Are food cravings steam rolling your diet goals? Learn more about what cravings are and ideas to manage them!
Food cravings versus hunger
Let’s start with some definitions for clarity. Food cravings and hunger are not the same thing.
- Hunger is purely physical. You know the typical symptoms of hunger: a rumbling stomach, empty gut feeling, low energy, “hangry”. Hunger comes from he body.
- Cravings, on the other hand, come from the mind.
A craving is a strong desire for a particular food. A craving generally comes on from an environmental or emotional trigger. A food craving experience is multi-dimensional with physical, emotional, and mental involvement. While hunger can be satisfied with ANY food, a craving can only be satisfied by eating the certain food you are craving. If you are hungry and you eat broccoli, the hunger will go away even if you do not like broccoli.
If you are craving chocolate and you eat broccoli, you are still going to want the chocolate. Cravings, more often than not, deal with ultra processed foods that are not good for our bodies. And that is the problem to be solved.
Food cravings as a sign of food addiction
Processed carbs are highly addictive and food cravings can be a sign of food addiction. As an example, lets talk about my least favorite food on the planet: Cheetos puffs. I really hate them on a moral and physical basis. It’s a bit hypocritical because I know there are many processed foods that are aiming for the same reaction as Cheetos puffs, but since I don’t like the taste or the orange fingers it is easy for me to pick on Cheetos.
Ultra processed carbs increase serotonin (a feel-good chemical) in the brain. The upswing in mood makes us associate the food with the feeling, creating a behavior pattern that leads to food addiction. Foods that melt quickly in your mouth create what researchers call “vanishing caloric density“. When something melts quickly, the typical satiety signals (chewing, or volume of food in your stomach) fail to trigger. Your brain doesn’t know you just ate an excessive amount of calories, thus you can keep eating it forever. Bingo for Cheetos puffs.
Processed snack foods also keep flavors mild. One overwhelming flavor will tell the brain when it is time to stop. But, a more subtle variety keeps us eating. All these tricks are researched by snack food companies and put into action in their products.
Thus, we eat more than we should and repeatedly go back for more even when our logical brain tells us we shouldn’t. And one more thing, the calories in snack foods. Cheetos puffs has 160 calories in one ounce. ONE OUNCE! That is about 13 pieces. So, if you buy an 8 oz bag at the gas station and mindlessly eat and drive, you will have consumed over 1200 calories at the end of the bag. Yikes!
What to do about food cravings
Food cravings can be overwhelming and unpredictable. In our busy lives they can sneak up on us and have us way over our calorie goals in just a few minutes. It takes effort to overcome food cravings, but there are lots of tools you can use to help you out. Here is a comprehensive list for food cravings management:
Physical strategies to stop food cravings
- Eat planned meals on a schedule (here are some healthy meal plans to get you started). Knowing ahead of time what you are going to eat and having it prepared will keep food cravings to a minimum. You can even plan a low calorie treat in your day (like this low calorie white chocolate mousse!)
- Create balanced meals that include all food groups. A food craving can come from a nutrient deficiency so keeping a variety in your diet can help make sure that your body is getting what it needs. (check out my portion plate meal plan)
- Are you thirsty? Staying hydrated is important for avoiding cravings. Drink 64+ ounces of water per day. Spice it up by adding cucumber slices, fresh fruit, or mint leaves.
- Get enough sleep. Studies show that sleep deprivation adds to the likelihood of food cravings. Instead of eating a late night snack, just go to bed.
- Practice mindful eating. Eat without distractions like tv or iPads. Savor each bite. Pay attention to flavors, texture, and aromas.
- Find ways to increase your serotonin naturally. Some of these would be to avoid stimulants like caffeine, getting 60 minutes plus of natural sunlight, exercise, and adequate sleep.
- A craving can be a sign of low blood sugar. Bring your levels back up by eating a small handful of nuts or a piece of fruit.
- Brush your teeth or gargle mouthwash. No one wants to eat over a fresh mouth!
- Exercise! Research varies, but majority aims at 60 minutes daily of moderate exercise. Going for a walk is a great way to distract from a craving! (see my at home, strength workout here)
- Keep healthy substitutes on hand. Listen to your body and adjust. For example, if you are craving salt, eat some cucumber slices sprinkled with salt or Tajin rather than potato chips. As mentioned above, plan and have good foods on hand.
