Whether it’s a late-night slice of pizza or a sugary breakfast pastry, we all experience cravings. And they often feel impossible to ignore. While it seems like our stomachs are screaming for ice cream, our brains actually play a huge role in food cravings—which means they’re not as hard to stop as we might think. Images of desire: food-craving activation during fMRI. Pelchat ML, Johnson A, Chan R. NeuroImage, 2005, Feb.;23(4):1053-8119. Cravings are both mental and physical, says Michael Mantell, Ph.D., a transformational behavioral coach who specializes in obesity. “The craving begins in your mind and then in your mouth."
We often link cravings to a lack of self-control, but it could simply be your body's way of asking for fuel. "Your body is designed to do everything in its power to prevent you from starving. So when you don’t give your body enough food, or you give it food that breaks down too quickly, it releases stress hormones," says Tara Coleman, a clinical nutritionist. When your body wants fuel fast, it usually wants it in the simplest form (a.k.a. sugar), which is why we tend to crave sweets and carbs, not veggies, Coleman says.
Plus, as anyone who’s gone through a breakup knows, cravings can be tied to feelings such as sadness, anger, boredom, stress, or even excitement. It's great to be aware of this connection, but we know it's not always possible to completely avoid feeling stressed, tired, or, well, hungry AF. Next time you feel an out-of-nowhere urge for chocolate coming on, try the following tips to squash your cravings.
1. Grab some protein.
The next time you’re craving something sweet, reach for some Greek yogurt or a handful of nuts instead. Coleman recommends having a high-protein snack first, waiting 20 minutes, and then if you still want chocolate, go ahead and eat some. The idea is that the high-protein snack will satisfy your hunger and craving altogether (while also helping regulate stress, which can't be said for sugar) so you won’t even need to indulge in the sweet stuff.
Plus, studies show that a high-protein diet can help with weight loss. Why? Protein takes longer to digest so it tends to be more satiating (keeps you feeling full). The role of protein in weight management. Noakes M. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition, 2008, Jul.;17 Suppl 1():0964-7058. High-protein snacks can also help you feel happier by increasing pleasure-boosting brain signals. Digital distraction lengthening followed by free vascularized epiphyseal joint transfer. Singer DI, O'Brien BM, Angel MF. The Journal of hand surgery, 1989, Jul.;14(3):0363-5023. Need some suggestions? We've got 27!
2. Take three deep breaths.
Breathing exercises are surprisingly powerful. When you feel a craving coming on, take three deep breaths. Mantell suggests using these breaths as a time to check in with your emotions. Ask yourself, “Why do I want to eat this now?” “Am I physically hungry?” and “How am I feeling emotionally right now?” These questions draw attention to your habits and the motivations behind your craving.
“The mind-body connection is key,” says Gina Hassick, R.D.. It’s kind of like practicing yoga or any other type of mindfulness: The goal is to ground yourself. In fact, “mindful eating,” which is basically just eating with attention, has been shown to decrease cravings and help people lose weight. The effects of three mindfulness skills on chocolate cravings. Lacaille J, Ly J, Zacchia N. Appetite, 2014, Feb.;76():1095-8304. Coping with food cravings. Investigating the potential of a mindfulness-based intervention. Alberts HJ, Mulkens S, Smeets M. Appetite, 2010, May.;55(1):1095-8304.
Doing this can also help you recognize eating patterns you might want to work on (for example, if you always crave a snack after seeing a particular friend, that relationship may be stressing you out).
3. Tell yourself you'll have it "some other time."
Our thoughts (and many of our emotions) are all about our own perspective, Mantell says. If you can change the way you think about something, it can often change the way you feel. Telling yourself that you can have that cookie “some other time” will help trick your brain a little by taking the craving off the top of your priority list. The taming of desire: Unspecific postponement reduces desire for and consumption of postponed temptations. Mead NL, Patrick VM. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2016, undefined.;110(1):1939-1315.
