Food Cravings: How can we stop them?

Food Cravings: How can we stop them?

Food Cravings.  We all get them.  It’s one of those near-universal (at least in the US) entities that can lead to frustration, over-consumption, and even hopelessness.  Cravings can lead to such questions as:

Why do these happen?
What can I do to stop them?
Am I a bad person because I can’t seem to get control of cravings?
Does giving in to cravings mean I have no willpower?
How can I go on a diet and not have cravings?

In other words, food cravings really mess with us.  What can we do?  To find the answer, let’s take a look at what the literature says about these pesky cravings.

Characteristics of Cravings

  1. Carvings are almost exclusively for calorie-dense, highly palatable foods, not fruits, vegetables, or even protein.
  2. This means that cravings are often for processed (junk) foods that are high salt, fat, or sugar.
  3. Food deprivation, as seen in dieting, leads to increased cravings.
  4. Many cravings are unrelated to hunger.  Instead, they are related to a certain situation, time of day, stress or other emotion, or pure habit.
  5. Your body and brain have all sorts of chemicals flowing around that get you into craving mode.

Craving Scenarios

Unfortunately, dieting does two things to us that give cravings a free rein.  One is that dieting, by definition, is about food restriction.  That in itself makes us want to eat the forbidden food.  Also, when you think about it, any diet (except maybe the infamous “Twinkie diet”) restricts junk food.  These are exactly the types of foods that are designed to be highly palatable.  Junk foods light up the reward centers in our brain so that once we eat them, the habit becomes reinforced.  This makes it very difficult to ignore the urge to eat these items, even at the best of times. 

Habit and Emotions
It turns out that habit is one of the most powerful predictors of eating behaviors, including cravings.  Habits can be our eating nemesis.  Here’s a few salient points about habits:

  • When something is a habit, people require very little information to make a decision.  Like polishing off a bag of chips without even thinking.
  • Intention to overcome a given habit is a poor predictor of success to overcome that habit.  It’s not a matter of “just do it.”
  • Many eating behaviors are triggered by situational cues, not actual hunger.  Birthday cake anyone?

What We Can Do About Cravings?

There are a variety of mindfulness interventions that focus on emotional regulation of cravings.  One of the techniques used is to identify emotions at the time of the craving and write them down.  Individuals are then encouraged to view emotions as transitory and something that does not need to be acted upon.  While waiting for the craving to pass, individuals are often encouraged to insert a healthy activity.  Cravings often pass in 15-20 minutes, or less. 

Caveat:  Mindfulness takes time, practice, and patience to become effective.  Often a craving is actually an attempt to evade a negative emotion by using the ensuing positive reward as a transitory cover-up.  Since there is some denial implicit in this process, helping people to identify the negative emotion may not be as easy as it sounds. 

Here is where self-acceptance-based mindfulness(which includes craving acceptance) can play a huge role in overcoming cravings.  Self-acceptance mindfulness uses instruction to cast light on the various forces behind cravings, which includes habits, emotions, and complex body and brain chemistry. 

Awareness of the root problem can take away the guilt often associated with giving in to cravings.  Perhaps more importantly, awareness of the factors involved can make it easier for an individual to not take the urge so seriously, to let it pass, and to find ways to take the focus off of it. 

Then “I have to eat this!” can change into “There’s that craving again…now I understand where this is coming from.”  This is when that seemingly unmanageable impulse can be tamed.

All the best

© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Tijana87 / iStock

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