We’ve all been there; all of a sudden you feel a strong urge to run to the corner store late at night because you absolutely need that one sweet treat, and just can’t go to bed without it. Although cravings can be incredibly intense, there are some simple strategies to consider and implement to help you figure out how to control your cravings.
I used to have the worst cravings. No matter what I ate for dinner I would find myself scouring the fridge, freezer, and pantry for anything sweet just to help me take the edge off. Just a little bit of chocolate, a little bite of cookie, a little bowl of ice cream, or anything carb-y I could get my hands on. While I certainly believe in moderation and enjoying treats from time to time, I don’t think anyone should find themselves eating heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter straight out of the jar just to help curb their cravings.
The good news is that cravings can be tamed, I was able to tame mine and you can too, in order to do so, you simply need to understand why you crave certain foods so you can implement strategies to help put your cravings demons to rest.
Why do we crave certain foods?
Reasons for cravings will vary from person to person based on diet and lifestyle, and in most cases, they have very little to do with hunger. Cravings have both biological and psychological components, the most common cravings being for sugar, carbohydrates, chocolate, and salt. Sugar cravings are most commonly linked to blood sugar imbalances, while salt cravings can be linked to dehydration, however, cravings can be linked to anything from insulin resistance, hormonal factors, digestive health, stress levels, and environmental factors so determining triggers is incredibly important.
Regardless of what you crave, our brains reward us for eating these high-calorie treats by releasing powerful chemicals like endorphins, including dopamine, which make us feel pleasure. These endorphins help us to feel relaxed which reinforces our desire to crave treats. In fact, our desire for indulgent treats can be traced to our ancestors; when food what scarce you had to eat what you could to sustain yourself, however, today this is no longer necessary as we have access to food at almost every hour of the day. Not only that, but these salty, sweet, and sugar treats we have access to today are hyper-palatable, and far more intense than their natural counterparts, so once your start it can be incredibly hard to stop. Experts suggest that processed foods are created to have a “bliss point”, a combination of salt, sugar, or fat which optimizes palatability, which maximizes gratification which leads us to crave them more.
How to Control Your Cravings
Although this can be incredibly frustrating, there are some strategies that you can implement to help determine how to control your cravings.
1. Ask Yourself If You Are Hungry
This might sound like a simple tip but there is a big difference between a craving and actually being hungry. Too often people convince themselves that they are “hungry” in order to give into the craving they are having, telling themselves they just need more fuel. The difference between being hungry and craving is simple; if you think of a very plain meal (chicken and broccoli or scrambled eggs), would you actually want to eat it? If the answer is yes, you are hungry and should probably eat. If the answer is no, you are having a craving, and need to consider how to control it.
2. Pay Attention To What You Crave
Paying attention to what you are craving will help to give you some insight into why you are actually craving it. If you are constantly craving sugar, perhaps you are consuming too many simple carbohydrates during the day which is causing the body to crave more, or perhaps you are not eating enough complex carbohydrates to fuel your day. If you are constantly craving salty treats, perhaps you are eating too many processed foods which are leading you to crave more sodium-rich foods, or if you are eating whole foods perhaps you aren’t seasoning them enough and are lacking a proper electrolyte balance. The more you can pay attention to what you are craving the easier it will be to help determine why you are craving them.
3. Ensure You Are Eating Enough
Not surprisingly, if you are not eating enough during the day you are more likely to have stronger cravings. Very often I find people who have frequent cravings for food in the afternoon or evening are actually undereating for their energy needs during the day. If you are constantly trying to limit calories or minimize your food intake, your body is most certainly going to crave more food because you are undernourishing it. The goal of eating well is not to avoid calories, but rather to maximize nutrient intake. Avoid skipping meals or eating tiny portions because this will only set you up for failure. It is best to eat meals that are large enough to satiate your hunger and keep you fueled and nourished for 4-5 hours at a time. Your meals should be rich in protein and fat to help balance blood sugar, keep you fuller longer and avoid that hangry feeling.