“Some other time” may be literal too, like a time when you’re actually hungry or when food you tend to crave is part of a celebration (like a birthday cake). “Let yourself know that it's OK if you don’t eat whatever food is calling to you in that moment," Hassick says. "You can have it another time when you are physically hungry and it will be more satisfying.”
4. Write down the ideal response (even if you don't believe it).
For cravings you experience often (a late-afternoon treat, anyone?), Mantell suggests writing down a rational response. For example, if 3 p.m. hits and you think, “I’m starving, and I really need this cookie,” respond with, “I’m just having a craving. It doesn’t mean I must eat. This isn’t really an emergency.”
The idea here is similar to saying “some other time.” By writing down these statements, you force your brain to consider positive, more rational thoughts (even if you don’t fully believe them). “Let the craving occur, peak, and pass,” Mantell says. Looking back on statements that you’ve written down to beat cravings in the past can also remind you that you’ve said no before, so you can easily do it again.
5. Think about how you'll feel in 20 minutes.
Food does a lot more than satisfy hunger. It can also affect your stress level, mood, and alertness, so it’s important to consider how you’ll feel after you indulge a craving. “If you're craving a giant burger and fries for lunch, think about how it will make you feel not just in the moment, but also after,” Coleman says. “Perhaps you have a ton of work to do in the afternoon, and it will make you fall asleep at your desk.”
Research about cravings is hard to track, since cravings are self-reported and many of the sample sizes are small, but studies have found that thinking about the potential benefits or consequences of a specific food can help you avoid craving that food in the future. Cognitive regulation of food craving: effects of three cognitive reappraisal strategies on neural response to palatable foods. Yokum S, Stice E. International journal of obesity (2005), 2013, Apr.;37(12):1476-5497. One study even found that thinking about how eating a particular food may affect you later increased activity in the brain region associated with inhibition.
6. Treat yo'self—without food.
Eating a slice of cake isn’t the only way to let off some steam. “If you are not physically hungry, try engaging in something non-food related that would also be pleasure-producing , like taking a bath, calling a friend, getting a massage, or listening to your favorite song,” Hassick says. The key is something that makes you happy, since going for a run may make one person smile and another want to scream.
Another common reaction to stress is clenching our jaws, Hassick says, which is why we like to chomp down on crunchy foods when we’re stressed. You can follow the same "treat yo’self" logic here too. Try stretching, exercising, or even going for a walk— whatever typically helps you calm down when you’re feeling tense.
These things help your body feel better, but distraction is also key, says Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine expert. Sipping on tea, chewing gum, or just getting outside will help you focus on something else. One study even found that tapping your forehead in an effort to break up the image of food can help curb cravings. It’s worth noting that this study only included 55 participants and focused on obesity intervention, but it's almost too easy to not give it a try!
7. OK just have a little bit.
This one may sound counterintuitive, but we all know that telling ourselves we “can’t" have something makes us want it more. “It's better to have a taste and enjoy it rather than tell yourself that a certain food is ‘bad’ or ‘off limits,’” Hassick says. Chances are you’ll indulge in that food later on if you keep giving yourself a hard "no."
You can also plan for your craving. For example, if you're prone to chocolate cravings, try pre-portioning out some cacao dusted cashews, Coleman suggests. That way, you’ll get the pleasure and ritual you’re craving, but you’ll have control over the amount and stop thinking of the food with a big red X over it.
With this tip, it’s all about balance. For some, especially those who suffer from Binge Eating Disorder, which is far more serious than occasional late-night cravings, having just one taste of something may be enough to initiate a binge. So it’s all about knowing your own habits and evaluating your own thoughts.
Before a craving even strikes, it's important to make sure you're putting enough fuel in your body. "Oftentimes when we are trying to eat healthy, we inadvertently go too low in calories, protein, and fat," Coleman says. "Then we wonder why we're spending the entire night snacking." Steering clear of caffeine, drinking lots of water, and prioritizing your sleep can help kick cravings to the curb.
When cravings do strike, it's all about taking control of your own thoughts and actions. Pausing to consider your thoughts, writing something down, changing your perspective, or treating yourself in a different way can all help you get the mood boost you're really craving.