- Eat at the table, not your desk or couch. This will make your eating more intentional and avoid mindless snacking. Mindless snacking can lead to overeating and too many calories.
- If a craving won’t go away, eat something healthy first. Eat an apple, then have a piece of chocolate.
- Chew gum
- Eat more protein. This will keep you satisfied for longer. Protein is especially helpful at breakfast when it comes to avoiding cravings.
- If there is a particular food you cannot stop eating, cut it out of your diet for 6 weeks. Then bring it back gradually in more controlled amounts. For example, I can eat a loaf of bread in one sitting. I went without bread for 6 weeks and now I am more controlled in how and when I eat it.
- Schedule your snacks just like you do your meals. Keep nutrient dense snacks handy. Berries, hard-boiled eggs, a square of dark chocolate are examples of a good nutrient dense snack.
Mental/Emotional strategies to stop food cravings
- Remember that cravings come from your mind, so seeing a food can trigger a craving. Make sure that the foods you see are healthy. Get rid of unhealthy foods in your home or put them in the freezer for special occasions.
- Do you eat when you are bored? Try making a list of things to do in your spare time and look at that list when a craving starts. My weekly planner always includes a list of things to do if I get a spare minute and it is a great resource when food cravings hit.
- Distract yourself. When food craving hits, tell yourself you will eat it in X minutes. If you are still thinking about it at the later time, you can eat. Experts say a 10 minute window is a good distraction time, but I find I need longer.
- Reward yourself. Decide on times you will give into a craving and plan for it. When you indulge, plan how much you will eat and eat mindfully. For example, I am avoiding sugar right now and planning on rewarding myself after a half marathon I am running Saturday. The city I’m running in is famous for it’s cinnamon rolls. So after the race, I will reward myself and mindfully eat my homemade cinnamon roll. When I crave sugar after lunch it helps me avoid it when I think about my upcoming reward!
- Post goals and pictures in visible places to remind yourself of why you don’t want to eat “that”.
- Look at the emotions around your food cravings. The best way to do this is to keep a journal of how you are feeling when you crave a certain food. Then look for patterns. For example, if you were rewarded with sweets as a child, you may now use sweets to calm yourself down. Just recognizing these patterns can be helpful in changing habits.
- Visualizing food creates a craving impulse. If you imagine a chocolate chip cookie in your mind, chances are that you are going to start craving a cookie. Forcing your mind to visualize something else is a good technique to end that craving. Researchers have tried techniques such as modeling with clay without looking at it or playing the game Tetris. We talked about distractions above and it goes along with this idea. Try reading or playing suduko for 10 minutes before giving into a craving. The more visual imagery required by a task, the more effective it will be.
- Giving into cravings is a practiced habit. If you want to permanently end the habit, put yourself in the situation again and again. Then, instead of giving into the craving create a new habit.
- Remember that cravings come in waves. This means it is possible to wait it out. Don’t be afraid to sit with the discomfort and just let it pass. Your craving will intensify, but then it will pass. If you always eat chocolate when you watch tv and you don’t let yourself the craving will pass. You will not be miserable with an intensifying craving the whole hour. Chances are 10 minutes later the craving will ebb and you will forget. Do this often enough and you’ll find that craving is gone.
- Acceptance. This is a behavior strategy that acknowledges but doesn’t act upon the craving. When a craving hits, you don’t have to act on it or avoid it. Just accept that it is there, acknowledge it’s presence and the feelings it brings. It is okay to feel uncomfortable for a time.
Healthier replacement foods
If cravings are still ruling your life, here are some suggestions for healthier options for commonly craved foods:
- potato chips: replace with a small handful of nuts or air popped popcorn
- chocolate: eat dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa, the rich flavor will satisfy faster and it is full of antioxidants
- candy/pastries: try sugary fruits like peaches, cherries, and melons
- soda: drink sparkling water with a squeeze of fruit juice or sliced fruit (or check out my soda with flavored syrups)
- cheese: try low-fat, low-sodium options or try nutritional yeast which adds a cheesy flavor
Food cravings don’t have to ruin your healthy eating goals! Look through this list and decide which strategy will fit your lifestyle. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!