June 1

8 Tips to Manage Your Food Cravings

Healthy Eating, Healthy Habits, Nutrition

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We’ve all felt what it’s like to be hungry, have an appetite, or experience an intense food craving. Hunger is the feeling we get when our stomachs are empty (1). Appetite is the desire to eat food. Cravings, however, 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) or chips (1). Plus, cravings can occur at any moment—we can crave a particular food even if we just finished filling up on dinner and are not hungry (1).

What causes food 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 a 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..

Fun fact: Research shows that nutrient or energy deficiencies are not powerful or common causes of food cravings (1).

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the top four causes of food cravings are 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” centers that are hard-wired in the brain's neurons (2,3). In addition to the “feel good” biochemical called dopamine, crave-able foods also stimulate the release of hormones that impact metabolism, stress levels, and appetite (2). 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).

Feeling stressed can make our food cravings even more powerful, especially with chronic stress (2,3). Increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol start up our “fight or flight” instincts, which 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 cope with, or even distract from, stressful feelings—even if the coping and distraction are temporary (4).

Lack of sleep can strengthen cravings due to its impact on hormones (3). Not getting enough sleep places additional stress on our bodies, further increasing our desire for certain foods. Lack of sleep can also induce hunger by increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreasing the fullness hormone leptin (5).

Day-to-day habits may also play a part in cravings (3). Suppose 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). In that case, this habit can perpetuate our cravings and have us almost automatically reaching for craved foods before we can think about it.

Other factors can contribute to food cravings in addition to these four causes. For example, seeing or smelling a crave-able food can spark cravings[I], as can hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle (2). In addition, 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.

How to curb food cravings

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

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.

Be more mindful

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 taking a quick walk to reconnect with your inner self before taking another bite. 

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.” Mindfully paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that may fuel a craving allows us to slow down and truly appreciate food. We can take smaller amounts, smell and appreciate the flavors, chew the food thoroughly, and relax between bites. 

Balance meals

By eating highly nutritious meals that contain protein and fiber, you can 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 (and not as nutritious) (2,6,7).

Make nutritious snacks more convenient

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, or chocolate and start enjoying it. But 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 own healthier trail mix with dried fruits and nuts (7).

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

Limit environmental cues

Sometimes, cravings are brought on by seeing 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.

Try non-food-related rewards

Sometimes, we eat to escape a negative feeling or to celebrate an accomplishment, but there are non-food-related ways to enjoy ourselves (3). Instead of cake, consider doing something you enjoy.  You could call a friend, dance to your favorite tunes, nap, indulge in a hobby, or even enjoy a book.

Manage stress

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

Get enough quality sleep

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

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

Some final thoughts on food cravings

When our stomachs are empty, we all feel hunger, and our appetite hormones make us look for something to eat. This differs 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, stress and sleep impact our cravings. They are also regulated by hormones and biochemicals, and research is investigating 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 complex phenomena, and they are not simply due to a lack of control. 

The good news is that as we learn more about their causes, we can begin to implement innovative strategies to help us stay focused on our health goals rather than being controlled by our cravings.

Taking control of your food cravings

Do you feel stuck in a cycle of hunger, appetite, and cravings? As a culinary nutrition expert and board-certified health and wellness coach, I’d love to help you create sustainable and consistent dietary and lifestyle habits that support your goals. Together we can design a plan that works for you!  

Book a clarity call with me today, and let’s brainstorm some possible next steps!

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/

Mrs. Dornberg

About the author

Cheryl Dornberg, NBC-HWC, is a national board-certified health & wellness coach and culinary nutrition expert who is passionate about using the power of food to achieve optimal health and increase longevity. She specializes in motivating and empowering individuals to create sustainable & consistent dietary and lifestyle habits that support the management and prevention of chronic health conditions, increase longevity, and improve overall quality of life.


Tags

Culinary Nutrition, Food Cravings, Food is Medicine, Open Content


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