I think we all succumb to cravings from time to time. You’ve had a hard day, you’re just back from work or college and you just HAVE to have something sweet, or that packet of crisps, or that glass of wine! Without even thinking about it you demolish half a packet of biscuits and you don’t even taste them they’re in so fast. We’ve all been there – I’m terrible for craving sweet things either mid afternoon or after dinner. You go to all sorts of lengths to try not to eat them – you try an apple, that doesn’t help, you go for a rice cake, nope still not helping, so you try a handful of granola… bit better but not quite.. finally you give in and buy a bar of chocolate.. by which point you’ve eaten a load of stuff you didn’t even want just to try to satisfy your craving!
Now sometimes when you crave a certain food it’s your body telling you you’re lacking in some key nutrient, but if the cravings are regular and constant and you’re eating a generally balanced diet then it’s not as simple as that. Recent research has linked these cravings to stress. When we are feeling under stress (for whatever reason) we often crave foods which are high in fats or sugar. These foods offer an instant reward with the release of dopamine or serotonin which are neurotransmitters which help the nervous system relax. This is why fatty crisps, sweets, cakes and chocolate are all comfort foods. It’s very easy for us to become “addicted” to the release of these neurotransmitters and these comfort foods become our crutch without even realising it.
So how can we try to control these cravings? We need to employ a little mindfulness. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s basically learning to pay attention to the present moment, and creating an awareness of our own thoughts, feelings and needs. This has an impact on the nervous system and can help you to avoid needing to stuff fatty junk foods in to feel better. We can also learn to recognise what it actually is that we’re craving and then we can address that need, rather than trying everything else first!
1. What are you hungry for?
I’ve talked about this before (see my article on emotional eating here) but just to recap: Take a moment when you feel a craving coming on to pause and focus on what you are really hungry for. There are two types of hunger:
Physical hunger – a feeling of emptiness in the stomach, low blood sugar, light headedness, tiredness etc
Emotional hunger – a need for something to comfort or make you feel better. Often you will crave certain foods, you will suddenly feel the urge to eat, you won’t ever feel full.
To learn how to recognise physical vs emotional hunger you can try this exercise.
- Sit down comfortably and close your eyes
- Pay attention to and notice how your body touches the floor/chair, where your hands are resting and then notice the rhythm of your breathing.
- Place one hand on your stomach and breathe slowly in and out through your belly – feel it rise and fall as you breathe.
- Do this for 1 – 3 minutes
- Now consider your stomach and on a scale of 1 – 10 rate how hungry you are (1 being no feelings of hunger at all, and 10 being extremely hungry)
- Focus on the physical signs of being hungry – ignore your mind or when you last ate, just try to focus on your stomach and what it’s telling you.
Try this throughout the day – before and after meals and it will start to train your mind to separate emotional from physical hunger. So everytime a craving comes on, pause for a few minutes, and focus on whether you are really physically hungry. By doing this you break the cycle of reactive eating and shoving stuff in to our mouths without thinking.
If you’re physically hungry then go eat! If you’re emotionally hungry then try some other options – call a friend, put on a favourite tv show, go for a walk, play with the dog/cat etc.
2. Ignore the urge
Let’s be honest – we have lots of different desires and urges to do things all day long. If we acted on each one we’d be behaving like toddlers, not adults. So if you really want something – be it food, or those new shoes, then ask yourself – can I wait 15 minutes for it. Now I’m certain that when it comes to those urges for new shoes/clothes etc that you’re perfectly capable of waiting.. so why not apply it to food to. After 15 minutes if you still want it, then go for it. Normally once those 15 minutes are up the desire will have diminished and it will pass.
