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updated 10/4/2008 11:04:32 PM ET 2008-10-05T03:04:32

You can almost hear the theme of JAWS playing in the background as the infamous craving approaches. You’ve eaten well all day, and then — BAM! — the craving strikes, and you head straight for the chips, ice cream and leftover spaghetti with meatballs.

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Intellectually you know that gobbling down high-calorie food in the evening leaves you feeling frustrated, heavy and defeated. Yet, when those p.m. cravings hit, they’re often impossible to resist.

What are cravings and where do they come from?
A food craving is an intense desire to consume a particular food. For example, if you are craving chocolate, eating carrot sticks is most likely not going to satisfy the craving (no news there!). What’s more, research shows that women tend to crave sweets, like chocolate, cookies and ice cream, while men tend to crave heartier food like steak, mashed potatoes, burgers, pasta and pizza. Numerous studies have also shown that a craving does not indicate a nutritional need or deficiency.  So sadly, we can throw that excuse out the window.

Here’s why we crave:

  • Learned behaviors and experiences
    As a child, you may have been consistently rewarded with a sweet treat when you had a bad day. The learned behavior of having something sweet to lift your spirits became a habit that is very hard to break.
  • Hormonal fluctuations
    Certain hormones in your body help control appetite. Ghrelin is the hormone you produce that drives you to eat, while leptin is the hormone that signals satiety.  Normally, these hormones act as a checks and balances system to keep your appetite in check.  However, under certain physiological conditions, such as sleep deprivation, this system is thrown off because the hormones are not produced in proper proportion to one another.  Estrogen, cortisol and serotonin can also play a role in food craving frenzies, and whether due to stress, sleep deprivation, or the normal hormonal fluctuations of a woman’s menstrual cycle, these hormones can drive you to seek out nutrient- dense, fatty, sugary foods.
  • Environmental factors and sensory stimulation
    Studies have found that the sight, smell, taste, or even just the thought of favorite foods can lead to intense cravings.  Experiences like seeing food advertisements on TV or passing a bakery and smelling the aroma of fresh baked bread can also initiate food cravings. Certain social settings, like a party or environmental factors, such as dim lighting in a restaurant, can fuel our drive to indulge.

Why are cravings so irresistible at night?
Nighttime may be the first time you get to relax after a long, structured and stressful day. You’re through with work and the kids are asleep; it’s finally your time. Whether it is behavioral or hormonal, the urge to treat yourself with a decadent or savory food can be an overwhelming response from the body’s need for relaxation. In addition, you may be tired or emotional from the stress of the day, which makes it that much harder to fight the impulse to indulge.  Plus, all those television food commercials don’t help!

Crush cravings with the following strategies:

  • Control late-night hunger
    Eat breakfast within 90 minutes of waking and every five hours throughout day.  This keeps blood sugar level, which in turn keeps you from overeating or binging at night.
  • Eat a fiber-rich dinner
    The soluble fiber keeps your blood sugars stable, and the insoluble fiber keeps you full through those evening hours so you don’t have an intense urge to snack. Start your dinner with either a hearty  non-starchy vegetable soup or large tossed vegetable salad, and drink plenty of water throughout the meal.
  • Push dinner back an hour
    If you regularly overeat later in the evening, consider starting dinner at 7 instead of 6. This leaves you less awake time to snack. 
  • Out of house, out of mouth
    No matter how amazing your will power and determination may be, surrounding yourself with lots of tempting treats could lead to disaster. Keep problematic goodies out of your house.  If it’s unavailable, you can’t eat it.
  • Pre-plan and stretch your p.m. snack
    People often “crave” what they’ve planned for.  Plan for something healthy and you’re likely to crave it.
  • And if you’re a volume eater, pre-plan snacks that last a while. For example, a lollipop, four cups air popped popcorn, one to two sliced cucumbers with spicy salsa, a handful of pistachio nuts in the shell, or a low-fat fudge bar.
  • Keep yourself busy,  in and out of the house
    Downtime tends to be “craving central.” Knitting, drawing, solving a puzzle and exercising are some things you can engage in that will squash your desire to munch. If you’re watching TV at night, find ways to distract yourself during commercials, particularly food commercials.  Check your e-mail, do crunches or pushups, jump rope, plan your calendar for the rest of the week, make that call to your mother-in-law, etc. It’s also a great idea to get out of the house a few nights each week. Taking a nighttime yoga, dance or spin class will get you moving and allow you to be part of something. Find a local book club or card game to join. Being social can be a real mood elevator, replacing that need to munch.

Fore more information on healthy eating, visit Joy Bauer’s Web site at www.joybauernutrition.com

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