"I'D KILL FOR A CANDY BAR"
By Kathryn C. Kukula
The desire hits Kim Woods at least twice a week. She absolutely must have a cheese
enchilada with chili-bean sauce, a deep-fried chicken taco and rice, all from El Fenix, a
restaurant near her home in Dallas. Why an urge so intense, so irrefutable? Kim doesn't
know. "Maybe my body just needs it," she says with a shrug.
When pressed, most of us own up to food cravings, whether it's for a sweet and creamy
chocolate bar, a bag of salty, crunchy chips or Mom's chicken casserole. While hunger
can be satisfied by just about any old food, a craving is specific and seemingly irresistible.
Cravers will drive miles out of their way for their desired combination of tastes, smell
and textures. Cravings are wondrously diverse and specific--you can't live without
peanut-butter cups, your friend goes gaga over onion rings.
They also carry a measure of guilt ("I really shouldn't"), but whether they are unhealthy
depends on how you respond. Experts say that yielding on occasion and in moderation
actually is good for you: Deprivation builds stress and can lead to stronger, more
dangerous urges. But obviously, giving in to every longing for sugar-, fat- and salt-laden
fare can have all sorts of nasty consequences. Kim Woods gained 25 pounds before
reining in her taco and enchilada cravings, and most of us feel at least slightly
uncomfortable with that I-can't-control-it feeling.
Researchers don't fully understand cravings. They know they're not, as a rule, based on
nutritional needs--that chocolate cravers, for example, don't have a magnesium
deficiency. "If that were true, a pill would satisfy the craving," says Harvey Weingarten,
Ph.D., professor of psychology at McMaster University. Studies of chocolate cravers
show that doesn't work.
Nutritional shortages may fuel some cravings in pregnant and nursing women, who
can become deficient in a few nutrients (easily met by adjusting the diet and sometimes
supplements) and heavy exercisers who lose lots of salt when they sweat. The rest of us
would do well to try these ways of keeping cravings from becoming a threat to health
Keep a food diary. For a week, write down everything you eat, when, where and your
feelings before, during and after eating. Do you see patterns? Cravings are reactions to a
complex array of factors, including hunger, emotions, memory and environmental
cues, say experts. Keeping track of what you eat and how you feel can help you plan
healthy responses. Note when you have your period, since you need more calories
during the week before, perhaps as many as 100 to 200 extra a day, says diet expert C.
Wayne Callaway, M.D.
Eat a balanced diet and eat enough. Your food diary may reveal--surprise!--that you're
less likely to need an evening ice-cream fix on a day when you've eaten an adequate,
balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner. That means at least 1,200 daily calories for a
healthy woman, with half those calories from carbohydrate, 30 percent or less from fat
and the rest from protein. Conveniently, our appetites seem to be programmed to want
this balance and variety. That means, however, that when we don't get it, hunger kicks
To meet your nutritional needs and satisfy your taste buds, Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D.,
professor and director of the human nutrition program at the University of Michigan
School of Public Health, recommends the Mediterranean diet. With ample grains, fruits
and vegetables, modest portions of fish and poultry, and very little red meat, it has
flavor and variety without an overabundance of saturated fat. "It's pleasurable eating,"
Be happy. Speaking of pleasure, are you getting enough? We've all had feelings like
frustration, stress and boredom trigger a craving. "At the office, I had to have chocolate
every day after lunch," says Kerri Bailey of Alburtis, Pennsylvania. The daily craving
vanished when she took a leave from work. "Maybe it was because work was so
In our worst moments, a high-fat treat can seem the perfect antidote. Why fat?
Researchers think that back in our cavewoman days, when food was scarce and fat was
key to survival, we developed a strong preference for high-fat food. To this day, fat
triggers the release of endorphins, substances that in turn promote the release of
pleasurable sensations. Endorphins also circulate after exercise and other times of
pleasure and satisfaction. But when you're bored at work or stuck in traffic transporting
a herd of Little Leaguers to practice, a chocolate bar or cinnamon Danish is a faster route
to an endorphin hit--even when it's the last thing you really need.
