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Originally published Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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What food cravings tell you about yourself

Nutritionist Carrie Dennett explains the causes of food cravings and offers tips on how to control them.


Special to The Seattle Times

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On nutrition

When you have a food craving, you might think it’s because your body needs nutrients found in the food you are fixating on (let’s say chocolate). Now, it’s true that chocolate contains lots of antioxidants — but so do vegetables, and how often do you crave vegetables?

While some cravings are based on a nutritional need, most cravings stem from other factors.

Environmental cues: It’s as if you stepped right out of one of Pavlov’s classic conditioning experiments when you crave popcorn the moment you step into a movie theater, grab a snack every time you lounge in front of the television or get the urge for a cookie each day at 3 p.m. When you’ve come to associate certain times, places or activities with a particular food, you’ve developed a hard-to-break habit.

Emotional/psychological needs: When you’re feeling stressed, sad, angry or lonely, do you crave ice cream or pasta? Frequent emotional eating could have an adverse effect on your physical health if it means you are eating excess calories or missing out on more nutritious foods. Plus, emotional eating doesn’t help you get to the heart of what’s eating you.

Food addiction: Although we need food for survival — unlike tobacco, alcohol and other drugs — research increasingly suggests we can develop food addictions. While you probably won’t become addicted to kale, it is easier to become addicted to — and crave — hyperpalatable foods that contain the trifecta of added sugar, salt and fat. Of those three, sugar may be what really lights up the reward centers in our brains, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Cravings vs. hunger: It can be hard to distinguish cravings from true hunger, especially if you have fallen out of touch with your body’s hunger cues. Cravings tend to be more specific than hunger. So if you feel like you need to eat, but don’t have a specific food in mind, it’s probably hunger. But if you are laser-focused on one single food, it’s probably a craving.

Here are some tips for getting a handle on food cravings:

■ Keep a “cravings journal.” It will help you see patterns so you can consider what you’re really craving. Do you need that afternoon cookie, or do you really need a break from your desk? Do you actually enjoy movie popcorn, or are you operating on autopilot when you buy it? Do you need ice cream, or do you need a hug? Do you really crave chocolate, or would your sweet tooth be satisfied by fresh fruit?

■ Delay and distract. Cravings may feel strong but they tend to weaken quickly. Distract yourself by taking a walk, calling a friend or reading a magazine. A recent University of Minnesota study found that eating comfort foods may not improve mood any faster than eating nothing at all.

■ Be mindful. If your craving for a cookie just won’t go away, procure the best cookie you can find, and sit and savor it.

■ Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Hunger plus cravings equal harder-to-resist cravings.

■ Don’t deprive yourself. If you categorically deny yourself chocolate, you will probably crave chocolate. If you love a certain food, find a balanced way to include it in your life.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwest Natural Health in Ballard. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com. Reach her at nutritionbycarrie@gmail.com

Do you have a nutrition question? Send it to questionsforcarrie@gmail.com and your question might be answered in a future column.



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