How to Get Rid of Food Cravings

How to Avoid Them and What to Do When You Get Them

woman resisting cupcake
Mike Kemp/Getty Images

What is a food craving, and how can you keep them from derailing your healthy diet? Cravings can be loosely defined as impulses to eat a specific food or impulses to eat in the absence of hunger. Cravings can be for specific foods such as chocolate, a general type of food such as sweets, or a nonspecific urge to eat.

Hunger vs. Cravings

It is not always easy to differentiate between hunger and cravings, and there is probably some overlap.

Food-specific cravings can occur at the same time as hunger, and hunger can manifest in different ways. For example, if you've just eaten a satisfying amount of food and you still feel like eating, this is most probably what we are calling a craving. It has been suggested that one way to differentiate between cravings and hunger is to think about a plain but satisfying food that isn't your specific craving. If you've been craving chocolate, does a steak sound good? If eating a steak sounds like a great idea, it's probably hunger.

What Causes Cravings?

Your body only has three true appetites: hunger for calories, thirst for fluids, and a need for salt. The other cravings are more likely to be learned or triggered. Here are common theories about what might train you to crave food:

  • Eating processed, "hyper-palatable" foods: The food industry has perfected the art of creating foods that leave you wanting more of them. Authors such as Dr. David Kesseler (in the book "The End of Overeating"), Michael Moss (in the book "Fat, Sugar, Salt"), and many others have written about how these foods work in your brain to create yearnings for more and more. These brain circuits have some commonality with responses and addictions to opioid drugs. The remedy for this is not to purchase and eat these foods.
  • Sweet foods: Even apart from highly-processed foods, sweet foods can be a problem for many people, for very similar reasons. Even artificial sweeteners can produce a physiologic reaction, which is why they should be used in moderation. Sweet foods can be an occasional treat for some, but others find that eating any sweet foods make them want to eat more.
  • Other trigger foods: If you are eliminating sweet foods and processed foods, and are eating the right amount of carbohydrate for you, there aren't many trigger foods left. But there are people who, for example, do fine with a moderate amount of carbohydrate, but find that potatoes or some other specific food trigger unwanted eating. One study found that dieters who ate the food they craved less often had reduced cravings when measured at six months and two years. But if they ate it as often but just fewer calories, they continued to crave it.
  • Stress: Stress can throw a lot of our hormonal responses into disarray, and stress hormones can mess with our blood sugar/insulin responses and cause cravings.  If this is an issue for you, try relaxation techniques for stress management.
  • Emotional eating: People eat for emotional reasons such as sadness, anger, or boredom.
  • Habits: If you get in the habit of having certain foods at certain times or in certain settings, you'll often find yourself wanting that food whether or not you are hungry.
  • Nutrient deficiencies: There is little scientific evidence that supports cravings due to deficiencies in specific nutrients or minerals, such as a lack of magnesium triggering a craving for chocolate (but not for other magnesium-containing food). It's not impossible, and certainly eating a nutrient-dense diet is a good idea.
  • Menstrual cycle: It is well-documented that the menstrual cycle can affect the desire for different amounts and types of foods, although it may be due to cultural factors and learned behavior rather than physiology.

    Set Rules to Combat Cravings

    The best overall strategy to combat cravings is to construct a set of very clear specific guidelines for your eating based on what you have learned about what triggers your cravings. Examples:

    • "I don't eat sugar."
    • "I don't eat processed grains."
    • "My snacks always include protein and fiber."

    It may help you to think of these guidelines as rules you follow. Eventually, these rules become "just the way you eat." You don't think about them and you don't have to exercise willpower. It may surprise you how quickly this happens.

    If you have rules about unhealthy foods you crave but you don't want to eat, it helps some people to demonize those foods. Think of them in some negative light: harmful, poisonous, or even "not real food."

    If it seems too onerous to say, "I never eat ___," try including a specific exception. For example, only eating fries on Friday, which reduces when you are exposed to your trigger food. Eating a trigger food less often is associated with craving it less and eventually you may skip your exception days.

    These are overall strategies. Besides repeating your rules and guidelines, what can you do if you're in the middle of a craving?

    20 Methods to Stop Cravings in 5 Minutes or Less

    Cravings are mainly happening in your head, whether from habit or a trigger food. The idea is to get your brain and body onto a different track. First, drink a glass of water and take three deep breaths. Then try one of the following. Over time you'll figure out what types of things work best for you.

    1. Go outside. Take a quick walk, enjoy the fresh air, sniff the breeze, pull some weeds from your garden.
    2. Exercise for five minutes. Walk up and down the stairs, stand up from your chair 10 times, do jumping jacks, sit ups or push ups.
    3. Stretch or do yoga poses.
    4. Dance.
    5. Listen to an uplifting song or sing along.
    6. Take a laugh break, reading or watching something funny.
    7. Write a quick note of appreciation by email, text, or note thanking someone for something they have done for you, or what you appreciate about them.
    8. Say something nice to someone in person.
    9. Write down five things for which you're grateful.
    10. Write in your journal by hand, in an app, or a computer file.
    11. Sit, close your eyes, and remember something nice that happened recently, in as much detail as you can.
    12. Pray or meditate for a few minutes.
    13. Focus on something beautiful: Smell some flowers, look at a favorite painting, watch the sunset, or light a candle and admire its scent and glow.
    14. Take a nap. Sometimes people reach for food as a pick-me-up, when what they need is sleep. A 5-minute to 10-minute power nap can work wonders.
    15. Check off something on your to-do list that doesn't take much time. Make an appointment, pay a few bills, clear the trash out of your car, clean out your purse.
    16. Spend five minutes de-cluttering.
    17. Plan something fun to do with a friend or partner.
    18. Hug someone, or cuddle with a pet. Physically contact with other living things is de-stressing.
    19. Drink something warm—a cup of tea, or bouillon with a little olive oil in it.
    20. Cut up some vegetables to make prep for the next meal easier.

    Of course, make sure you have food available that is on your eating plan. Have your low-carb menus planned and have low-carb snacks on hand.

    Sources:

    Apolzan JW, Myers CA, Champagne CM, et al. Frequency of consuming foods predicts changes in cravings for those foods during weight loss: The POUNDS lost study. Obesity. 2017. doi:10.1002/oby.21895.

    Hormes JM, Niemiec MA. Does culture create craving? Evidence from the case of menstrual chocolate craving. Plos One. 2017;12(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181445.

    Kahathuduwa CN, Binks M, Martin CK, Dawson JA. Extended calorie restriction suppresses overall and specific food cravings: a systematic review and a meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews. 2017. doi:10.1111/obr.12566.

    Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2013;98(3):641-647. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.064113.

    Continue Reading