Control Food Cravings!

sweet, frosted baked goodsWe’ve all been there. It’s the middle of the afternoon. You’re trying to work, but your energy is lagging and all you can seem to think about are the doughnuts in the break room. Or, omaybe it hits you in the evening while watching TV after the kids have gone to bed. You find yourself drawn to the ice cream in the refrigerator as though something else has taken over your mind.

It’s food cravings. Everyone experiences them, even dietitians. Don’t worry, though. There are ways for you to control food cravings!

What Is a Craving?

A craving is a strong desire for, in most cases, a certain food. Cravings are different than hunger, although they can hit while you are hungry. Cravings come from the brain, not the stomach. They often come from a desire for stimulus or pleasure. That’s why cravings often occur in response to stress, boredom, or emotions.

Cravings are often a dieter’s biggest downfall. For some people, the urge is so powerful that it feels almost impossible not to give in. We blame our lack of willpower and vow to be stronger in the future, despite the fact that it happens time and time again.

What Do We Crave and Why?

Think about the types of foods you tend to crave. It’s probably a pretty safe bet that broccoli and Brussels sprouts don’t make that list. The foods we crave are more along the lines of chips, cookies, ice cream, pizza, French fries, or chocolate. These are all considered “hyperpalatable” foods. Any food that is high in sugar, salt, and/or fat makes the reward center of the brain light up like a pinball machine, flooding the brain with feel-good chemicals. It actually follows the same neural pathway as when people use drugs, leading many in the field to consider the possibility of food addiction.

Contrary to popular belief, “nutrient deficiency” is typically not the reason behind your food cravings. Cravings are driven by the brain’s need for “reward” – not the body’s need for food. There are many reasons why we crave foods. Habit is probably the most common one. If you regularly have dessert at the end of your meal or raid the refrigerator late at night, that is a habitual behavior that your brain comes to expect. Other common reasons include:

  • Skipping meals and/or getting overly hungry
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Triggers such as advertisements, social situations, the sight or smell of food
  • Emotional eating
  • Boredom

10 Tips to Control Cravings

Unfortunately, there is no “one weird trick” to stop cravings, but there are things you can do to reduce craving frequency and intensity and avoid giving in to temptation. 

1. Find a healthier substitute.

Are you craving something salty, sweet, or crunchy? Perhaps a piece of fruit drizzled with dark chocolate may keep your sweet tooth at bay. Popcorn can be a good alternative to chips.

2. Learn to distinguish between hunger and cravings.

Before reaching for that snack, take a moment to think about what you really want. Are you experiencing signs of true hunger, or are you just bored? What triggered this craving?

3. Find a distraction.

ravings are usually fleeting. Do something to take your mind off of food. It may be especially helpful if you choose an activity that releases the same feel-good hormones in the brain. Go for a walk, chat with a friend, hug someone you love, or take a relaxing bath. Each of these activities triggers the release of happy brain chemicals.

4. Avoid triggers.

After doing a bit of reflection, you can probably point out some of your more powerful triggers. If you always stop by McDonald’s on the way home from work, try taking an alternate route. Pay for gas at the pump to avoid the temptation of unhealthy snacks inside. Don’t keep foods in the house that you can’t control. If you love ice cream, make it so you have to go out to get it rather than keeping a tub in your freezer.

5. Don’t skip meals.

Allowing yourself to get overly hungry is a recipe for disaster when it comes to fighting cravings. Cravings themselves are hard enough to ward off, but doing so when very hungry is near impossible! Make sure to eat regular meals with plenty of protein and fiber to keep you full in between.

6. Plan ahead.

Planning your meals and snacks ahead of time is a great way to not only make sure you don’t get overly hungry, but also to be prepared when cravings hit. If you know that you crave something sweet during the afternoon slump at work, keep a healthy substitute in your desk. Or, even better, plan to take a break and go for a 10 minute walk instead.

7. Get enough sleep.

Insufficient sleep can be a double whammy when it comes to food cravings. When we don’t get enough rest, our brains look for energy to compensate, and the quickest source of energy is sugar. As if that wasn’t enough, lack of sleep also reduces our willpower, making us more likely to give in to temptation. If you find yourself craving sugar and simple carbohydrates throughout the day, take a look at your sleep patterns. Make sure you are getting 7-8 hours of good sleep each night.

8. Work on stress management.

Just like lack of sleep, stress is a major culprit for sugar cravings. Women are especially prone to stress or emotional eating. The happy chemicals that are released in response to eating actually make us feel better, albeit temporarily. The more often you turn to food in response to negative emotions, the stronger the urge will be next time. Focus on finding other ways to relieve stress and make yourself feel good. Exercise, talk with a friend, get a massage, take a relaxing bath, express yourself creatively, or spend time with a furry friend.

9. Practice mindful eating.

For some people, it might actually be helpful to just give in to the temptation. By constantly telling yourself “no,” you may be setting yourself up for a larger binge down the road. So, have a piece of chocolate or a bowl of ice cream, but keep your portion sizes in check, and practice mindful eating. Get rid of any distractions. Simply focus on the food you are eating in that moment – the smell, the taste, the feel of the food in your mouth, the way it makes you feel. Food is meant to be enjoyed, so enjoy it!

10. Get support.

It’s difficult to say no to cravings if you have friends and family surrounding you with temptation. Whether it’s a spouse who has to have ice cream every night after dinner or a co-worker with whom you regularly go out for lunch, our relationships with others can help make or break our healthy decisions. Make sure you let others in your life know about your goals and how they can help you stay on a healthy path. Maybe even get them to join you.

Regain Control Today!

Like any other habit, eating junk food can be a hard one to break. The more junk food you eat, the more you crave. It’s a vicious cycle, but you can put a stop to it. Simply taking a moment to be mindful and think about what you are craving and why can be extremely helpful. Remember, success against cravings isn’t all or nothing. If you are able to reduce temptations and give in to the cravings even a little bit, that’s a win. You can do this!

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About Sarah Wood

Sarah Wood is a registered dietitian with a Master's Degree in Applied Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. When taking time for herself, she runs, travels, and creates art.

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