Ever felt like you needed a hot fudge sundae or a bag of sour cream and onion chips? You’re not alone. Whether it’s to gain a burst of energy or some comfort after a bad day, craving (and eating) specific foods is common—especially among women. Consider the long view: Experts suggest that our bodies are programmed to seek out high-calorie foods, as our ancestors did when sustenance was scarce. No wonder snacking can be a source of stress and weight gain. But you can change that!
Here are three common food craving profiles. Do you always reach for something sweet, or is salty more your style? Is your number one requirement a snack with amazing crunch? Read on and find some healthy alternatives to traditional pitfalls. You’ll be amazed by how satisfyingly sweet, salty, and crunchy good-for-you foods can be.
Your snack of choice is crispy, crunchy, and anything fried. Instead of seeking out the traditional (potato chips or corn chips loaded with saturated fat), opt for a high-fiber snack. Whole-grain pretzels or a handful of toasted mixed nuts fit the bill. So can crispy whole-grain crackers. Baked pita chips are another fun choice. You can even make your own: Cut whole-wheat pita bread into eight triangles. Place triangles on a cookie sheet, brush with olive oil, and bake for about seven minutes at 400º. (Watch carefully to avoid burning.)
A cup of low-sugar, high-fiber cereal (without milk) can satisfy the need to crunch. Sliced veggies are another great option. Carrot sticks and sliced bell peppers are full of vitamins and flavor but low in calories.
It’s the middle of the afternoon. You’re tired and in desperate need of energy. You crave something sweet—preferably a gooey candy bar. Stop! You can snack smarter. Sugar contains few nutrients but plenty of calories. You initially may feel energized, but shortly afterwards you’ll be left with a sugar crash, leaving you hungry and craving more. The reason this happens is sugar and other refined sweeteners are digested rapidly. They release large amounts of glucose into the bloodstream quickly. This triggers the release of insulin and other hormones, which convert excess sugar into fat. And that’s something no one wants more of.
Fortunately, nature has many sweet snacks to satisfy. The sweetest, perhaps, are raisins. But you might prefer dried cranberries, cherries, plums, or apricots. Combine your favorite dried fruit with some crunchy almonds or walnuts, and you have a snack that balances proteins and carbs to naturally fuel you and satisfy that sweet tooth. Fresh fruit is another sweet choice. Or go ahead and indulge in a single square of high-quality dark chocolate—its antioxidants make it healthy in small amounts.
If you thirst for something sweet, add a splash of 100 percent fruit juice to seltzer. Or squeeze fresh lemon and a drop or two of liquid stevia (a zero-calorie herbal sweetener) into water.
Chips and dips, packaged popcorn, processed cheese and crackers—anything with salt and you’re there. Salt is used as a natural flavor booster, but this is definitely one case where a little goes a long way. Americans consume twice as much salt on a daily basis as we should. Too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.
Reading food labels can help you cut your intake. The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend reducing daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg). Half of the U.S. population should be getting even less—1,500 mg a day. Look for low-sodium alternatives to your favorite snacks such as baked corn chips or crackers made with herbs, seeds, and other interesting ingredients. Pop your own popcorn; season it with spices like cumin or chili powder or a touch of Parmesan cheese. It may take awhile for your taste buds to get used to less sodium. Start by using small amounts of sea salt, Kosher salt, or low-sodium soy sauce. These all have more punch than table salt.