Many people view cravings as weakness, but they are actually important messages meant to assist you in maintaining balance. You need to look at the foods, deficits and behaviors in your life that are the underlying causes of your cravings.
I’m going to give you all the tips and tricks you need to learn how to kick your craving’s butt! When you experience a craving, deconstruct it. Ask yourself, what does my body want and why?
Food cravings are a natural part of our relationship with food and can occur during emotional disturbances, hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficient diets or restrictive diets. Many people seek solace in high fat and high sugar foods during times of high stress, depression, loneliness and anxiety. You’ve probably noticed that you feel your strongest food cravings at specific times of the day – or month. So, just what triggers these overpowering desires for certain foods and what can we do to keep the cravings in check?
Causes of Cravings
Lack of primary food. Being dissatisfied with a relationship or having an inappropriate exercise routine (too much, too little or the wrong type), being bored, stressed, uninspired by a job, or lacking a spiritual practice may all cause emotional eating. Eating can be used as a substitute for entertainment or to fill the void of insufficient primary food. Primary foods like our relationship, job, spiritual practice, hobbies, etc, feed us in ways food cannot. Developing these areas of your life will naturally prevent you from turning to food for fulfillment.
Lack of nutrients. If the body has inadequate nutrients, it will produce cravings in an effort to receive the needed nutrients. For example, inadequate mineral levels produce salt cravings, and overall inadequate nutrition produces cravings for non-nutritional forms of energy, like sugar and caffeine. Cravings for chocolate can be a magnesium deficiency. If you eat a lot of processed foods with little or no nutrient value, you can feel hungry even if you’re still full from your last meal. Eating a healthy diet and taking multivitamins can reduce cravings.
Water. It is very common to mistake hunger for thirst. Dehydration can manifest as a mild hunger, so the first thing to do when you get a craving is drink a full glass of water. After fifteen minutes, decide if you’re still hungry. Always carry a water bottle with you.
Drop in blood sugar. Cravings commonly occur later in the day (from about 3-6 p.m.), when our blood glucose drops, making us sluggish and in need of a lift. All it takes now is a fast-food billboard on your way home or a whiff of baking cookies to potentially bring on a major craving! I’m not a big fan of eating snacks, however, to prop up blood sugar. Healthy meals need to be eaten at every meal to avoid becoming hungry between meals. We are the only country in the world that advocates three meals and two snacks! Snacking tends to lead to overconsumption of calories. But by all means, have a healthy snack if you are starving.
Being stressed out, upset or bored. Bad moods often give rise to cravings. We imagine that if we eat a cookie or a chocolate bar, we’ll feel better – and often we do. That’s because carbohydrates like sweet or starchy foods increase serotonin, which in turn can improve mood.
Hormonal changes. When women experience menstruation, pregnancy or menopause, fluctuating testosterone and estrogen levels may cause unique cravings. For women, food cravings are particularly bad in the days preceding the menstrual cycle. We may overeat carbs trying to raise serotonin levels to counter the bad moods and mild depression related to PMS. Similarly, hormonal changes during pregnancy can have an impact on taste and smell – and lead to bizarre cravings. Menopausal women frequently crave carbohydrate foods as the body attempts to put on fat to increase estrogen levels. Fat is an active tissue that produces estrogen.
Seasonal changes. Often the body craves foods that balance the elements of the season. In the spring, people crave detoxifying foods like leafy greens or citrus foods. In the summer, people crave cooling foods like fruit, raw foods and ice cream, and in the fall people crave grounding foods like squash, onions and nuts. During winter, many crave hot and heat-producing foods like meat, oil and fat. Cravings can also be associated with the holidays, for foods like turkey, eggnog or sweets. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD, which is depression related to diminished sunlight-exposure) may crave carb-rich foods to help themselves feel better.
Comfort foods. We often crave foods with associations to happy times we’ve had in the past. If summer signals ice cream on the beach with the family, we may find ourselves craving this favorite when the weather gets warm. Eating sweet treats like a cookie unconsciously brings back the simpler days of our childhood. Grabbing a sugary treat is a common stress response for many adults. It’s a behavior we have practiced since we were children.
Patterned habits. Doing a certain activity may trigger a craving (watching a movie may trigger a craving for popcorn) or it may be an absence of a particular activity that triggers the craving – those who stop smoking tend to crave foods as they need to do something with their hands and mouth. Often, we crave foods that we have recently eaten. Many eating habits are cued by time and by our surroundings. After dinner, you want dessert, and then later, a snack. The next day the same thing happens again…and the next day. Eventually, you start to plan for a binge.
