Food Cravings and How to Beat Them

Food cravings. We have likely all had some type of craving at some point, and for some its a daily battle. One of the more common questions I have been asked as a dietitian is how to beat cravings or how to manage them. There is not a quick and easy answer because cravings themselves are pretty complex. Cravings result from certain brain chemicals, like dopamine (the feel good hormone), being released when you eat certain foods. As a result, your brain continually seeks this “feel good” reaction, thus craving that food that stimulated dopamine release in the first place.

One of the most important things to think about when you are trying to “beat” or “fix” a craving is to identify where the craving is coming from or the cause of the craving. In identifying the cause of the craving, you can then “treat” it appropriately, rather than giving in to every craving. Physical cravings and habitual or emotional cravings are two different root causes of cravings. For example: If you are dieting and have cut your calories, cut entire food groups, or made certain foods off limits- a physical craving can manifest out of physiological need for a certain nutrient. Alternatively, if you always eat something sweet after lunch, that craving is more of an emotional or habitual craving. You do not physically need the food for fuel, but rather you are so used to eating something sweet it becomes a habit that is then interpreted as a craving.

External factors, like stress, can contribute to cravings as well. Eating a certain food as a result of feelings (stress, sadness, anger etc) can condition the brain to associate that feeling with the given food. Next thing you know, when you feel that feeling (stress, sadness, anger etc), you automatically crave that same food because your brain associates the feeling with the food.

Once you identify the trigger or cause for the craving (physical, emotional), you can manage it appropriately. If you are having physical cravings, it is best to take a close look at your diet and identify where you may be lacking (calories, protein, carbs etc). Craving chocolate? Maybe your diet is lacking in carbohydrate and your body is in need of additional carbohydrates- try adding some fresh fruit, whole grains or oatmeal to your diet to see if it helps curb the craving.  I always recommend to initially give into your cravings to satisfy them, and then look to make changes to hopefully avoid future cravings.

Habitual and emotional cravings are generally multifaceted and require some self reflection to identify how to fix them. If you are in the habit of always eating dessert after dinner- try creating a new/healthier habit such as going for a walk. If you always crave a certain food when you are in a certain environment, try to distract yourself with another activity in that environment or remove yourself from the environment if possible. If you crave food as a reward for other behaviors, come up with non food rewards- a pedicure, a massage, a shopping trip etc, to stimulate the same pleasure response in the brain.

Lastly, adequate sleep is one of the most important factors for a healthy life. Lack of sleep alters your hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin), resulting in more hunger hormones (ghrelin) being released, so you ultimately feel more hungry and generally crave higher carbohydrate foods for quick energy. Increasing the quantity and quality of your sleep alone can reduce cravings as the normal hormonal balance will be restored. If your in the midst of a fatigue induced craving, try to portion out one serving of food so that you are less likely to overeat.

We have compiled a list of some of our favorite healthy ways to beat the most common cravings, salty and sweet, without going completely overboard!

Sweet Snacks:

Greek yogurt with mini chocolate chips, sprinkles or graham crackers

chocolate yogurt

Fruit popsicle or frozen yogurt bar

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Apple “Cookies”

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Protein Shake– Berries and vanilla protein powder make a great fruity/sweet shake, or chocolate protein with banana and peanut butter to beat that chocolate craving

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Freeze dried fruit- Apple chips, bananas, strawberries, blueberries etc.

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Coconut oil protein chocolates

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Protein Energy Bites

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Salty Snacks:

Popcorn

skinny-pop

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Pretzels

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Trail mix or mixed nuts

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Do you have cravings? What are some of they ways you beat your cravings?

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