dog looking at cookies

—Grace O., Mount Royal University, Alberta, Canada

I think you may be surprised by my answer: What you should do about cravings is don’t avoid cravings—embrace them! (Yeah, you read that right.) Cravings are valuable pieces of information you can use to connect with your body and emotions.

What are cravings?

Cravings are a part of normal eating. Ignoring them can create a sense of deprivation, which can ultimately strengthen the craving and inhibit your ability to make sound food decisions.

Cravings and hunger

Cravings feel different from hunger, right? The feeling of hunger is simply your brain’s way of telling you that your body needs fuel in the form of calories. This is highly regulated and involves many hormones that act as signals between the brain and your body’s various tissues. Cravings sometimes occur when hunger signals are rearing, but they can also occur independent of hunger. Think of cravings as having components of both body and mind; they involve thoughts and emotions as well as physical sensations.

The exact causes of cravings aren’t fully understood, and we don’t know why some people experience cravings more often than others. What we do know is that eating for emotional reasons is pretty universal and, often, isn’t a problem. However, using food as your primary or only way of dealing with difficult emotions is problematic and can be a sign of disordered eating. If this sounds like you, it’s very important to see a dietitian and therapist who can support your recovery and help you build a functional and peaceful relationship with food.

How to respond to cravings

Normal cravings, whatever their cause, can be interpreted as your body’s way of telling you something. You wouldn’t just ignore a friend who’s trying to strike up a conversation with you, right? Treat your body the way you’d treat your friend. Listen to your body, attend to its needs, and treat it with respect and kindness.

When you find yourself craving something, acknowledge it and get curious. Mindful eating expert Dr. Michelle May suggests asking these three questions:

1. What do you want?

What’s appealing right now? Is it one particular food, or is it a certain taste, smell, or texture that you crave?

2. What do you need?

What would be helpful and nourishing for your body in this moment? Consider what you’re doing, when you’ll likely eat your next meal, and whether the food you’re craving will meet your body’s physical and nutritional needs.

3. What do you have?

Sometimes, necessity dictates how we respond to a craving. It may not be possible or practical to satisfy your craving at a given moment. On the other hand, if you do have access to the food you want, you might use the two questions above to decide whether and how to eat what you crave.

Here’s an example:

Imagine you’re craving crunchy, salty chips between classes. You also know you have an exam coming up and you won’t be able to eat dinner until several hours later. You approach the snack bar and consider what you want (chips); what you need (something that will give you sustained energy, such as a food high in protein); and what’s available to you on the shelves. You decide to buy a snack-sized bag of chips, some unsweetened iced tea, and a yogurt. You’ve now made sure you’re satisfied and that your body and brain will have the fuel it needs for your test.