Eating isn’t always about feeling hungry. Food cravings, or an intense, uncontrollable desire for a specific type of food, are common. Cravings also can influence what you eat. People typically crave energy-dense or high-calorie foods, especially late afternoons or evenings.
Cravings can also make you feel less control over what you eat. When you’re in the middle of a craving, it’s often hard to focus on other things. These cravings also can be hard to resist, especially when you’re trying to lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle.
Food cravings also can lower your confidence and interfere with your weight loss or health plans. However, this doesn’t have to happen. You can learn to control and manage your food cravings, whether you’re trying to lose weight or develop healthier eating habits.
What Causes Your Food Cravings?
Anecdotally, some people often feel like their food cravings increase when they go on a restrictive diet or avoid certain foods. Yet most studies show that food cravings decreased over time when foods were restricted or not allowed.
Other views suggest that food cravings are due to a nutrient deficiency. However, evidence for this approach is not strong and may account for only a small amount of food cravings.
Recent research suggests that food cravings are learned due to associations between eating and specific emotions or activities. In this conditioning model of cravings, a cue or context has been frequently paired with eating a particular type of food. Eventually, the cue or context itself can trigger the food craving. Therefore, if you associate eating chocolate with stress, feeling stressed will make you crave chocolate.
Essentially, you’ve developed a learned response to a cue or even an internal state. This conditioning model also helps explain why food cravings typically decrease over time when that food has been avoided since you’re weakening the association between the activity or emotional state and the food.
This conditioning model is exciting since cravings due to a conditioned response can be unlearned with consistency, making them less likely to occur.
8 Strategies to Help You Overcome Food Cravings
Understanding the cause of your food cravings can help you manage and prevent cravings in your daily life. As a result, you’ll have more control and increased confidence in your ability to eat healthily and deal with cravings. You will be able to choose when you have a treat, instead of feeling at the whim of your cravings.
Here are eight ways that can help you stop giving in to your food cravings.
1. Track Your Cravings
First, you’ll need to understand your cravings, including what types of foods you crave and when. Keep track of your food cravings in a notebook, document, or with an app on your phone. When you have a craving, write down:
- Time of day
- What you were doing
- Your mood (e.g., bored, lonely, stressed, happy, neutral)
- What you’re craving
After tracking your cravings, look for trends. You may discover you don’t crave foods as often as you think or that you may not be craving foods but grabbing it out of habit. This type of information increases your awareness of what you’re doing and will help you decide which strategies will work for you.
2. Change Your Routine
After tracking your cravings, did you notice a tendency to crave food during certain activities? For example, if you tend to crave potato chips while watching tv on the couch in the evenings, consider changing this routine.
Instead of sitting on the couch, consider spending the first 15 minutes of the program walking in place, and then sit in a different location. If that doesn’t help, instead of watching tv in the evenings, listen to an audiobook and do a hobby you enjoy like drawing.
There is no right or wrong with the process, so try what works for you. You can change the location of what you do, change the activity, or add something, like walking in place instead of sitting and watching tv. Also, have patience. You’ll need to try the new routine consistently for a little while before the new cues take over.
3. Remove Temptations if Possible or Keep Them Out of Sight
Do you crave a cookie every time you see the cookie jar sitting on your kitchen counter? When temptations are easily visible, you may be more likely to crave the food. You can move the cookie jar into a cabinet or food closet, so you don’t see it. You could even consider storing the cookies out of sight in a different container, instead of the cookie jar.
When moving the items out of sight, make it a little harder to grab them. Put them on a higher shelf, instead of the one that’s easy to reach or in a cabinet you rarely use.
This strategy can even work in the workplace. Do you find yourself craving sweets at work because treats are sitting out in the open in the workplace kitchenette? See if your coworkers would be okay dedicating a particular cabinet for treats.
4. Move Around for Five Minutes Every Hour
Exercising for even brief periods throughout the day may help reduce food cravings. A study by Bergouignan and colleagues found that walking for five minutes once an hour during the workday reduced food cravings at lunchtime.
If you have a sedentary job, this strategy works particularly well. Set a reminder alarm so you can get up and stretch or walk in place for a few minutes every hour.
5. Practice Mindful Eating
Adopting a mindful eating approach to the foods you crave can help reduce your cravings. Mindful eating encourages you to pay full attention to the food you’re eating and the experience of eating it.
When eating mindfully, you eat slowly and pay close attention to the sensations you’re experiencing. You eat without other distractions, which can help you pay attention to your hunger cues. You can engage your mind by noticing how the food makes you and your body feel.
6. Reduce How Often You Eat the Foods You Crave
Decreasing how frequently you eat the foods you crave can reduce your cravings for them. This relationship is independent of the amount you eat at the setting. By eating the foods less often, you’re weakening the association between the activity or emotional state that triggers your craving for the food.
Some people find it easier to avoid the foods they crave for a month or so before enjoying the food occasionally. Do what works best for you. To avoid overeating on a treat when you do decide to eat it, consider:
- Making a special trip to get the food instead of having it on hand in your home or workplace
- Buying the smallest size available to help with portion control
- Eating the treat slowly and without other distractions, so you can focus on the food
- Serving the food on a dish instead of eating out of a container, so you only eat one serving
7. Schedule a Time to Have Your Favorite Treat
Plan when you’re going to have the treat, so you control when it happens instead of in response to a craving. This approach helps break the relationship between an environmental or emotional cue and puts you in control of your actions.
When using this approach, avoid eating the food in situations that often cause you to crave it. For example, if you crave chocolate at night, try to schedule a time to eat it earlier in the day. Also, if you’re trying to lose weight, don’t make the treat a reward for losing weight or exercising.
8. Get Plenty of Regular Sleep
Lack of sleep can contribute to your food cravings and even increase feelings of hunger. Not getting enough sleep can also lead to weight gain. To help, try to get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep most nights.
You Can Stop Giving In to Food Cravings
You can have an occasional treat when you’re trying to lose weight or eat healthily. However, frequent food cravings can derail your health or weight loss goals by making you feel less in control.
Fortunately, you can gain control and overcome food cravings by understanding your cravings and what triggers them. As you learn what strategies help you manage your cravings, you will gain confidence in your ability to handle them and learn how to avoid them.