HEALTHY EATING: Beat cravings at holiday time

By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC

The holiday season provides an extra serving of challenges that often get in the way of healthy eating habits. Party food and big dinners beckon us to enjoy wonderful foods.

Emotional stress can drive us to crave more comfort foods, often high in fat and calories. Are these cravings all in your mind? Yes, and your mind is a strong force. And if you use certain foods too often as your go-to comfort foods, you might actually condition yourself to crave more of them. One of the prime suspects in creating cravings is the practice of eliminating certain splurge foods. Another way to create a craving is skipping meals so that your blood sugar plummets and your willpower gives in to less-than-nutritious choices.

AP Photo/Matt Sullivan

AP Photo/Matt Sullivan

The most common cravings are for sweet and fatty foods, especially chocolate. And don’t try to trick your taste buds. A report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that chocolate cravings are not satisfied by other sweets. So enjoy a small piece of really good chocolate.

Could it be a 
nutrient deficiency?
Some folks have argued that cravings erupt when the body cries out for needed nutrients. Chocolate is a decent source of the mineral magnesium, so could a diet low in magnesium be causing those midnight moves to bake brownies? Could be, but spinach is higher in magnesium. You don’t often see anyone ripping open a bag of spinach to quench a craving, do you? And more often than not, you crave what your body doesn’t need, foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

Are cravings a sign of hunger or appetite?
What’s the diff, you say? If you’re truly hungry, you’ll feel stomach rumblings, along with that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach. If you’re really hungry, you may even feel a headache coming on. Appetite, on the other hand, is a desire for food based on emotions, habits, moods, sights, smells and memories. Take a deep breath and decide which one is sending you in search of food.

Cravings driven by your emotions
Getting mad? If anger sends you running for cover to a doughnut shop, then you’re managing your anger by eating (read overeating). Experts insist if you face the source of your anger head on, it’s less likely to blow up and take control of your appetite.

Feeling anxious? Whatever your source of anxiety, it’s a common trigger for overeating. You can’t eliminate these life challenges, but you can minimize your anxiety level. First, make sure you get enough sleep. The threshold for anxiety lowers when you’re not rested. Or try relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, yoga and listening to music.

Just plain bored? There’s nothing like good old-fashioned boredom to bring on the munchies. Do whatever it takes to shift the focus away from food.
Feeling down? Being a little depressed can certainly do in your diet. Instead of letting that blue funk make you overeat, view it as a call to action. Getting active is one of the best ways to boost your mood. Once the clouds have parted, you can see your cravings more clearly. And you’ve burned some extra calories. Sweet!

Are you happy now? Yes, it’s true. Even happiness can make you fat. Who doesn’t feel like celebrating when something good happens? Enjoy indulgences occasionally, but cut back the next day. And while you’re partying, hit the dance floor.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at

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2 comments Add your comment


December 13th, 2009
3:09 am


December 13th, 2009
3:10 am

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