The Science Behind Food Cravings & A Doctor's 3 Tips For Beating Them

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Whether they're salty or sweet, nobody is a stranger to food cravings. (And they come around like clockwork!)

In fact, a viewer named Michelle explains that she would love to lose a few pounds, but giving in to her cravings has gotten in the way. Without fail, once 3pm hits every day, Michelle needs a "pick me up" and immediately heads to her snack drawer — and because she's a mom to two teens, she always has prepackaged chips and cookies in her house. 

We can totally relate! And sure, you can handle cravings with portion control — but what if you could train your brain to fight them, too? 

That's what Dr. Ian Smith, the author of Mind Over Weight, believes is possible.

"I've always wanted to write a book about the mind," Dr. Ian says, "because I believe that no matter what diet plan you have, no matter what kind of trainer you have, everything starts [in the mind]."

And when it comes to food cravings, Dr. Ian thinks you can crush 'em — especially if you know when and why they're happening. 

"People have to understand the difference between hunger and cravings," he explains. "Hunger is something that's physiologic. It's your body saying, 'I need nourishment, I need energy.' Whereas a craving is temporary. A craving is a chemical thing in your head."

"Dopamine is the body's happy chemical," the doc continues. "So when you eat a food, it goes into your taste buds, it sends a signal up into your brain and says, 'Wow, this tastes great, release the dopamine.'" In other words, it sets off a reward system in your brain.

"Dopamine makes you feel better, it gives you a sense of pleasure." So when you see a food that once gave you pleasure (for Dr. Ian as a kid, it was fried dough from the state fair), your brain tricks you into thinking you need it, the doc explains.

Now, even if you can distinguish between hunger and a craving, how can you help yourself fight the urge to feed a craving — or at least feed it in a healthier way?

RELATED: 3 Healthy Junk Food Swaps

1. Know yourself — and control your environment if you have to. 

"If you can't get to [a snack], you won't have it," Dr. Ian says about fighting cravings. "You have to know yourself. Some people can say, 'I'll have a half a bag and be done.'" But if you can't, it's helpful if a tray of snacks isn't always staring you in the face. Out of sight, out of mind, right? 

"Sometimes you can just outlast [cravings]," he continues. "Distract yourself, do something else — and they will go away."

BUT if you can't (because we all have those days), you can satisfy the cravings in a healthier way, rather than crushing them entirely. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em — but healthily. 😉)

2. If you're craving something sweet, try …

Frozen chocolate-covered bananas or a baked apple stuffed with pecans and oats. (Um, yum!)

3. If you’re craving something salty, try ... 

Diced watermelon with crumbled feta and balsamic vinegar. 

These snacks will satisfy the cravings, Dr. Ian says, while also giving you some fiber and nutrition to keep you full.

"[This way], you can snack," he says, "but it's healthier."

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