3. Label that craving
Lots of research shows that if we are able to label our experiences in the moment we feel it then it reduces our reaction to it. So when it comes to cravings try to learn to label it as a craving. When you come home and are dying for some chocolate (even though you’ve eaten plenty of food that day) then say out loud, that this is a craving. Tell yourself, tell the cat, tell your other half – whoever, but say it load and proud that you are craving chocolate. The more you do this the easier it becomes to not only recognise the craving but reduce the response to it. Trust me – it does work – I’ve tried it (ask the cats!! )
4. Remember how you will feel…
While you pause before succumbing to a craving take a moment to remember how you’re going to feel after your give in and how you will feel if you don’t. Chances are you may feel guilty or even a bit sick if you give in, but think how good you will feel if you don’t. Focus on the positive feelings – you will feel proud, strong and you won’t be feeling bloated or lethargic. Try writing out how you will feel if you ignore the craving on a post it, in big letters, and pop it on your fridge, or biscuit tin or wherever so it’s always there to remind you. Or try writing a reminder to yourself to check whether you’re actually hungry… Whatever works for you!
5. Eat less junk food
Studies have shown that the fewer foods you eat that are high in salt, fat and sugar, the less you will crave it. So although this may not help the moment a craving strikes it will certainly help in the long run. Start to cut out the junk. Personally I used to eat a lot of crisps and would happily inhale a packet of kettle chips without even thinking about it, but since I’ve stopped eating them I very rarely crave them. It’s definitely hard to break that habit but it’s so worth it. If you gradually cut the junk out of your diet you will notice that you crave it less.
6. Variety is the spice of life
If you want to avoid cravings then you need to be eating a variety of foods – this helps prevent boredom and ensures you’re getting a wide range of nutrients in. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be all salads and nothing else – there are SO many resources out there nowadays for healthy eating – if you’re a bookworm go get yourself a recipe book (Deliciously Ella, or Hemsley and Hemsley are two brilliant ones), if you’re a social media addict then instagram is your playground and there are millions of amazing recipes out there all freely available. Stock your cupboards up with lots of herbs and spices too. If you need inspiration check out the Pure Form Fitness Kitchen Blog where Colette and I have posted lots of healthy recipes, and if baking is your bag then have a look at my blog Pure and Simple Bakes, which is full of recipes to try.
7. Don’t completely deprive yourself
The more you tell yourself you can’t have something, the more you may want it. So don’t deprive yourself completely of any food that you like. Instead just tell yourself that you can have it later. Allowing yourself a little of what you enjoy will make you feel much much better. I find it helps to have a night when I know I can indulge in those treats – Saturday night, on the sofa. I know I’ll get my chocolate fix then so I don’t need to feel worried about not having it in the week. Never make any food off limit – by telling yourself you can have it later you may even find that you don’t even want it when the time comes.
8. Don’t buy it!
I know that if I buy chocolate and cakes and sweets that I WILL eat them. So don’t buy them. If it isn’t in the house it’s far harder to give in to that craving. If you are allowing yourself a treat night then wait until that day/night to go and buy it – don’t buy it in advance. But DO buy healthy options instead. So try to have a range of healthy snack foods ready to go – apples with nut butter, protein balls, salt and vinegar rice cakes… whatever it is.
9. Don’t skip meals
Cravings will be far more intense if you’re not eating properly throughout the day. Make sure you’re eating at least 3 nutritious meals a day and make sure you’re getting protein and good fats in with every meal. I’ve talked about this with regards to breakfast before (see here) , but don’t forget the same applies to lunch and dinner. Complex carbs and lean protein (or plant-based protein sources) are what you need and then some good fats e.g. coconut oil, avocado, nuts etc. This will help you feel fuller throughout the day and keep blood sugar levels stable which will help to reduce cravings.
Well you know I’m always on about sleep and how important it is. I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that it will impact on your cravings too. Research shows that when we are sleep deprived the brain is unable to make the best choices about what food to eat. We also crave a “lift” and so are drawn to the quick release, high calorie, high sugar and fat foods. Not getting enough sleep also feeds our emotional hunger and it impacts on mood. So get some sleep! I’ve written some tips to help here.
So there you go – try these tips and see if it helps. I’m off to write my post-it notes right now!
Please remember, I am not a medical Dr and even if I was, the medical and/or nutritional information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this site.