Food & Nutrition

How to manage and stop your food cravings

Four ways to tackle the 3pm snacking temptation.
Published 7 August 2018

Food cravings tips and advice

Maybe it’s a chocolate bar, or possibly a cronut, or perhaps your Achilles’ heel is a bag of salty, crispy chips. You may have had a healthy, filling lunch, but you’ve been hit by an urge for something sweet, salty or crunchy.

You’re experiencing a food craving, or what dietitians describe as “an intense desire for a particular food or drink”. They say cravings differ from garden-variety hunger pangs, as hunger can be answered by any type of food, while cravings can usually only be satisfied by that one particular item.

Chocolate tops the list of most craved foods in several studies, followed by foods generally high in fat, salt and sugar – think chips, lollies, ice-cream, pizza and soft drinks.

Why do I crave foods?

Cravings strike for many different reasons, including emotional eating when we’re stressed, tired or sad, as well as hormonal changes or environmental cues, such as seeing an ad for a fast-food chain.

Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, researchers are also finding that food cravings activate brain areas related to emotion, memory and reward.

Being offered an ice-cream to help you get over a scraped knee when you were a child may have set you up to crave a sweet food to help you get over a bad day at work later on in life.

“Culturally, we have learned to turn to high-kilojoule foods when we are feeling down and this has now become ingrained as habit,” says Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian Alex Parker.

Neuroscience research also shows that sugar lights up the same pleasure-stimulating sites in our brains as addictive drugs. These areas release a chemical called dopamine which gives us a euphoric or “happy feeling”, says Parker.

“Food cravings can definitely be linked with emotions and particular situations, for example movies and popcorn, or road trips and fast food,” she says.

Plus, women can experience cravings related to changes in hormones around the time they are menstruating. “Oestrogen and progesterone go up and then drop off just before the period, which can result in cravings and increased hunger,” says Parker.

While we all experience them, cravings can derail healthy eating plans. However, there are psychological tools you can use to ward off the powerful urges. Try these strategies when you need to give cravings their marching orders.

1. Think before you reach

Try tackling a craving early in the piece with a mindful thinking technique. Flinders University researcher Sophie Schumacher says cravings occur in two distinct stages, starting with the initial thought – often sparked by the sight or smell of a food – and followed by vivid imaginings of just how good it’s going to taste.

Her recent study published in the journal Appetite shows that you may be able to nip this initial desire in the bud by observing the thought, rather than automatically acting on it. “The idea was that if we target the first part of the craving, that initial thought, perhaps the cravings won’t become fully blown,” says Schumacher, who researches the psychological aspects of food cravings. The Flinders University research showed using the mindfulness technique did reduce the intensity of cravings for chocolate in a group of young women.

“If you can try to be more aware of the thoughts that pop in and out of your head during the day and build that awareness, that can be the first step to change,” she says.

Try this: Next time you think a little after-dinner snack would be a good idea, pause for a moment. Observe the thought and try to distance yourself from it. “Just become more aware of your thoughts and think of them as thoughts, rather than facts that we have to follow,” says Schumacher.

2. Visualise a place instead of food

When you crave something, you can almost taste it because you’ve created such a vivid image of it in your mind. Working on the theory that the mind can only handle a limited number of mental images at one time, the Flinders University research team also found that replacing a chocolate craving with imagery of a walk in a forest diminished the tasty food thoughts.

Schumacher says ‘guided imagery’ targets the second phase of the craving – the one where you really start to imagine yourself eating that food.

“If we were craving something and picturing that food with all our senses – such as what it would smell like, what would it taste like – we might be able to replace the craving if we were asked to imagine a different scene,” she says.

In the second part of the study, the intensity and intrusiveness of cravings lessened in a group of women who were guided through an imaginary walk in a forest.

Try this: Next time cravings hit, override them by imagining your favourite location. What can you see, smell, feel or hear?

“Start practising replacing that craving-related imagery with other imagery, whether that’s your favourite place, or a walk along the beach or the countryside,” says Schumacher. “There are lots of senses you can use to replace the chocolate or whatever you are craving.”

3. Go with your cravings every now and then

Sometimes the best answer for a craving is to give into it – a little. “Forbidding foods doesn't seem to work,” says Parker. “We encourage individuals to think of ‘craving’ foods as simply food – not treats or rewards. Know that you can have it whenever you like, but only if you are actually hungry. “By liberalising instead of prohibiting, you empower yourself to make a choice without feeling shame or guilt.”

That’s why the WeightWatchers® weight loss program is so effective – it gives you the freedom and flexibility to enjoy all the foods you love, and nothing is off-limits.

Parker suggests filling your pantry with fresh, wholesome ingredients, as having these foods available will encourage healthier eating patterns. “In saying this, trying to eliminate certain foods altogether in the house can actually make you crave the food even more.”

In a study published in scientific journal PLOS ONE, frequent consumers of chocolate were asked not to eat any for a week. These people then found images of chocolate and other high-kilojoule food items even more appealing than when they weren't restricting themselves from eating it.

Try this: Allow yourself to have a little of what you love by reducing portion sizes. “We believe it’s okay to give in to food cravings every now and then. However, it is important not to overdo it,” says Parker. “We encourage individuals to try and reduce portion sizes of the foods that they are craving.”

4. Question if it's head or tummy hunger

Learning to recognise whether it’s your hunger or your salivating tastebuds talking can help defuse cravings too. Bond University researcher and psychologist, Associate Professor Peta Stapleton, says one strong clue is the timing.

“We teach that physical hunger occurs slowly over hours, from the last time you ate, while emotional hunger hits you hard and fast – in the moment – so the timing tells you what it might be,” says Stapleton. “If you suddenly feel like chocolate and you ate one hour ago, then it is probably emotional hunger.”

Try this: Check where it is you’re feeling hungry. “Physical hunger occurs low in the stomach, but emotional hunger is felt everywhere else – the chest, throat and face,” says Stapleton.