3 Tips to Overcome Cravings - Catherine Lin R.D.

Sep 08, 2020

Lately, this hot summer weather has me craving peanut butter ice cream! Anyone else? At some point, most of us have experienced cravings whether it’s craving for something sweet, salty or crunchy. Cravings are essentially strong desires for a specific food that is often motivated by the pleasure gained from eating that specific food. Cravings can be brought on by different triggers. For example, craving fried chicken because you watched a KFC commercial, craving chocolate during that time of the month, or craving comfort food because you had a long day at work. It is very rare to hear someone say that they crave broccoli or spinach. Usually people crave foods that are highly processed and high in sugar. Highly processed carbohydrates have addictive properties and release chemicals, like dopamine, which make us feel good. Naturally, the more we eat these foods, the more our brain is trained to desire them.

Another significant contributing factor to cravings is the current food environment. Just think of all the food advertisements on TV, food images that flood our social media, and the abundance of fast food restaurants at every corner! Exposure to all these food triggers makes it even more difficult to seek healthier options.

It’s not a huge concern if we give into cravings occasionally. However, consistently giving into cravings can become a habit. Indulging in cravings with foods that are high in calories and sugar can prevent you from working towards your health goals and cause you to move further away from the person you want to be. Overtime it may lead to further weight gain, chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and other health issues.

Below are three tips to help overcome your cravings.

1) Change your food environment. As mentioned before, the reward brain is highly sensitive to food triggers especially foods that are high in sugar, calories and highly processed. Evaluate your current food environment and find ways to reduce environmental triggers that are within your control. The best strategy is not to bring the foods you crave into the house. When you create more barriers and distance between you and the food you crave, there will naturally be less opportunities for you to give in to your cravings. For example, if you know that potato chips are a food that you have no control over, then it would be best to avoid the chip aisle next time you visit the grocery store. This is not to say you can never have the foods you crave again. Instead, you can plan when and where you will have these foods and buy a small portion when you do. The key is to always plan ahead so that you are in control over the frequency and quantity.

2) Delay and distract yourself. The ability to delay pleasure is an important skill for overcoming desires that may be harmful in the long term. Being able to overcome desires trains you to use the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that makes logical and deliberate decisions that benefit you in the long term. And at the same time this will help override the reward brain, the part of the brain that is responsible for cravings and triggered by sugar, flour and other highly palatable foods. Next time when you experience an urge to eat, instead of automatically giving in to your craving, try setting an alarm for 20 minutes to delay this urge. Use this time to observe the patterns of your craving and see if it will eventually subside on its own.

To distract yourself from focusing on your cravings, you can find alternative activities that engages you physically and mentally. This will help take your mind away from constantly thinking about the food you crave. Cravings usually exist in short term memory so by focusing on a task, it can help dampen the intensity of the craving. Some believe that cravings can be explained by the elaborated intrusion theory1 which is when an intrusive thought appears. In this case may be the sight, smell or taste of a food, and then is further elaborated by the mind until it develops into a craving. Research has shown that simply just visualizing a food can trigger a craving2. Therefore, to disrupt this mental elaboration, it may help to think about another visual imagery to replace the thought of food. Studies have shown that focusing on specific tasks that involves continuous visual imagery can help to reduce the intensity of cravings2. For example, counting backwards from 100 or reciting the alphabet backwards have been shown to help shift the focus away from cravings. You could also try visualizing a favourite activity or a pleasant scene whenever you experience a craving.

Given that the food you crave is supposed to make you feel good and bring comfort, it would make sense to choose activities that you enjoy and brings you that same level of pleasure. The activities can trigger the same reward pathways and substitute the craving. It helps to make a list of activities and choose at least one activity to do during the 20-minute interval. Possible activities may include going for a walk, listening to a podcast, knitting, building a puzzle, drawing while listening to music, calling a friend, stretching, reading aloud, etc...

3) Get enough sleep. Ask yourself, when was the last time you got a good night’s sleep, where you slept through most of the night, and felt energized the next day? We often cut back on sleep due to work and family demands or stay up late bingeing on Netflix. Lack of sleep has been linked to overeating due to stimulated appetite caused by an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin and a decrease in appetite suppressing hormone leptin3. Inadequate sleep can also increase cravings for high calorie foods and increase eating for reward and pleasure. Staying up late at night also increases the opportunities to give into cravings and being makes it harder to engage the executive brain. Create a sleep routine and make it a priority to go to bed at the same time every night. It is recommended to sleep for at least 7 hours or how many hours you need to feel well rested.

These are the three tips you can start using the next time you experience cravings. Also ask yourself is giving into the cravings going to work towards or away from your values and the life you want to live? Being able to overcome your cravings can be empowering. Remember the goal is to strive for progress and not perfection.

 

References

1.     May, J., Andrade, J., Kavanagh, D. J., & Hetherington, M. (2012). Elaborated intrusion theory: a cognitive-emotional theory of food craving. Current Obesity Reports1(2), 114-121.

2.     Knäuper, B., Pillay, R., Lacaille, J., McCollam, A., & Kelso, E. (2011). Replacing craving imagery with alternative pleasant imagery reduces craving intensity. Appetite57(1), 173-178.

3.     Markwald, R. R., Melanson, E. L., Smith, M. R., Higgins, J., Perreault, L., Eckel, R. H., & Wright, K. P. (2013). Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(14), 5695-5700.

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