough, if you’ve been a overeater for years, your gut feeling may actually be a little off. “Researchers have tried to train people to ‘listen to their gut’ for signs of fullness, but it is not always easy to do,” says Mann. “And feeling full lags behind eating, so once you do notice feelings of fullness, it’s likely too late. You might already be overstuffed.”
Pro Tip: Instead of pausing midmeal to assess their satiety, some people have an easier time paying attention to what portion sizes tend to feel good and then duplicating those at future meals, says Mann. For instance, if one slice of pizza and a small salad tends to leave you feeling satisfied (not stuffed), then that’s probably a good amount to serve yourself. Ditto if a half-cup of cottage cheese and a big bowl of fruit at breakfast tends to tide you over til lunch time. “Using trial and error to figure out what feels just right can also be easier to remember than trying to figure out midmeal how you feel,” she says.
Myth #3: Comfort foods make you feel better
It’s obvious that mac and cheese or a big bowl of ice cream would feel more comforting than, say, a simple salad or a piece of fruit…right? Not so fast. While science has found that pleasing foods can spark the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, Mann’s research suggests that so-called comfort foods don’t actually bring any more comfort than other foods. In a study of 110 college students, some participants were given their chosen comfort food after watching a film that negatively affected their mood, while others were given a different food, or none at all. The comfort-food group did feel better after eating, but no more than the other participants.
Pro Tip: If a banana can lift your spirits just as much as a banana split, use that insight to resist the siren song of the sweeter option.
Myth #4: Dessert is definitely out
It’s time to stop demonizing dessert. “People try to control cravings by denying themselves the foods they crave, but this just makes them crave more,” says Mann. And, worse, when people put foods (or entire food groups) on the no-no list and then slip up and indulge, they tend to go overboard with how much they eat, because they already feel like they blew it.
Pro Tip: “Instead of denying yourself, the best way to keep cravings at bay is actually to allow yourself to have those foods in reasonably sized portions,” Mann says. And if you worry that a sometimes treat can quickly slide into a daily habit, it’s OK to set up parameters for yourself, says Mann — like saving desserts for the weekends or having red meat only at restaurants or ball games.
Myth #5: A good diet is no defense
Appetite and hunger don’t have to go hand in hand, but when they do overlap they can create more intense or specific food cravings, says Mann. Let’s say you’re trying to break a midmorning-muffin habit. If you skip breakfast and then walk past a platter of muffins, you could crave those buttery baked goods even more than you might on a morning when you started the day with a balanced breakfast.
Pro Tip: Try to make most meals balanced and varied, says Haas. She recommends focusing on whole grains and lean proteins, both of which can help you feel fuller longer. “It’s a combo that provides sustainable energy,” she says, so you’re less likely to be ravenous (and vulnerable!) when a craving strikes.
Cravings happen to all of us. But they don’t have to control us. Sometimes it’s the things you do when your appetite isn’t raging that can help you keep those cravings in check.