Billi is a registered dietitian nutritionist & has been helping people make better food choices for 20 yr.
Everyone Battles Food Cravings
Multiple studies confirm we all battle with food cravings at some time. You wake up late, grab the coffee and muffin on your way out the door to eat in the car, and at 3 pm it hits you. You need chocolate. We don't all crave the same foods, but there are some consistent reasons food cravings occur.
Time Plays a Role in Managing Food Cravings
Why Do They Plague Us So?
- Boredom is the #1 reason reported for craving foods. We are in the habit of eating for entertainment. And we are inundated with exposure to high-calorie, convenient food. You can't turn on any media or open any magazine without food advertisements bombarding your vision. Billboards and fast food establishments abound while we are in the car. We end up eating mindlessly, sometimes not even remembering what we put in our mouths.
- Social engagements often stimulate food triggers: Eating out with friends, or hanging out at a party. It may be conscious or subconscious, but our habits set up food triggers. If you snack in the evening while watching TV, or eat breakfast in the car, your brain associates those behaviors with the pleasure of food. So every time you get in the car, your brain starts looking for the chips.
- Many of us don't get enough sleep. This makes you more vulnerable to triggers and reduces your decision-making ability. We are tired and want to increase our energy. Lack of sleep prompts the body to release hormones that work against us. Increased ghrelin stimulates our appetite, When ghrelin is high, leptin is reduced. Leptin tells us that we are satisfied, have had enough to eat, and decreases our appetite. Cortisol indicates a stressful situation.
- We may be truly hungry, especially if we have had a few days of reducing calories or restricting whole food groups. Calorie restriction and forbidding foods may lead to food obsession and binge eating. If we allow ourselves to get overly hungry, there is an increase in ghrelin and a reduction in leptin. This sets the stage for food cravings and overeating.
- When we are stressed, cortisol is released. Eating comfort foods, high in fat and sugar stimulates the release of serotonin in the brain, which makes us feel euphoric. Your brain creates a neural association with the foods you eat that create this feeling and increases your drive to eat that particular food when you feel stressed. The food industry has researched this phenomenon thoroughly, and foods are engineered to tantalize your tastebuds and keep you wanting more.
Set Yourself Up for Success
What Can I Do to Win the Battle Against Food Cravings?
- Eat regularly. Don't skip breakfast. Have something to eat within one hour of rising. This breaks your fast and keeps you from getting overly hungry. Eat every 3-4 hours. You can set a timer if you need to do so.
- Eat protein at every meal and snack. Protein sustains your blood sugar and helps combat hunger. Protein also stimulates cholecystokinin (CKK) which suppresses appetite.
- Stay hydrated. Thirst often masquerades as hunger. The recommendation is to drink half of your body weight in pounds in ounces of water. A 200 lb person will need 100 oz of water. Drink at least 8 glasses of water every day. Drink before you feel thirsty. Sip water throughout the day. This keeps you feeling full. Even mild dehydration puts stress on the body.
- Choose happiness. Think about something that makes you happy. Practice gratitude. Sing. Play happy music. These things actually change your brain chemistry and cause a release of serotonin.
- Wait 20 minutes. Hunger attacks come in waves. Once they reach their peak, they will dissipate. Trust that you can wait it out and it will eventually go away. If you are still hungry in 20 minutes, chances are you are truly hungry.
- Follow a meal plan. Early in the day, you have a lot of resolve to overcome emotional obstacles. As the day wears on, you tend to be more vulnerable to triggers and cravings. Creating and following a meal plan ensures that you don't get overly hungry and healthy choices are available.
- Make good choices convenient. Stock the fridge with goodness and get rid of the junk in your pantry. If healthy, appealing foods are available and convenient it is less likely that you will run to the store for chips.
- Distract yourself. Do something physical such as taking a walk or doing a few bicep curls or pushups. Write down your feelings in a journal. Complete a task that you've been putting off.
- Have a cup of tea or coffee. The warmth is soothing, fills your stomach, and caffeine (not too late in the day) will stimulate you and provide energy.
- Enjoy a small portion. The key here is "small portion." Usually, two or three bites is enough to give you the satisfaction of eating the food you desire. Take only a small amount because you will eat whatever you take. Don't try to fool yourself that yogurt will satisfy an ice cream craving. You'll eat the yogurt and then still eat the ice cream as well. If you have a craving for mashed potatoes, creamed cauliflower just won't cut it.
- Get Plenty of Sleep The National Institute of Health says we need 7-8 hours per night. Strategies to increase sleep include avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol in the evening, eating lightly after 6 pm, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, sleeping in a dark room, and giving your pets their own bed.
- Change your routine. Habitual routines that involve food setup triggers. If you stop for a fast-food burger on your way home each night, take a route that doesn't go by that restaurant. If you snack on chips or popcorn with TV each night, play a board game or listen to music and read instead for a few nights.
Are You Hungry or Thirsty?
You Can Overcome
There are emotional and physiological reasons that food cravings occur. But we can make choices to reduce them. It is not about discipline or willpower. It is about supporting our body processes and reducing triggers. Food cravings make us feel awful, but now we know that they are within our control. Making these choices is not depriving yourself or giving something up. You are making a choice for a better, more healthful life.
Try some of these strategies. What do you have to lose but some unwanted pounds?
How Often Do You Crave Foods?
Sweet or Salty?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.