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Cravings Don't Have To Be A Menace. "Empower Yourself: Strategies to Overcome Food Cravings and Take Control"

Updated: Apr 5

We’ve all felt what it’s like to be hungry, have an appetite, and experience an intense food craving. Hunger is the feeling we get when our stomachs are empty (1). Appetite is the desire to eat food. Now, cravings are different. 


Harvard Health (2) defines cravings as “an intense urge to eat a certain food—ideally right away.” While hunger can be alleviated by eating any food, cravings are very specific for a single type of food, like chocolate (the most commonly craved food) (1). I’ll be honest if I’m really hungry, it won’t matter what food you will put in front of me, I’m eating it because my blood sugar is low!  

Plus, cravings can pop up at any moment, or they can come in patterns—we can crave a certain food even if we just finished filling up on dinner and we’re not hungry at all (1).


What’s the Deal With Food Cravings?


cookies spelling out the word, cravings




Food cravings can be specific and are usually directed toward sweet, salty, or fatty foods. And they’re not only the result of having a “sweet tooth,” easy access to crave-able foods, or lack of control of our behavior (2). There are also several complex—and common—physiological causes of cravings. Many of these are hard-wired into our brains and are naturally regulated by hormones and other biochemicals or biomolecules.


We’ll start with the top four causes, according to the Cleveland Clinic: food euphoria, feeling stressed, lack of sleep, and day-to-day habits (3).


Food euphoria is when the food we eat taps into the “feel good” feeling (read: hormone) that is hard-wired in the neurons of the brain (2,3). In addition to the “feel good” neurotransmitter called dopamine, crave-able foods also stimulate the release of hormones that impact metabolism, stress levels, and appetite (2). In other words, when we want that hit of dopamine, and it feels good to us, it’s natural to want to have more of it! This euphoria feels like a pleasurable reward and can naturally make us want to continue to eat that particular food, generating even more cravings for it (2).


black woman stressed with head in hand

Feeling stressed can make our food cravings even more powerful, especially when that stress is over the long term (2,3). Increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol start up our “fight or flight” instincts that get us to look for food so we can get the energy we need to fight or flee (4). Eating the craved food provides us with some relief from that stress and helps us to cope with, or even distract from, stressful feelings—even if the coping and distraction are temporary (4). (think escapism




woman struggling to sleep

Lack of sleep can strengthen cravings due to its impact on our hormones (3). For example, not getting enough sleep places additional stress on our bodies and that further increases our desires for certain foods. Lack of sleep can also induce hunger by increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreasing the fullness hormone leptin (5). So if you’re a late owl, you very well may be increasing your desire for food. Having a simple before-bed sleep routine can make all the difference. 




Day-to-day habits may also play a part in cravings (3). Sometimes, if we’re used to enjoying snacks when we feel a certain way (e.g., stressed or tired) or are doing certain activities (e.g., driving, scrolling social media, or watching TV), then this habit can perpetuate our cravings and have us almost automatically reaching for craved foods before we can think about it.

In addition to these four causes of food cravings, other factors can contribute. For example, seeing or smelling a crave-able food can spark cravings (mouth hunger) [I], as can hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle (2). Some medications are known to increase appetite (2). And new research is looking into possible connections between food cravings and our genes and gut microbiota. Some evidence suggests (while limited) claim nutrient deficiencies may also cause cravings.


How to Curb Cravings

We don’t want to prevent ourselves from eating if we’re truly hungry. However, there may be times when we’re craving something that we know we don’t have room for and is not going to serve our health. In these cases, there are a few strategies from my Craving Change program you can try to help curb those cravings.


Learn how to feel the difference between physical, mouth, and heart hunger. 

Sometimes, we are not often aware of the difference in feeling between physical hunger, mouth, or heart hunger. We often mistake one for the other. This image below will help to decipher which hunger you feel. Take time to think about which hunger you experience the most. Increasing self-awareness helps you to understand the difference better and helps you to become more prepared for when that type of hunger hits. 



diagram listing types of hunger

If the mouth and heart hunger resonates with you the most, you're going to want to check out the tips below.


Increase self-awareness/Be more mindful.