Time of day. Many food cravings are on a 24-hour cycle, hitting at the same time of day. Evening is the most frequent binge time while some people are tempted for a mid-morning or late afternoon snack. Willpower plays almost no role in breaking these cravings — eating on time (three scheduled meals) and biology play a larger role. People who maintain a healthy weight tend to space their meals out fairly evenly throughout the day, but overweight people often skew meals and snacks toward nighttime.
Certain illnesses. Diabetes or other blood sugar disorders can also lead to food cravings due to an imbalance in blood sugar levels. Adrenal fatigue (extremely common) or thyroid issues will trigger cravings for sugary foods to give you energy.
Yeast. Many people have systemic yeast infections due to their consumption of sugar, flour, and grains (which turn into sugar in your body). When the yeast are hungry, they send out a chemical signal crying out to be fed. This results in the infected person craving sugar or flour products. The only way to conquer the overgrowth of yeast is to do one or more of the following: take probiotics every day, eat probiotic-rich fermented vegetables, and/or drink fermented beverages full of probiotics like coconut water kefir. After a few months, the probiotics consume the yeast and normal yeast levels can be restored, though many people may have relief after one month of consuming probiotics and probiotic foods. For more information and recommended brands, see my article Probiotics–The Foundation of Health.
Yin/yang imbalance. Certain foods have more yin qualities (expansive) while other foods have more yang qualities (contractive). Eating foods that are either extremely yin or extremely yang cause cravings to maintain balance. For example, eating a diet too rich in sugar (yin/expansive) may cause a craving for meat (yang/contractive). Conversely, eating too much meat can cause a craving for sugar. Eating too many raw foods (yin) may cause cravings for extremely cooked or dehydrated foods or vice versa.
How to Fight Cravings
Eliminate or reduce sugar. Not only do we get addicted to the neurotransmitters released by the consumption of sugar, which is a reaction very similar to the “high” of a drug addict, consuming sugar also causes our blood sugar levels to rise quickly and then plummet back down just as fast, resulting in a craving for more sugar. Eating fresh fruits is a better way to give in to your sweet tooth, getting the sugars your body craves while also absorbing an array of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals.
Exercise. Exercise releases ‘feel good’ hormones such as serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline, all of which improve mood and regulate emotions positively. Exercise also metabolizes stress hormones and keeps your blood sugar even. But exercise is not just a way to burn calories. People who exercise regularly are less likely to get food cravings. Exercise is like a giant reset button on your body. It blocks appetite swings and it resets your mood and your rest cycle so you can sleep properly — all which strengthen against cravings.
Sleep. The amount of sleep you get at night has a lot to do with your cravings. Health experts say that when you get too little sleep, your metabolism slows down to save energy. That slowdown triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which in turn increases your appetite and food cravings. To prevent cravings, make sure to get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Take naps! Many people mistakenly believe that naps interfere with nighttime sleep. Just the opposite is true. People who nap during the day are less wired at bedtime and have an easier time sleeping. Develop good sleep habits. Go to bed at the same time every night, preferably before 11 (when your body starts detoxing) and get up at the same time every day. If you’re not sleeping well, be aware that the half-life of caffeine is about six hours, which means that if you have a cup of coffee at 3pm, half its caffeine is still in your bloodstream at 9pm. A quarter is still circulating at 3am.
Eat a balanced diet. The more balanced your diet is, the fewer cravings you will have. When we eat meals that are lacking in one kind of food, we are more likely to crave it later. Eat protein and vegetables with a little fat at every meal (carbohydrates are not required — you get all the carbs you need in fruit and vegetables). Protein and fat take longer to digest than carbs do, so including them, along with more fiber, means that you’ll feel satisfied longer. When our meals are monotonous – the same day after day – we’re practically guaranteed powerful cravings.
Eat a healthy breakfast. Researchers have found measurable reductions in stress hormones when people have breakfast, better insulating them against stress-induced snacking. Avoid breakfast foods full of carbs and starch. Sorry, but that means donuts, cereal and bagels! Your blood sugar will drop after a couple of hours and you’ll have a faux hunger, induced by the carbs, not true hunger. Include protein in your breakfast — this will keep you satisfied until lunch. Experiment and see which breakfasts hold you until lunch.
