Updated: Oct 6, 2021
Cravings are different than hunger but are real nonetheless. They are caused by regions of the brain that are responsible for memory, pleasure and reward. Hormone imbalances related to leptin, grehlin and serotonin also play a role. What does this mean for us in trying to minimize cravings each day? There are several practical actions we can take to curb cravings.
Research shows that dieters experience significantly more food cravings than non-dieters. So the first thing to do in preventing cravings is to make sure you’re consuming enough food. Getting overly hungry can lead to a feeding frenzy.
Eat adequate protein.
Have lean protein at every meal. It takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and therefore allows you to feel satisfied longer. It also slows how quickly the carbs are converted to glucose and can keep insulin levels from spiking so quickly.
Maintain your volume of food.
This may seem counterintuitive but research supports the idea that the total amount of food we consume is the driving force for satiety.* If we don’t eat enough volume, we will still feel hungry. This means that we need to consider what’s on our plate though. Increasing vegetables is the best way to increase volume without increasing caloric density. A good rule of thumb is to make sure half your plate contains non-starchy vegetables and the other half contains proteins and carbohydrate.
Drink more water.
Dehydration can mask itself as hunger. Drink noncaloric drinks and avoid artificial sweeteners if possible. If you get tired of plain water, try adding a few drops of lemon or lime juice to your glass. Make a pitcher of water with sliced cucumbers and lemons to keep in the fridge. Try flavored seltzer water for a bubbly option. Herbal teas (sans sugar) are also a great way to get flavor in your drink.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, can increase cravings. Consider ways of reducing stress in your life such as simplifying your schedule and eliminating commitments where possible. Prioritize. Practice saying no to new requests for your time. Prayer, meditation and breathing techniques are also great tools to reduce stress. And of course, exercise. Physical activity releases happy hormones that lower emotional stress and improve our outlook and perspective.
You need 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation causes a greater production of grehlin and decrease in leptin which cause more cravings for high fat foods and decrease our feeling of being satiated. Getting adequate sleep will keep these hormones from sabotaging your efforts.
Practice the pause.
When you experience a craving, pause before indulging. Assess your level of hunger. Is it true hunger? Determine what emotions you’re feeling and find another activity that might fill that need or offer the soothing you need. Walk away for ten minutes before giving in. Say a prayer. Redirect yourself and often the desire will pass.
Finding craving substitutes.
If the craving won’t pass, try having a small portion of the food you crave. If you don’t trust that you can stop with just a small portion, consider finding a healthier substitute. For sweets, dark chocolate (78% or higher) or herbal tea (apple cinnamon or mint) work for me. Both are low in sugar, yet satisfy the perceived need. For salty/crunchy desires, try popcorn, homemade kale chips, or a rice cake with avocado spread on top. Experiment to find what works for you.
Keep a journal.
This is especially helpful for tracking patterns and seeing what things most contribute to your cravings. Whenever you experience craving, write it down. Be sure to record any details about it such as sweet or salty. Also make notes about stress levels, emotions you feel, how rested you are, etc.
While cravings are fairly common, they’re extremely frustrating and leave us feeling out of control. They don’t have to hold us captive though. Use these tools and strategies as you explore what works best for you. You’ll be taking back your health and feel better in the process.
*Nutrients. 2016 Apr; 8(4): 229. Link between Food Energy Density and Body Weight Changes in Obese Adults Marta Stelmach-Mardas et al.