4. Plan Your Meals Ahead
If you are able to plan your meals ahead of time and stick to a routine eating schedule it will be easier to overcome cravings when they hit. If you know your next meal is within the hour when a craving hits you will be more likely to overcome it and ride it out knowing your next meal is only a short time ahead. As the expression goes, “Failure to plan is planning to fail” and the same can be said for how to control your cravings.
5. Take a Time Out
When a craving hits, and it hits hard, it is important to create distance between yourself and the craving. Implement a 10 or 15-minute rule to help you consider if you truly want the treat. If donuts show up at the morning meeting, before you are fist deep in a chocolate glaze, take a time out and consider if you really want it. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, drink some water at your desk, and consider if it is really worth it. Are you craving this donut because you truly want it and it is totally worth it? Or are you craving this donut because it just showed up in front of your face and you weren’t actually craving it before?
6. Change Your Environment
People are products of their environment, so it is important that you set your own environment up for success. If you love ice cream, and can’t not eat it when it’s around, don’t bring it home! Every time you buy something at the grocery store you are making an investment in your health, so if you are buying ice cream sandwiches at the grocery store, full well knowing they are a trigger food for you, you are not setting yourself up for success and you are making a poor investment in your health. When it is 9:00 pm at night and you are craving ice cream it is much harder to eat if it is still at the grocery store than if it is in the freezer in the next room. Setting your home and work environment up for success will help you strategize on how to control your cravings.
7. Implement The “One-Bite Rule”
We’ve all been there, you are halfway through that cookie you were craving so badly only to realize that it doesn’t taste as good as you were hoping, but you polish it off anyway just because you’ve already started. I’ve got news for you, you don’t need to do that! Instead, implement the “one-bite rule”; take one bite of the food you were craving, set it down, and ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?”. If the answer is yes, then knock your socks off and enjoy the treat, but if the answer is no, there is no need to finish it. I’ve been known to toss half-eaten treats in the garbage because I realized that I didn’t really want them, and you can do that too. (Pro Tip – If you are concerned about your own willpower, once you’ve tossed the treat in the garbage, give it a little squirt of dish soap just to ensure you can’t fish it back out.)
8. Create Satisfying Swaps
Routines are a huge factor in what we crave and when. If you are accustomed to eating a certain treat at a certain time, cutting it out cold turkey can be very challenging. Instead, create a transition plan for yourself by using healthy hacks to help trick your brain into enjoying your craving. For instance, if you love ice cream after dinner try eating yogurt with maple syrup, fresh fruit, and shredded coconut, a Chocolate Almond Smoothie Bowl, or a Chocolate Peanut Butter Nice Cream. If you love chocolate in the afternoon, ensure you are eating at least 70% dark chocolate. If you love chips during a movie try plain popcorn with butter and sea salt, salted trail mix, or Spicy Roasted Chickpeas. The first step is not always about removing the craving completely, but rather trying a healthier alternative before you are able to break the habit as you learn how to control your cravings.
9. Maximize Sleep & Manage Stress
Cravings don’t just happen, they are often linked to something physiological or something psychological, and very often sleep and stress play a role. For many people, there is a direct correlation between stress and eating junk food; when a certain event happens they immediately turn to food to help themselves cope with the situation. If you are overstressed or underslept you are certainly more likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism. If food is fuel, and you are not sleeping enough or well enough, your body will seek extra energy to help it get through the day, and more often than not this comes in the form of food. Sleep and stress are highly underrated factors in how to control your cravings, and should certainly not be forgotten.
10. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
If you indulge, give in, or eat your cravings, it is not the end of the world, and there is no need to beat yourself up over it. Your food choices don’t define you, and eating a “bad” food does not make you a bad person, it just means you ate some food. If you decide to have a treat, great, go for it, enjoy it and move on.