I’m being honest here: building healthier eating habits takes mental work. So we need to learn how to build our mental muscles!! 🧠💪🏾  If we can stop for a second to catch ourselves craving foods or eating when we’re not hungry, mindfulness may help (3). Consider asking yourself if your food craving could be due to stress, boredom, anger, fatigue, or if you are, in fact, hungry (2,4,6). Maybe try breathing deeply for a few minutes, putting on a short meditation podcast, or going for a quick walk to reconnect with your inner self before taking another bite. 


Another technique is called “Put Your Craving on Hold.” 

What happens if you feel the craving is too intense? It happens to the best of us.  When a food craving hits, start by saying, “I give myself permission to eat the chips, BUT I am going to wait for one minute first.” 


Set a timer on your phone or watch. You may want to use a distraction technique during that minute-something that involves using your hands without a screen. For example, doing a puzzle or coloring. If you need to use your phone, try a free puzzle game app. My favorite is WordScapes!  Once the minute is up, if you still want the food, instead of saying, “I  failed,” try changing your mindset by saying, “I'm eating the snack, and I had control over my craving for one minute.”  Now you maybe thinking this sounds insignificant, but let me be first to tell you, it’s not. Give yourself the credit you deserve. Change is hard, and it takes time and effort. So, my sis or my brother, cut yourself some slack. Cravings can feel very powerful. It can feel like a wave crashing in. When you put your cravings on hold, you become more skillful at resisting urges and do not feel deprived or like a failure if you eat what you have been craving. In addition, you can discover the length of time you need to overcome the food craving-which in itself is powerful.


As you eat, continue your mindfulness practice by enjoying your food mindfully and without judgment. Harvard Health (9) defines mindful eating as “using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make.” By mindfully paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that may fuel a craving, we can slow down and truly appreciate food. We can take smaller amounts, smell and appreciate the flavors, chew the food thoroughly, and relax between bites. 


Make crave-able foods inconvenient and make nutritious snacks more convenient.

We often make it easier for ourselves to choose the less-than-desired options- and not realize it.  Especially when we're at home. We know where they are, and it's often in plain sight. Keeping less healthy foods in a container you can't see through can be helpful, or ask a friend or family member to hide the snacks for you. 


Many of us end up craving and snacking on convenience foods because . . . they’re convenient. It’s quick and easy to open a package of [potato chips/cookies/chocolate] and start enjoying it. But another technique is we can make more nutritious foods just as convenient by washing, chopping, and packaging fruits and vegetables and having some grab-and-go dips and spreads available like nut butter, hummus, plain yogurt, salsa, or guacamole. You can even make your trail mix with dried fruits and nuts (7).

Another option is to simply have smaller servings, or more nutritious versions, of your favorite crave-able foods. How about trying crave-able foods with less added sugar or more protein and fiber? 

I’ll add the link to “How to Build a Healthy Snack” for all your salty and sweet cravings here. 👈🏾


Try drinking water

It’s possible that sometimes what feels like hunger (or even a craving) is simply thirst (3,6,7). By staying hydrated throughout the day, we can reduce the number of times we think we need to eat something.


Balance meals

It’s often easier to head out the door by eating a bagel or even eating a bowl of oatmeal. But! Eating just carbs isn’t guaranteed to keep you full. Eating meals that are highly nutritious and contain protein, healthy fats, and fiber can help you feel fuller quicker and stay full longer (2,6). Also, consider eating regularly throughout the day, as longer stretches between meals can intensify feelings of hunger and lead to eating too much, too fast, or eating foods that are too convenient, e.g., crave-able (and not as nutritious) (2,6,7). One example is when you wake up in the morning, be sure to eat within two hours of waking up. 

 [Click on the breakfast picture below for a link to quick breakfast options that include protein, fats, and fiber!]



breakfast spread on rustic table


Limit environmental cues

Sometimes, cravings are brought on by the sight of a tasty snack on social media or the candy bowl in the break room (2,9). By knowing where these environmental cues are, you can try to avoid them whenever possible.


