By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH
What are some successful ways to manage food cravings? Food cravings are beasts. But we all have to learn how to manage them to get to our ideal weight.
Food cravings are the number one reason people give up on a healthy eating plan. If you have a history of disordered eating or bulimia, food cravings can sabotage your recovery and cause a relapse. As a recovered bulimic, I know this all too well.
Below are a several researched-based facts and tips that can successfully help you manage food cravings.
1. Visualize the Shape of a Food Craving & Realize You Can Beat It:
I don’t mean visualize a triangle for a slice of pizza or a circle for a donut. Those visions will make cravings worse. I mean visualize the path of the painful desire. A craving is an intense, intrusive desire that follows a bell-shaped curve. The craving for a particular food starts (often late in the day), increases in intensity for approximately 20-30 minutes, hits the point of greatest intensity, and then decreases till you no longer have the craving. If we were creatures of infinite will power, we would be able to manage food cravings by realizing they are temptations with limited lifespans. The problem is that most of us give in to the craving during the 20-30 minutes of increasing intensity. The key is to get yourself over the upside of the bell-shaped curve without giving in to the craving. In a subsequent blog on mindful eating, I’ll write more about “sitting with” the craving and being aware of our bodily responses/feelings without giving in to them in.
2. Women Suffer the Most from Food Cravings and Women Crave Chocolate the Most, while Men Crave Burgers the Most. Don’t have them in your house.
Whether it is chocolate, pizza, chocolate-covered pizza or whatever other food drives you wild, you should not have the foods you crave in your house. Giving in to cravings is associated with significant weight gain, and cravings for fattening foods are linked to obesity. Therefore, prevent yourself from having easy access to the foods you crave the most. There are gender differences when it comes to cravings. Women crave chocolate the most, and 92% of all people who crave chocolate are female. Men crave things like burgers and pizza the most. Women also struggle more than men when it comes to controlling cravings. Manage food cravings by NOT having these foods around.
3. Restricting Craved Foods Does NOT Increase Cravings for the Restricted Food. Don’t have them in the house.
The idea that restricting certain foods will increase cravings for the restricted food is a myth that many people believe to be true. Research says the opposite. In one study people who restricted a specific food had decreased cravings for the restricted food, and this effect lasted for as long as two years.
4. Food Cravings do not represent the “wisdom of the body”
There is no hard core evidence for this, and the majority of evidence speaks against this. An example is salty foods. Many people crave salt, yet, on average, we eat 3200 mgs of salt per day, while the recommended amount is 500 mgs. We often crave salt, but we definitely do not NEED salt. Cravings can trick us about what we really need. As a former bulimic who struggled horribly with cravings, the one thing that helped me sit with my craving and figure out what I really need is mindful eating. I’ll talk more about mindful eating in a subsequent blog, but whether it’s sleep, sex, water, a good cry, exercise, less of something or a healthier version of what I’m craving, mindful eating was my best friend. In fact, the ONLY way I dropped unhealthy “bulimia” pounds was through mindful eating.
5. Be Mindful that Aromas Can Trigger Food Cravings:That’s Not a License to Give-In.
We know very little about what causes food cravings. The reason is probably multi-factorial, involving genetics, hormonal changes, neural circuitry, amount of sleep, stress, the environment and more. One thing we do know is that aromas can trigger food cravings. Everyone can relate to smelling great food and then feeling and hearing our stomachs growl.
6. Liquid Adult Dieters have a Higher Chance of Struggling with Food Cravings:
A food craving can be indicative of someone needing more variety in his or her diet. Young adults who follow hardcore liquid diets have a higher chance of developing cravings for solid food, due to nutritional monotony. This phenomenon isn’t observed in the elderly, however, which can set the stage for nutritional deficiencies.