So what to do? Add more pleasure to your life, whether that means having more sex,
taking up exercise, developing a hobby, volunteering or cultivating close, supportive
relationships. All produce feelings of calm and well-being similar to the sensations we
get from eating high-fat treats.
Get moving. Besides triggering an endorphin high, exercise moderates appetite. In one
study of yo-yo dieters who craved fatty foods, subjects who exercised moderately
substantially reduced their cravings.
Substitute. Find less damaging versions of your most decadent cravings (see "Smart
Substitutes," below). But be patient and realistic. "Carrots are not going to replace
chocolate," says Judith S. Stern, Sc.D., professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the
University of California, Davis. Likewise, your initial efforts to pass off fat-free cocoa as
double-fudge ice cream may have your taste buds protesting, but keep trying.
And watch calories. "Just because the fat is removed doesn't mean the food is low
calorie," warns Dr. Stern. Some substitutes may not work for you. If you really want a
slice of honest-to-goodness, all-butter poundcake, will a fat-free version satisfy? After a
few tries, you will know.
Try portion control. If you really must have a craved food, eat a small, measurable
amount. "Have a half cup of ice cream instead of a whole bowl," says Dr. Stern. Purchase
individual packages and get rid of large, uncontrolled portions such as blocks of
chocolate and family-size bags of chips.
Distract yourself. "All cravings wax and wane," says John P. Foreyt, Ph.D., author of
Living Without Dieting. "Make a telephone call, go for a ten-minute walk, even wash
your face and hands. If you can't leave where you are, meditate"--even a moment will
Anticraving activities are especially important for evening urges. It's then that feelings
like loneliness, boredom and anxiety let loose, says Dr. Foreyt. Fill your evenings with
activities that keep your hands busy and your brain active--board games, cards, crafts or
whatever you enjoy. Avoid television; it's mindless and many commercials trigger
cravings by tapping into our associations of food with relaxation, pleasure and rewards
for good behavior.
Make a plan. If a craving hits every day at 4:00 p.m., plan to have something interesting
going on then, says Dr. Stern. Or remove yourself from an urge-inducing environment
such as your living room or kitchen.
Indulge on occasion. Every now and then, don't bother to analyze, restrain or alter your
craving just give in and enjoy. After all, it's only a brownie.
When you crave: 1 Chips Ahoy! Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie (60 cal, 3 g fat)
Try instead: 4 SnackWell's Reduced Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies (40 cal, less than 1 g fat)
When you crave: 1/2 c nonpremium ice cream (150 cal, 8 g fat)
Try instead: 1/2 c nonfat yogurt (93 cal); 1 c nonfat unsweetened yogurt (110 cal)
When you crave: 1 apple Danish pastry (120 cal, 6 g fat)
Try instead: 1 medium frozen banana (101 cal, less than 1 g fat)
When you crave: 1 oz fried potato or corn chips (140 cal, 8 g fat)
Try instead: 1 oz baked, no-oil tortilla chips (110 cal, 1 g fat)
When you crave: 3 c buttery popcorn (100 cal, 6 g fat)
Try instead: 3 c air-popped popcorn (90 cal, no fat); 2 rice cakes (70 cal, no fat)
When you crave: 1 pepperoni-pizza pocket (400 cal, 20 g fat)
Try instead: 1 5.6-oz French-bread cheese pizza (300 cal, 10 g fat)
When you crave: 1 New York-style bagel (170 cal, 1 g fat)
Try instead: 2 sl thin-sliced bread (80 cal, no fat)
When you crave: 4 butter crackers (70 cal, 4 g fat)
Try instead: 3 melba-toast crackers (50 cal, less than 1 g fat)
When you crave: 1 1.55-oz chocolate bar (240 cal, 14 g fat)
Try instead: 1 packet fat-free instant cocoa (60 cal); 1 oz chocolate jelly beans (100 cal, no
fat); one 9-oz chocolate soda (150 cal, less than 1 g fat)