Food cravings are funny things.
They might be your body trying to tell you something important. Then again, they might not.
Some people think that cravings mean their bodies need nutrients found in the food they’re fixated on, and — in some cases — that’s true.
But most cravings stem from other factors. So, should you indulge cravings or ignore them? The answer depends on what your craving is really telling you.
First, determine whether you have a craving or an impulse. A true craving is more of a slow burn that builds gradually and sticks with you. An impulse is more of a flash in the pan — it comes on suddenly and will burn out on its own if you let it.
It’s also important to learn the difference between cravings and hunger. Cravings tend to be more specific than hunger, so if you feel as if you need to eat but don’t have a particular food in mind, it’s probably hunger. If you are laser-focused on one food, it’s probably a craving.
If your craving for, say, a cookie just won’t go away, get the best cookie you can find, and sit and savor it. What doesn’t work is chasing the craving with foods you consider more “acceptable.” If what you truly want is a cookie, all the rice cakes in the world won’t satisfy it.
Check for environmental causes. Do you crave popcorn the moment you step into a movie theater? Get the urge for sweets at your desk every day at 3 p.m.?
To untangle yourself from this Pavlovian response to food, ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” whenever you have the urge to eat. If the answer is no, try something other than eating, like getting up from your desk for a quick 3 p.m. walk.
Cravings also can have emotional and psychological roots. Do you crave ice cream when you’re feeling stressed?
A 2014 study co-authored by psychologist Traci Mann, author of “Secrets From the Eating Lab,” found that eating comfort foods doesn’t improve mood any faster than eating nothing at all. Cravings may also hit when we are bored or busy and feel the need for stimulation or pleasure.
Watch out for the boomerang effect. We’re more likely to crave what we can’t have. 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.
Instead of being a slave to your cravings, listen to them and be curious. They may be giving you valuable information — and it might not even be about food.