Eat three meals a day. Think ahead and plan a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner that consist mainly of proteins and vegetables. It’s best to eat structured meals with no snacks. Many diets advise eating five or six small meals a day. This is just not practical or sustainable in the long-term. Our country’s culture of snacking is out of control. Most countries do not snack and have no restaurants open unless it’s mealtime, and their waistlines reflect this habit. Unless you’re an athlete, you do not need snacks between meals – it just encourages more calorie consumption and unhealthy snack choices. You need three structured meal times to develop new eating behaviors to compete with the old ones that cause cravings (eating most of your calories towards the end of the day). This approach is called “planned eating” and is built on four elements: replacing chaos with structure, just-right eating (just enough to fill you up), choosing foods that satisfy you, and eating foods you enjoy.
Break your schedule. You need a new pattern, not just with food, but also with time. If you stay on the same schedule, your internal clock will wake up cravings, right on schedule. It does not matter how firm your resolve is at other times of day. You have to break out of your time of vulnerability.
Distract yourself. Distraction will help you through your cravings. You need to engage your mind with something else. Turning to other goal-directed activities — ones you care about, feel motivated to pursue, and are able to concentrate on — can occupy enough mental space to prevent craving-induced thoughts from lingering. If you feel a craving coming on or can anticipate one, change your environment or situation for at least an hour. Go for a walk, go see a movie, go to the gym, read a book, get on the phone. Do anything to get out of your usual habit that may trigger cravings — like sitting in front of the TV after dinner. You only have to break your usual patterns for a few weeks to establish new patterns. Try it for three weeks!
Address your stress. If your food cravings hit when you’re anxious or stressed, seek consolation in other ways. What is it that you really need? A yoga class, some quiet time, a walk, or a massage may do the job. Exercise metabolizes stress hormones.
Abstain from alcohol. Alcohol dissolves willpower. If you can’t abstain, try to reduce it. Alcohol can also interfere with sleep, affecting cravings. A few hours after having a glass of spirits, alcohol converts to aldehydes. Where alcohol has a calming effect, aldehydes are stimulants, accentuating anxieties and interfering with sleep.
Start a journal. Prepare a food cravings journal. To keep track of your diet cravings, list the foods you crave, the time you feel these urges, your emotional status at that time, and the quantity of the food you ate to satisfy your craving. This food journal helps you keep track of specific craving patterns and is the start in figuring out how to deal with them.
Mentally rehearse. Think of your cravings as a game against a powerful opponent. You can’t expect to win every encounter, but with continued practice you can win the game. Mental rehearsal improves performance. This cognitive process allows you to envision your strategies, routines, and game plans before actually executing them. Mental rehearsal helps you anticipate food cues and build the skills necessary to respond to them, preferably just before you enter a high-risk environment where you’re likely to encounter cravings. Implant your intended response in your brain with “if-then” propositions (“If I encounter this situation, then I’ll behave in this way”). Your aim is to focus on the task at hand and not become distracted by external or internal (emotional) stimuli. Mental rehearsal helps solidify your commitment to controlled eating by helping you focus on your intentions and maintain control over your thoughts.
Conquer conditioned responses. You will have to spend a significant amount of time fighting conditioned responses where you allow yourself to give into cravings. You’ll always have to deal with the emotions that propel you toward highly palatable foods. Like a computer, the neural pathways that created the cue-urge-reward habit cycle, where you give into the craving and are then rewarded with the craved food, are not easily wiped out. If you’re exposed to a food cue, develop a craving, and consistently manage not to give in, new learning begins to take hold in your brain. The food begins to lose its powerful association and new pathways form. As your responses to cravings become less automatic, the food becomes decoupled from the reward. The craving begins to ease, and in time, the cravings will subside.
Take conscious control. Seizing conscious control is a matter of paying attention to how quickly your attention can be hijacked. It means being mindful of the stimuli (pizza or cookies) that trigger automatic eating behavior, how entertainment (crowds, music, friends) or the desire to feel better wrest away your capacity to focus on what you eat. Staying alert to emotional stressors is part of seizing conscious control, so that instead of responding habitually, you’re equipped to act defensively. Some have a distorted perception that food is the only way to deal with potent emotions. Our conditioned response to stress is to eat. A useful tool to help you step back from the habit of reaching for food when you’re under stress is to label the feelings you’re experiencing: “I feel tired,” “I feel lonely,” “I feel sad.” Recognizing your emotions help you look more objectively at your options for coping. Indeed, many of us do feel better after we eat foods high in sugar and fat. But the distortion in our thinking is that the new mood will last or that there is nothing else we can do to achieve the same effect. Have a list of alternate responses ready, so that when strong emotions kick in and steer you toward food, you can quickly choose to do something different.
