5 Tips to Fight Cravings (and Win!)
You know the feeling. You suddenly think of a food you HAVE to have. It’s all you can think about. Whether it’s brought on by the presence of the food itself, an image on TV or maybe Instagram or Pinterest (thanks, social media!), you can’t think of anything else. But you’ve set a goal to eat more healthfully or lose weight. So what do you do?
First, prevent the craving in the first place. To do so, let’s look at why you crave foods in the first place, then how to prevent the cravings.
- You’re hungry or your blood sugar is low.
Your body has a surprising number of ways to keep you from going hungry, and you naturally have “reminders” to eat. When your blood sugar is low, you usually get hungry, and the longer you go without food, the more likely you are to crave simple sugars or fats because they provide quick, calorie-dense satiation. This is great to keep you from starving, but not so great if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight.
What to do: Eat regular meals, 4-5 hours apart and make sure you have protein, fiber and a small amount of healthy fat in every meal and snack. This ensures that you stay full longer. If you eat a refined carbohydrate (white bread or a sugary snack), your insulin will surge, which may cause low blood sugar. The low blood sugar will in turn cause you to crave more sweets. The cycle will continue unless you break it. So stop reaching for foods made with refined flours and sugar and stick with unprocessed, whole foods, and always pair carbohydrates with protein or healthy fats to slow the insulin response that can happen if you eat carbohydrates by themselves.
One easy way to differentiate between cravings and true hunger is the “do I want an apple?” test. If something reasonably healthy doesn’t sound appealing, you’re probablyy dealing with a craving and not true hunger. But listen to your body – if you’re hungry, feed your body with healthy food.
- You’re thirsty
Sometimes your brain confuses hunger with thirst. If you notice your cravings are all liquid based (ice cream, coffee drinks, etc) your body might be trying to tell you that you need the liquid in those treats! Even if you’re not craving liquids or foods with high water content, your brain still may be confusing hunger with hydration needs.
What to do: If you have a craving, drink a glass of water. To prevent cravings, drink adequate water and stay hydrated (this will also keep your metabolism humming). How much water do you need? Take your weight in pounds, divide it in half, and that’s the number of ounces of water you should drink in a day. For example, if you weight 150 pounds, you need about 75 ounces of water (for reference, there are 8 ounces in a cup). If you exercise, you need even more. Hydration is linked with healthy weight. (1)
- You are sleep deprived
Sleep deprivation (less than 7-8 hours a night) can lead to increases in the hormone ghrelin that tells your brain you’re hungry – I call this hormone the “hunger gremlin” and it increases if you are sleep deprived, even if you’ve eaten adequate food.(2)
In a recently published study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, data extracted from 11 studies showed that people with shortened sleep times increased their calorie consumption by an average of 385 calories! (3)
What to do: Sleep is vital to your health, so it is imperative to make this a priority in your life. Aim for 7-9 hours a night. Some health trackers have the ability to keep track of your sleep and tell you how restful your night was. In general, keep similar sleep/wake times each day, darken the room and avoid blue lights from cell phones (no keeping your cell phone at your bedside!) and have a bedtime ritual.
- It’s a habit
If you hit the vending machine or the coffee cart at 2:00pm every day without fail, pretty soon your body is going to expect it, and it will be a hard habit to break. Is this technically a craving? Perhaps, but it’s probably more of a psychological one.
What to do: Habits can be easier to replace than to break. Perhaps you can look at the real reason why you have developed this type of habit – maybe you need a break from work and what you really could use is some company, so asking a friend for a 10 minute walk to catch up might be a healthier option. Or perhaps your lunch didn’t have enough food or the right mix of foods (see number 1 above) to keep you from feeling hungry in a couple of hours.
- You’re looking for a dopamine fix.
Dopamine is a feel good hormone that our body produces to reward us for activities that promote survival, like eating. Healthy foods result in a small rise in dopamine, so if you eat a sandwich or a healthy food you might have a slight rise in dopamine, but if you have Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, or a pastry, you’ll likely produce far more dopamine. Dopamine is implicated in drug addiction, and like drug addiction, you need more of the highly satiating foods to reach the same reward level, a phenomenon known as tolerance, and you may also have cravings, similar to those people have in drug addiction.(4)
What to do: You may need to go cold turkey. After some time without the foods that cause you to release a heavy dose of dopamine, you will find that you don’t need a rich food to reach the same level of satisfaction. If you think that you may have a food addiction or binge eating disorder, you should seek help from a therapist or psychiatrist. Overeaters Anonymous is also a great resource for information and support (https://oa.org)
Cravings can be detrimental to our weight and health goals. If you use these tips, you can take back control. But remember to listen to your body, because cravings are usually telling you something. And that something might just be to eat!