I typically crave the Organic White Cheddar Cheetos when my cycle is around the corner. And I used to have the habit of keeping them stashed in a drawer in my bedroom. (You know where this is going, right?)  This made  “Putting  My Cravings on Hold” a lot more challenging. I used to think, “I should be bigger than this, right?” and at times, I was. But what I was really doing was torturing myself and making myself feel like I did not have control because the snack was literally a few feet away from me. So what did I have to do, make it inconvenient for myself? I decided to put the snack in the pantry in the back, where I had to work for it. If I really wanted it, I had to go downstairs to eat it. I also took it a step further. I have a small bowl that I’ve designated as my snack bowl and fill it with the Cheetos. I tell myself, “I’m not denying myself the food I’m craving, AND I’m honoring the craving in a healthier way.” Since then, the Cheetos have lasted a lot longer in my house! :) 


Try non-food-related rewards

Sometimes, we eat to escape a negative feeling or to celebrate an accomplishment, and there are non-food-related ways to enjoy ourselves (3). Instead of cake, consider doing something you love, like dancing around or taking a bath. Maybe you would want to treat yourself to a nap, hobby, or craft or even enjoy a favorite book.


mom coloring with her kids

I remember when I lost a dear friend to cancer last year, and I was devasted, angry, and felt helpless. Especially when we all thought she was getting better. I thought about all the things I could or should have done to help, and that only made me feel even worse. A common response would have been for me to go and snack on something salty or savory. Cheetos were calling my name. BUT instead of letting my negative feelings take control, I put on my workout clothes, strapped on my jogging shoes, and jogged those negative thoughts and feelings out! Let me tell you, a huge weight off my shoulders and chest started to melt away. But I must have had a lot of resentment in me because I jogged for forty-five minutes straight! Did it change the outcome of my friend, no. But did it change the outcome of what could have been an uncomfortable, guilty, and bloating feeling? Absolutely!! That moment made me feel powerful to decide to make that change! 


Manage stress.

Life is stressful and we can’t entirely escape stress. What we can try to do is improve the way we handle and manage stress. This can help to lower our stress hormones and reduce the power of food cravings (3).

[For tips to manage stress in a healthier way, check out this link. 👉🏾 Ways To Nurture Yourself]


Get enough quality sleep.

Inadequate sleep causes us to feel hungrier and have more cravings. Some studies show that this may be because it can push our appetite hormones out of balance (2,5). Plus, lack of sleep can increase stress, which further amplifies those feelings. This is why getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night can help to ease those cravings (3,5,7).

For some tips on how to get enough quality of sleep, click on the link here. 👉🏾  Tips for Better Sleep.

If none of these truly satisfy or eliminate your cravings, simply enjoy your crave-able food[—but consider having slightly less of it].


Bottom line

When our stomachs are empty, we all feel hunger and our appetite hormones have us looking for something to eat. This is different from food cravings when we feel an intense urge to eat something specific—even if our stomachs are full.

 All of these feelings and urges are normal and common. And it’s also common to eat to try to satisfy them.

Physiologically, our cravings are impacted by stress and sleep. Hormones and neurotransmitters also regulate them, and research is looking into a whole host of other causes (e.g., the effects of advertising, our genes, and even our gut microbiota). Hunger, appetite, and food cravings are a complex phenomena, and they are not simply due to a lack of control. 

The good news is that as we understand more about their causes, we can begin to implement smart strategies to help guide them toward our health goals [so we don’t feel like we’re at their mercy].


Do you feel stuck in a cycle of hunger, appetite, and cravings? As a registered and licensed dietitian and licensed Craving Change coach, I’d love to help. In fact here's a summary of tips to on how to control food cravings. 👉🏾 Control Your Food Cravings Summary

 

Wondering how to get more support implementing any of these strategies to better manage cravings? Want quick and easy recipes and meal plans filled with nutritious high-fiber and high-protein foods and snacks? Need professional nutrition counseling to help you understand and take control of your eating pattern? Book an appointment with me today to see if my programs and services can help you.




References

  1. Meule A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current nutrition reports, 9(3), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399671/

  2. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2021, April). Cravings. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/

  3. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, December 14). Here’s the deal with your junk food cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/heres-the-deal-with-your-junk-food-cravings/

  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2023, January 26). Why you stress eat and how to stop. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-stop-stress-eating/

  5. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Sleep. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/

  6. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, March 25). Three reasons you crave sweet or salty food. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-reasons-you-crave-sweet-or-salty-foods/

  7. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 12). Quick snacks to help kick your sugar cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/kick-your-sugar-addiction-with-these-5-snacks/

  8. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020, November). Mindful eating. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/

  9. Harris, N. M., Lindeman, R. W., Bah, C. S. F., Gerhard, D., & Hoermann, S. (2023). Eliciting real cravings with virtual food: Using immersive technologies to explore the effects of food stimuli in virtual reality. Frontiers in psychology, 14, 956585. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.956585https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10149689/

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