You're engrossed in your a movie and suddenly have a serious craving for chocolate chip cookies. They're all you can think about and can almost taste it in your mouth. But why do cravings such as these happen to begin with?

When talking about cravings, it's first important to differentiate between biological food cravings and emotional food cravings.  In her book, Why Women Need Chocolate, registered dietitian Debra Waterhouse explains, "The major difference is that biological cravings are based on your body's needs, and emotional cravings are based on your heart's needs."  She offers the following techniques to distinguish between the two:

It's a biological craving if:

  • You're physiologically hungry
  • It doesn't go away if you try to wait it out
  • It intensifies over time
  • Nothing will satisfy the craving except the craved food

It's an emotional craving if:

  • You're not physiologically hungry
  • It does go away if you try to wait it out
  • The craving doesn't intensify over time, but the emotion does
  • Doing something else will satisfy the real need and the craving will disappear

When you're truly physiologically hungry, your stomach growls and you have hunger pangs and a hollow, empty feeling in your stomach.  You may feel mentally foggy, not able to concentrate, have a headache and/or fatigue.  If you're not truly physiologically hungry, you may feel sad, stressed, tired, anxious or angry.  These emotions do not go away by eating.  They may seem to at first, but they quickly return and may even become worse. You may also feel guilty about your food choices, too.

Some foods that are often associated with food cravings, include chocolate and carbohydrate, such as bread, pasta, and sweets.  Chocolate is one the most craved food, according to registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer in her book "Food and Mood."  Since chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has some health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and decreasing risk for heart disease, a small piece daily may be included as part of a healthy diet. 

Carbohydrates are our brains' main fuel and our bodies' main energy source. But some are healthier than others. Empty calorie carbs such as sodas and candy should be limited or avoided.  Low blood sugar levels can cause increased cravings for carbs so it's important to maintain a healthy blood sugar level.

To help keep cravings under control:

  • Eating within the first hour after you wake up.
  • Eat regularly throughout the day and try not to go longer than 4 or 5 hours without eating.
  • Eat small portions of protein-rich foods with your meals and snacks may help control blood sugar as well. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, low-fat or non-fat dairy products and soy and other legumes.
  • Choose nutrient-rich, healthy carbs such as whole grain breads, cereals, brown rice and whole grain pastas, beans, and fruit that contain healthy fiber and increase fullness.

Carbs and chocolate are associated with improved mood because they can increase "feel-good" brain chemicals.  But keep in mind that exercise increases "feel-good" brain chemicals as well and burns calories in the process, so include regular exercise to help improve mood and control cravings.