Remove temptations. If you are exposed to craving-inducing foods all the time, it is very likely you will indulge. Whenever possible, you want to avoid being tempted. One crucial step in putting a stop to your cravings is cleaning out your kitchen of junk food. Go through your kitchen and get rid of chips, cakes, chocolates, cookies, ice cream and everything else that will seduce. If you don’t take this step, it’s a sign that you have not made up your mind for a change. Make a list of the foods and the situations you can’t control. Knowing what generates a craving allows you to erect barriers against it.
Avoid situations that trigger a craving. Be especially alert to the power of location to induce a craving. Change the people or places in your life that tend to trigger your cravings. If you’re alone, arrange to be with someone else at the time cravings would normally arrive. If binges hit you at home, be somewhere — anywhere — else. People also tend to eat more in restaurants or in a group. Avoid restaurant’s where you’re likely to order your favorite naughty temptation. Are you tempted by your favorite fast food joint on the drive home from work? Take a different route.
Counterconditioning. Another strategy is conditioning cravings with negative, rather than positive, associations. Counterconditioning must be done immediately and without ambivalence. Think, “That’s hundreds of calories I don’t want and that will stay with me.” “If I eat this, I’ll feel awful about myself later.” The idea is to undercut the reward value of food. This is often a new idea for people struggling with compulsive behavior, who tend to act without considering consequences. If you put these kinds of outcomes at the forefront of your thinking, you might be better able to control your behavior.
Thought stopping. Thoughts about a food have to be turned off almost immediately. The more seconds you spend thinking about what to do in the face of an urge, the greater the chance that you’ll ultimately give in to it. Once you begin to debate, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” you’ve lost the battle. Until you have gained the upper hand over trigger foods, an attempt at moderation won’t work. There has to be a total reversal. The ‘yes’ needs to be a ‘no’, not ‘maybe,’ or ‘Just one bite.’ Opposites take on equal force, so you can make a categorical shift from one end point to another, but you can’t stop anywhere in between.
Talking down the urge. If you can’t get a craving out of your mind, you may be able to talk down the urge. Here are possible responses to thoughts of food:
- Eating that food will satisfy me only temporarily.
- Eating this is going to keep me stuck in my craving-eating cycle.
- Eating this will keep me trapped. The next time I have a craving, I’m just going to want this food again.
- Eating this will make me feel bad.
- If I eat this, I’m demonstrating that I can’t break free.
- I’ll be happier if I don’t eat this.
- I’ll weigh less tomorrow if I don’t eat this.
- You might also try an empowering word or phrase when you need to resist a food. Repeating to yourself, “I am in control” or “I am a healthy person who makes healthy choices” are surprisingly useful.
Remember the stakes. Along with devising a plan, remind yourself of what will happen if you give into the craving. Think through your habitual response: thinking of the food, going to the fridge, eating the whole pizza or cake. Recall the inevitable chain of behaviors that lead to the first bite and then keep you going until the food is gone. Remember how you feel afterward.
Choose healthy substitutes. If your craving is so intense and you just can’t control it, go ahead and pick up healthy alternatives like frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. If you can’t resist potato chips, choose baked tortilla chips. Prepare a food list with healthy food substitutes you can choose to guide you in these times of intense cravings.
Make a doctor’s appointment. If you feel you cannot control your cravings no matter what you do, perhaps it’s time for a medical evaluation to see if diabetes, adrenal fatigue, thyroid issues, a systemic yeast infection or other conditions could be the cause of uncontrollable cravings. Willpower cannot overcome biology.
Enjoy the sweet satisfaction that you are not alone. Cravings are an innate human experience, and they’re not limited to food. People crave knowledge, love, attention & intimacy…the list is endless. Depriving yourself completely often backfires with an insatiable and almost obsessive desire for that food. A better strategy is to indulge moderately and occasionally. And when you do, enjoy every morsel, lick your lips and smile. You deserve it.
Have any of these tips helped you fight cravings? I want to know about it! Have a question? Tell me your story by leaving a comment below.
Click here for References+
1. Bernard, Neal. Breaking the Food Seduction. St. Martin’s Press. 2003.
2. Curb Your Afternoon Cravings. February 19, 2012. http://www.massageenvy.com
3. Heismann, Kara. How To Stop Cravings: Banishing Unhealthy Snacking July 19, 2012. http://www/lifehack.org
4. Kessler, David. The End of Overeating. Rodale. 2009.
5. Trifectafit. Your Cravings are trying to tell you something, listen! July 23, 2012. http://trifectafit.wordpress.com