10 Ways to Fight Food Cravings

Successful dieters know that eating modest amounts of nutrient-rich, whole foods when you are hungry, rather than powering through punishing hunger pangs with sheer force of will, is the best strategy for long-term adoption of a healthy diet.

A “food craving,” then, will be here defined as a desire for a snack that you know is not the best choice due either to timing (you just ate), nutritional value (chips, baked goods), or some other obvious factor you intellectually can identify but feel powerless to accept in the face of the craving. Here we examine how to avoid succumbing to these cravings, or minimize the harm they can do to our best laid diet plans.

Distractions and Psychological Tricks

1. Set a 20-minute timer. A classic distraction strategy involves simply pulling yourself away from the craving by going and doing something else--anything else--for 20 minutes. Take a brief walk around the neighborhood, make a pot of coffee, call mom or chat up a colleague at the watercooler. At least half of the battle is realizing you are not actually hungry, and putting time between you and the food can achieve this. And remember, a craving might feel just as strong after five minutes of distraction, but it may go away completely after 20.

2. Move your body. Many times the craving we feel isn’t really for food, but something else entirely. With time, when similar feelings arise, we may recognize them and recall how something other than eating filled the void. New habits can then form. After a long day of sedentary office work, you may feel the urge to sit on the sofa and break open a bag of corn chips before getting around to making dinner, but aren’t you actually desperate to go on a brisk walk or run to clear the body’s cobwebs and remove the day’s psychological stresses?

Basic neurochemistry supports this idea. Many craved foods have been found to release feel-good hormones like serotonin, just as exercise releases endorphins. We can achieve a mood lift with physical activity rather than junk food. An added benefit of putting a workout between you and your craving is the likelihood that when you’re finished, you’ll reach for a far more nutrient-rich, satisfying and healthful version of the snack you were going to have before the workout, all the better to refuel with.

3. Drink water. Water fills the stomach. It can also be an overlooked craving: sometimes what feels like a food craving may be mild dehydration. At the very least, water is an excellent place to start when a “hunger” pang seems to appear out of nowhere.

4. Try hot beverages. Savoring a hot cup of tea or coffee can fill you with liquid while also slowing you down: the temperature of the drink necessitates sipping rather than gulping, potentially providing you with the 20-minute window needed to separate any true hunger from your false craving.

5. Chew sugarless gum. More than a digestion aid (see “Heartburn Meds and Dementia Risk”), the simple act of chewing something can be enough to satiate your mind when hunger isn’t the real issue.

6. Take the apple test. Ask yourself if you would eat an apple right now. This easy test helps you determine whether you’re tempted to feed for a reason beyond hunger. If the answer is yes, then it’s physiological hunger—eat an apple. But if the thought of a fruit or vegetable is not appetizing, take a step back to figure out what you’re really after, like a cure for boredom or comfort after a rough day at work.

Food Management

7. Have healthy on hand. Cravings often creep in when you haven’t fueled your body properly, making you more inclined to give in to the moment instead of stopping yourself. But if you’ve thought ahead and kept tasty yet healthy snacks at the ready, you can keep your blood sugar levels steady by snacking every three to four hours on the right types of foods, making less healthy junk foods less attractive to you in between. Also, foods high in fiber keep you feeling full longer; foods high in sugar burn fast and cause sugar spikes, leading to more cravings only a short time later. Try these healthy snack ideas:

  • carrot sticks and bell pepper strips dipped in hummus
  • grapes with skim string cheese
  • low-fat pretzel minis dipped in fat-free cottage cheese
  • pear slices with reduced-fat peanut butter

8. Bury the savory on your plate. At meals, trick yourself into eating plenty of mixed greens or fibrous vegetables by burying bite-sizes of a savory protein deep within a salad or vegetable dish. Try chicken breast, fish or even a veggie burger--each bite of salad entices with the potential of a savory reward. This strategy also works for dipping platters; try placing carrot, radish, jicama, broccoli florets and celery sticks on top of the pita wedges or chips for dipping in hummus, guacamole or seasoned yogurt. You’ll be surprised how many veggies you dip before getting to the refined carbs at the bottom.

9. Substitute comfort foods. There are many easy ways to improve the nutrition while reducing the fat and sodium impact of many of our favorite snacks and treats without diminishing their flavor. Try covering a frozen banana with toppings instead of having ice cream. Microwaved oatmeal with blueberries and soy or skim milk can impressively mimic warm blueberry pie. Fat-free unsweetened yogurt is a perfect blank canvas on which to create countless dipping flavors--try lemon juice and a dash of cayenne pepper for a tangy, low-fat dip; add onion powder and dried parsley flakes to simulate classic sour cream and onion dip.

10. Leave the house to buy. The final frontier in fighting cravings is to let yourself have some of the craved food...if you walk to the store to get it. By keeping your most-craved food items “off site,” you can force yourself to log steps if and when the craving wins. Not only will you put in more effort than you would strolling to the kitchen, but you are again putting up your craving against your own inertia, hopefully buying sufficient time to really assess whether the craving is worth the trip.

Partially excerpted from MyFitnessPal, March 2016, “10 Strategies to Kick Food Cravings to the Curb,” by Zahra Barnes, http://blog.myfitnesspal.com/10-strategies-to-kick-food-cravings-to-the-curb/

(return to front page)