Have you ever decided to eat healthy only to desperately miss your favorite foods? You are not alone. Food cravings might mean you need to get more sleep, but more likely cravings appear because you are depriving yourself of certain foods.
Healthy eating is tricky. While it’s tempting to completely cut out certain foods or replace them with healthier versions, these are not successful strategies for most people. In order to find that happy medium between eating what you love and eating healthy, experts have a somewhat counterintuitive suggestion: indulge your cravings.
A balanced approach to healthy eating is more sustainable than strict food rules. Trying to avoid foods you think are “bad” and only eating “good” foods probably won’t make you healthier overall. When something is off limits, you think about it more often. When you do eat it, you’re more likely to overeat the food. It’s a natural reaction to deprivation. However, many people feel guilty about overeating and go back to being restrictive again starting the process over.
Giving yourself permission to eat what you crave often gets rid of food fixations. When you learn to eat what you crave without guilt, cravings for “unhealthy” foods become less intense. Some people believe if they give into cravings, they will eat cookies all the time! It might be true at first. Deprivation sets you up to overeat when your control breaks down or when you allow yourself to eat the food you crave, but it doesn’t last forever.
It comes down to the principle of habituation. When presented with a food often enough, a person generally ends up eating less of it over time. A 2011 study demonstrated the effects of habituation in 32 obese and non-obese women for five weeks. Some were served mac and cheese once a week, and others were served it every day. The women served it every day ate less mac and cheese than those who got it once a week. If you regularly eat a food that you crave, over time you’re less likely to have an issue with it—because it isn’t novel anymore.
Ultimately, giving into food cravings won’t hurt a balanced diet. Making allowances for some food you crave is a good thing—and something that makes it easier to stick with healthy eating.
You might still be afraid that healthy eating will go out the window when you start eating what you want. Be mindful and learn to listen to your body. When you have a craving, think about how your body will feel, as well as how it will taste when you eat it. Notice how you feel if you go overboard on a food you crave without getting upset with yourself. You may feel stuffed and sluggish all afternoon. Remember this the next time you honor a craving. Then, maybe you will listen to your body and stop eating sooner, as opposed to feeling restricted.
Cravings for less-nutritious foods should get less intense and frequent once you honor them if you truly give yourself permission to eat them. So, go ahead and eat that slice of cake when you want it, then move on with your day. Trust that you won’t go overboard. Being balanced in how you eat has room for indulgences.