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Taming the craving

Why we crave sweets and snacks, how to fight it

Muffins, chips, chocolate. We crave them because they increase the secretion of the mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin. Sweet and starchy foods make us feel better, at least temporarily. But the hunger for serotonin sets up a destructive cycle of craving that can't be satisfied.

Depression, anxiety and seasonal affective disorder all cry out for the medicating effect of carbohydrates. What's worse is that some of the medications for relieving these conditions ratchet-up our appetites and contribute to the problem. But if we're giving in to cravings for the wrong food, we're going to gain weight, suffer the "sugar roller coaster ride" and find ourselves wanting more.

What do you crave?

"We have a sensory memory or template for the food that will satisfy the craving," says Marcia Levin Pelchat, PhD, sensory psychologist. "The food we eat has to match that template for the craving to be satisfied," she says. "It's as if our brain is saying, 'It has to be chocolate ice cream, lemon pie just won't do.'" Sound familiar? Sugar gives us a blast of energy, but it's followed by a crash. The spiking and dropping of blood sugar levels leaves us feeling chronically exhausted. And the sugar craving gets worse.

Control the cravings with a healthy diet

  • If you're not getting the nutrition you need, you may be more likely to give in to emotional eating. Eat healthy meals that include whole grains, vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources. Combine protein with your starch to slow the rise of blood sugar from the carbohydrate. For example, eat toast with a little peanut butter.
  • Fruits and vegetables: You can eat a whole apple or a cup of carrot sticks for about the same calories and sugar as one chocolate sandwich cookie. Cut the apple into potato-chip-thin slices, carrots into crunchy French-fry-size pieces.
  • Eat a wide variety of food with different tastes and textures. You'll find your meals more satisfying.

Smart tips

sweets and snacks
  • Take a bite or two, then wait a minute. Your craving may be satisfied with just that much.
  • Sip herbal tea. A fruity, spicy flavor tastes like dessert and lasts 20 minutes. Zero calories.
  • Chocoholic? Chocolate is more than 50 percent fat. Grab a snack-size bar instead of a regular one for a third of the sugar and fat.
  • Stock up with low-fat and sugar-free snacks.
  • Keep problem foods out of the house. And avoid the food court, snack machines and the cookie aisle at the supermarket.
  • Is it really hunger? Are you bored, sad, anxious or tired? Take a walk, call a friend, or have a nap.
  • Sometimes we mistake thirst for hunger. Water is a powerful appetite suppressant.
  • Ask your doctor if any of your medications could be affecting your appetite and whether there are alternatives.

If you find that you're frequently eating when you're not hungry, eating until you're uncomfortably full, being secretive about your eating, or feeling like you're eating is out of control, talk to your doctor about the possibility that you could have an eating disorder.