7. Low Carb vs Low Fat:
The evidence is mixed when it comes to figuring out if a low carb or a low fat diet is better for managing cravings for the long-term. Research shows that individuals who follow a low-carb diet are less bothered by hunger than those that follow a low-fat diet. And individuals who follow a low-carb diet crave carbohydrates less, and individuals who follow a low fat diet crave fattening foods less. For me, mindful eating, which doesn’t involve eliminating any food, is the only thing that helped me manage food cravings and achieve my ideal weight. Every time I’ve tried a diet that involves cutting out a food group, it backfired ten-fold.
8. PMS Significantly Fuels Food Cravings
Cravings are heavily linked to a woman’s menstrual cycle and are shown to significantly increase three days prior to menstruation and three days after. Every woman can relate to the PMS munchies. Be mindful of this and try not to over-indulge during this time. Remember, this too shall pass.
9. Your Food Craving Could be a Nutritional Deficiency:
Cravings have been linked to specific nutrient deficiencies. A deficiency in Magnesium has been linked to a chocolate craving. A Zinc deficiency has been linked to craving carbohydrates. Sugar cravings have been linked to a chromium deficiency, and food cravings in general have been linked to a Vitamin B6 deficiency.
10. More Practical Tips on How to Manage Food Cravings:
These are things I did to avoid giving into bulimia cravings.
- Eat something healthy instead of the unhealthy food you crave. In other words, turn your “cake hole” into a “carrot hole.” Usually when you eat something else, your brain will be sufficiently tricked and your stomach will be sufficiently satisfied to turn your craving off. My great “go-to” substitute craving snacks are carrots and hummus or carrots and a tbsp of peanut butter. Cautionary note: If you do this, be mindful of your calorie intake. Calories always matter.
- Try not to have any of the food you crave in your house. (It’s probably the best way to beat cravings.) If the food you are craving is in your house, get out of your house. Go for a walk, walk the dog, go for a drive, anything for approximately 20-30 minutes until the craving dies down .
- Exercise. It can squelch a budding craving. If that sounds like too much effort or too formal, do something informal, like turning on music and dancing in your living room.
- Rinse with mouthwash, floss your teeth, or brush your teeth when you get a craving. ( We typically use these things after we eat, so it’s a behavioral signal to our brain that we are done eating.)
- Avoid chewing gum. A lot of folks chew gum to “avoid” cravings, but gum-chewing stimulates stomach secretions and can make you bloat.
- Print out the top reasons you don’t want to give into cravings: It could be for your health; to wear a particular outfit; to go on a vacation; to feel better about yourself. Whatever your reasons are, post them on your refrigerator or wherever you store comfort food. Seeing them during a craving episod can help motivate you to not give in.
- Distract yourself by counting backwards by 3 from 100 or doing a Sudoku puzzle. If you choose the counting exercise, do it while you’re out walking.
- Get a tennis ball or a bouncy rubber ball. When the cravings start to set it, bounce the ball against a wall and focus on catching it. Alternatively, stand in place and continue to throw the ball up in the air and catch it. You are forcing yourself to focus on catching the ball, which will help you escape the prison of intrusive, repetitive thoughts about food.
- If a friend or partner is nearby, have them massage your head or neck.
- Fill a mason jar with ice water and lemon. Fill your tub with salt, essential oils, warm water, and jump in the tub. (No one eats while they are in the tub.) Stay in the tub until you drink all of the lemon water in the mason jar.
- Masturbate. Some people may be uncomfortable with this, but it’s biology 101, and can help calm you down.
- Designate a friend or family member that you can call when a craving hits. Cravings are a huge part of any addiction, including food addiction. Talk to your friend and/or family member. A strong buddy system can help you overcome any kind of craving .
- Listen to a guided imagery or one of our Anxiety Relief ZENTones that include calming binaural frequencies. The ZENTones last between 25-40 minutes, which is typically how long a craving lasts.
If you have any other tips for beating cravings, feel free to post in the comment section below.
Read Dr. Stair’s novel Manic Kingdom. Based on a true story, and one that will make you question mental illness, craziness and sanity.
How to Sleep Better Naturally, read here.