Have you ever found yourself so focused on a specific food that you can’t think of anything else? It happens to the best of us! In fact, many of my clients over the years have asked how to stop food cravings.
As someone who is prone to cravings myself, I have bad news. You may never fully stop food cravings, but you can learn to understand and manage them better.
What is a Craving?
The first step in understanding cravings is to learn how they’re different from true physical hunger.
True hunger tends to come on gradually, several hours after your last meal (assuming it was a well-balanced meal of adequate size). It also brings physical symptoms, like a growling stomach or irritability. However, one of the most distinctive features of true hunger is that it’s nonspecific. True hunger can be satisfied by pretty much any food.
Cravings, on the other hand, often come on quickly and are directed toward a specific food. Have you ever felt a sudden NEED to have chocolate (or nachos, or French fries, or gummy worms, or any other highly palatable food)? That’s a craving.
Where do Cravings Come From?
If you want to stop food cravings, it’s helpful to know where they come from. Sometimes, cravings come on randomly and with no clear cause. However, in my experience as a dietitian, I’ve observed couple of different patterns that increase the likelihood for cravings:
Emotional eating occurs when we use food to satisfy emotional needs, rather than physical ones. Studies suggest that highly palatable foods can trigger the release of dopamine (the “happy hormone”), which can make certain foods feel soothing when you’re stressed, anxious, lonely, bored, angry, or sad (1).
I don’t know about you, but I rarely want broccoli when I’m in a bad mood—it’s usually chocolate or French fries.
Conditioning can also contribute to food cravings. Do you get Milk Duds every time you go to the movies, or reward yourself with a beer after a long day? You may be creating associations over time that lead to food cravings.
Let’s say you repeat this pattern for a prolonged period of time, then try to skip the candy at the movies or pass on the end-of-day beer. What happens? You probably spend a lot of time thinking about candy and beer right? You’ve created a craving—you’re fixated on a specific food or drink that you want even if you’re not hungry.
If you’re a lady, you may be wondering about the role of hormones in food cravings. Interestingly, a recent study has challenged the long-held belief that PMS causes food cravings.
Researchers in the study surveyed 275 women from different cultural backgrounds. Compared to women born to American parents and second generation immigrants, foreign-born women were significantly less likely to report chocolate cravings before their periods.
What’s more, foreign-born women and second-generation immigrants in the study who experienced premenstrual chocolate cravings reported significantly greater connection with American culture and less connection with their native cultures (2).
What does this mean?
(Ladies, please don’t shoot the messenger).
It means that there some evidence premenstrual cravings are a cultural construct—that we’ve been conditioned to crave palatable foods before our periods. In fact, researchers in this study point out that most cultures don’t even have an exact word that translates to “craving.”
So now that we have some sense of where cravings come from, what do we do about them?
How to Stop Food Cravings
You may not be able to stop food cravings altogether, but you CAN train yourself to give in to them less often.
The best way to do this is to practice mindful eating. To eat mindfully is to tune into your body’s physical and psychological cues before and after meals and snacks.
When you feel the urge to eat (and especially if the urge strikes quickly) take a moment to check in with yourself. Pay attention to any physical signs of hunger, like fatigue or a growling stomach.
Also, reflect on how you’re feeling mentally. What kind of day are you having? Are you feeling good about the world, or meh?
If you aren’t having signs of hunger and you’re not in a great mood, consider non-food options that might make you feel better. This might be taking a walk, calling a friend, journaling, meditating, or doing a random act of kindness…anything goes, if it makes you feel good!
And if you’re truly hungry, then by all means eat! The idea here is to stop food cravings, not to restrict the diet unnecessarily.
Need a little help learning to eat mindfully? We’d love to chat! Schedule your free 15-minute nutrition consult here.