Food cravings. Just the phrase can strike the fear chord within us. Because per usual, when we think we are finally “getting control” of our eating habits, those cravings creep up on us for a sneak attack, seemingly out of nowhere.
But rest assured, if you feel like food cravings are sabotaging all of your healthy eating efforts all hope is not lost – here is your guide to understanding and managing food cravings.
What causes food cravings?
It’s helpful to understand where food cravings come from and to make clear that food cravings are NORMAL! They are influenced by a whole host of factors, but in general, we can group them into three main categories – physical, emotional, and environmental.
Our primary physiological cue to eat is hunger. As hunger grows so do those uncomfortable hunger sensations, which drive us to seek out food to refuel our bodies. When we do, those sensations subside and we feel better. In turn, we associate eating food with feeling better.
So, when we are experiencing other uncomfortable sensations it can turn on our desire to eat, especially for those more highly palatable foods that will fire the pleasure centers in our brain and release a stream of feel good chemicals.
People will often report that their cravings are triggered when they are in physical pain (e.g., chronic joint pain, headaches, etc.). And it’s true that, because of the brain’s response, when they are eating the pain may feel less intense.
Fatigue is also a common physical trigger, which makes sense. Food is the fuel source for our bodies – it gives us energy. So, if we are feeling tired (i.e., lacking energy), we may misinterpret that message as a need for more fuel, thus we seek out food. But really, what we need is rest.
Finally, if our diet is lacking in major essential nutrients, like carbohydrate, fat, or protein, we may also find ourselves craving food.
I hear this often from people who are following a low carbohydrate diet. They may feel physically full, but don’t feel satisfied and find themselves craving starchy or sugary foods. This is our body’s way of telling us it hasn’t gotten everything it needs and encouraging us to seek out more food to fill in the gaps.
Sadness. Loneliness. Anxiety. Stress. Anger. Frustration. And the list of emotions goes on and on. Why is it that when we are feeling these emotions we find ourselves wanting to reach for food?
After all, food isn’t going to change the fact that you are overwhelmed at work, or that your kids won’t stop fighting, or that your car won’t start. But, food does seem to help, at least temporarily.
That’s because food is an easily accessible distraction. So long as we are eating we can distract ourselves from the reality of our lives in that moment that we may not want to, or feel able to, deal with.
And, as I mentioned, highly palatable foods do fire the reward centers in our brain, triggering the release of feel good chemicals that provide us with temporary feelings of pleasure. So, not only does food distract us, it does make us feel good physically and emotionally – at least for a short while.
Cravings can also arise out of habit. Over time, we can become conditioned to associate certain foods with specific elements of our environment. When we encounter that element, we automatically desire that associated food. Think popcorn at the movie theater, ice cream at the beach, or hot dogs at the baseball game.
There are all kinds of environmental cues that may trigger a craving, and because food is so deeply ingrained in American culture (and many other cultures) many times we do not even recognize the connection between the cue and the craving. Here are a few environmental factors that impact our food desires and decisions:
- Sensory cues – the sight, smell, or sound of a particular food;
- People – friends, family members, co-workers;
- Places – the living room, the beach, in line at the hardware store (really, food is everywhere!), driving in the car;
- Time of day – 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM are times often reported as being particularly challenging (nearing the end of the work day and when we are often winding down at night);
- Weather – cold, hot, dry, rainy, snowy, etc.
And, I am sure you can list more.
What can you do about food cravings?
When taken all together, it’s not hard to see that we often find ourselves desiring food for reasons that may not be physical hunger or a true physiological need for fuel. Food plays a much larger role in our lives than just a source of nutrients and energy. And, because it’s so abundant in our environment, it’s easy to find ourselves turning to it.
People often want to know, how do I control these cravings? So here are a few ideas:
Start by determining if your craving is actually causing a problem. Remember, cravings are normal, and just because we crave a food and may even eat that food, doesn’t mean that’s a behavior that needs to change.
For example, there is a difference between craving chocolate, eating a few pieces, feeling satisfied, and moving on and craving chocolate, eating an entire bag, feeling physically ill, and being consumed by a cloud of guilt and shame.
The former scenario is probably not a problem that needs addressing so don’t worry about it, whereas the latter scenario is likely more problematic and may be improved with some of the following strategies.
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Short-term: A 4-step strategy guide to RISE up to food cravings
When you are in the moment, consider following these 4 steps:
Before we can change how we respond to a craving we need to recognize it as such. So, the first step in managing a food craving is just noticing it, without judgment. Just acknowledging that it’s there.
Then, get curious about the craving. Investigate this experience. What are you craving? Where could this craving be coming from? What is it that you are looking for from this food?
Consider things like:
- The balance in your food choices today – are you missing any major food groups?
- Recent diet resolutions – did you decide last night you would give up sugar forever today and now all you can think about is cake?
- How you are feeling physically and emotionally – are you looking for food to provide comfort, distraction, or energy?
- Where are you and who are you with – do you often find yourself desiring specific foods in this place or in the company of these people?
Sometimes, you will really, truly just want the food – that’s okay! That’s helpful information to have, too. And sometimes you’ll recognize that the root of the craving runs a little deeper.
Before you decided to eat, create a menu of options from which you can choose. Knowing where the craving is coming from will help you create the most effective menu of options.
For instance, if you are finding that this craving is really influenced by stress – what are other ways you can destress? Going for a walk, taking a bath, calling a friend, etc.
But, an option that should always be on that menu, no matter where the craving is coming from, is the option to eat the food. Because if it’s not an option the craving will likely just get stronger.
The 4 D’s are another approach to disarming cravings. They are:
- Delay – at least 10-15 minutes before you eat so your action is conscious, not impulsive.
- Distract – by engaging in an activity that requires concentration and is not compatible with eating.
- Determine – how important it is to eat the craved food and how much you really want it.
- Decide – if you will eat it and if so, how much to start with. Starting with smaller amounts builds in an automatic stopping point when you can then consciously decide if you want more. Whatever amount you decide, eat it mindfully and enjoy!
The last step is to evaluate what you did and how it went – without judgement, of course. What worked, what didn’t work, and what might you do differently in the future, if anything?
Reflecting on our experiences is how we learn and can better inform our future food decisions.
Long-term: Strategies that reduce frequency and intensity of cravings
Eating regularly spaced, well-balanced meals.
This ensures your body is getting everything that it needs for optimal function and won’t be sending out SOS calls for more food to fill in the gaps.
Embracing an all foods fit mindset.
Total elimination of foods we deem to be problematic usually only works to make them more of a problem. Making all foods acceptable helps to decreased their appeal and take away their power. And, when we view some foods as off limits, we often experience feelings of guilt when we do eat them, only setting the stage for overeating.
Engaging in joyful movement, often.
Regular exercise provides a relief from tension and stress. It is also a very healthy way to delay and distract yourself from food. And while eating can trigger production of feel-good chemicals in the brain, exercise does that, too. So, engaging in joyful movement can reduce the need to turn to food for this purpose.
Making self-care a priority.
That is, making time for adequate rest and relaxation, for doing things that you enjoy and that make you happy, for putting your needs before the needs of others. Allowing time and space for self-care allows you the opportunity to identify what needs you may have been trying to meet through food and in what other ways you might be able to meet those needs.
Your food cravings don’t need to continuously derail your healthy eating efforts. In the moment, it’s helpful to just notice cravings, without judgement, to try to understand where they might be coming from, and to make an intentional decision about how you want to respond.
Over time, bringing balance and predictability to your eating routine, giving yourself permission to eat all foods, regularly moving your body, and making meeting your needs a priority can help to decrease in the frequency and intensity of food cravings.