SIOUX CITY | Food cravings can be both physical and psychological in nature, but most times, Cindy Gates, a registered dietitian at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center, said the need for a chocolate bar or a bag of chips is due to stress, boredom or loneliness.
"A lot of food has chemicals that are released to help you feel better. You get that quick fix but it doesn't last very long," she said.
How do you tell the difference?
Low blood sugar and dehydration can cause hunger. Gates recommends drinking a glass of water before giving in to a craving or choosing to eat a healthy food instead, such as an apple. Gobbling up cookies or crackers might make you feel good for a minute, but soon guilt will set in, she said.
"If you're truly hungry and there's an apple there, you're gonna eat the apple, but if you're just having a craving and the apple doesn't sound that good, nothing's ever gonna satisfy you," she said.
Another contributing factor is that Americans are sleep deprived. Gates said people who don't get enough sleep usually wake up the next day feeling like they're starving. That's when she said they make bad choices, opting for processed, sugary foods and caffeinated beverages.
Gates said Americans are also overfed and undernourished, which can result in various vitamin deficiencies. Magnesium deficiency, she said, is the most common. An estimated 75 percent of Americans are magnesium deficient. Stress and drinking soft drinks, Gates said, interfere with the body's magnesium absorption.
"When we're deficient in magnesium, sometimes we want the chocolates," she said. "Dark chocolate can be a good source of magnesium, but it would be better to eat seeds and nuts and fruits and veggies."
Craving sweet and salty foods could also point to consuming too little protein, having to many dietary restrictions or not having enough variety of foods in your diet, Gates said.
She recommends following the 80-20 rule: 80 percent of the time eat nutritious foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean protein. The other 20 percent indulge a little.
"Some people are so restrictive on their diet, they eat everything else but what they truly want. Sometimes it's better just to have a piece of dark chocolate or have an individual-size bag of chips," she said. "If you're not satisfied, then you're eating more of the wrong foods."
Mindful eating, Gates said, is key to the battle against cravings. She said people eating under stress, in their car or at their desk, don't appreciate what they're eating. She said they may look down to see an empty wrapper, but not recall eating the candy bar.
Instead of taking a bag of chips or box of cookies with you to eat in front of the TV, Gates recommends putting the food on a plate or a bowl to control portion sizes. Buying individually wrapped snack foods will help too.
"If you're giving in to your craving, make sure you're taking a bite appreciating it, enjoying your food," she said.