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Food cravings are common and a typical setback to healthy eating and weight loss. If you or your clients struggle with the urge to eat junk food, salty food, or comfort food, learn more about what triggers cravings and what you can do about them.
When you understand your own personal reasons for food cravings and learn proven tips for resisting them, it gets easier to make lasting, positive changes. Cravings will always happen, but you don’t have to let them control you.
Self-control and willpower are complicated psychological issues. They are too often oversimplified. Your inability to meet goals, change habits, or resist temptations certainly involves willpower, but there is much more to it.
There are many, many potential and often overlapping causes of food cravings that complicate the issue of eating right. For starters, the food industry knows how to make a craveable food: the right balance of sugar, fat, and salt.
Knowing this simple fact is powerful. Consumers have been manipulated to give us an appetite for engineered, processed food. Use this knowledge as motivation to work on healthier eating habits.
Of course, we can’t blame it entirely on the food industry. Other factors that can influence appetite and cravings include:
Hormone-related conditions, like PMS
A sedentary lifestyle
Specific personality traits, like impulsivity
Most people assume it only takes some willpower to resist a craving. That’s the simple answer, but the reality is much more complicated. Because there are so many potential underlying causes, relying on willpower alone will fail most of the time.
To resist cravings these useful tips are helpful, but you should also understand your own particular triggers. For instance, knowing you are a stress eater or recognizing that you don’t drink enough water are factors that can help you personalize a plan to eat better and resist junk food cravings.
The complexity of the causes and the nature of human willpower make avoiding or resisting food cravings a daunting task. It’s not impossible, though. The more you understand about how foods are engineered to become addictive and your own personal triggers, the more successful you’ll be.
Knowledge is the first step in beating cravings. You know that foods have been engineered to make you crave them. You have no control over that, but you can control your own actions and reactions.
Learn what triggers your cravings so you can better manage them.
A food journal is a great way to do this. Eat as you normally do for a week or two and record it all in a journal. Record what you were doing and how you felt before eating. You should begin to see a pattern. Are you binge eating when your blood sugar gets low? Maybe you snack after work without thinking or indulge more when in certain places, like the staff lunchroom.
Self-knowledge in hand, it’s time to make changes. For example, if a post-work snack is when you get out of control with a bag of chips and some salsa, change up your routine. Instead of going home right away, go to the gym or out for a coffee.
If you tend to eat more junk food or fast food when hanging out with a particular friend, plan activities that don’t involve eating. Instead of going out to eat, take a walk in the park to chat or choose a healthy recipe to try together.
When a craving strikes, we tend to answer it mindlessly. Instead of reaching immediately for the snack, step back for a few seconds and think about it. This isn’t fool proof, but it’s often enough to make you rethink what you are about to do.
Are you prone to emotional eating? A simple redirect of your thoughts can snap you out of that mindless desire to eat. Ultimately, you know eating unhealthy food won't solve your stress. So try to take a moment to acknowledge that and find a healthier outlet.
Stress is one of the most common triggers for giving into cravings. According to surveys, more than one-third of adults regularly overeat as a reaction to stress. Anything you can do to lower your stress or manage it better will help you resist cravings.
Find healthier ways to react to stress than indulging in ice cream or a bag of chips. They should be simple and accessible, so it’s as easy as getting a snack from the cupboard. For instance, take a five-minute walk outside or make a cup of herbal tea to unwind. Having a replacement stress buster on hand makes it easier to choose the alternative over the snack.
In addition to coping with stress, certain lifestyle habits will naturally make you more resilient to stressors. More exercise, time spent outdoors, and adequate sleep will make you feel less stressed and more in control of your food choices.
Did you know that specific food—healthy food—actually fights stress? Try these snacks the next time stress pushes you to eat a chocolate bar.
If you have ever shopped at the grocery store on an empty stomach, you understand the wisdom of this tip. Hunger means having a big appetite for all of your worst cravings, so don’t let yourself get to that point.
To avoid being hungry, eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. It’s tempting, especially if trying to lose weight, to go long periods without eating, but this can backfire big time and result in a bigger calorie intake.
Eat these regular meals and snacks mindfully for the best results. Mindful eating means eating without distractions, and it is a simple way to avoid binging or overindulging. Learn more about mindful eating here.
Foods that keep you fuller longer can help you resist cravings later. You should always eat a balanced diet with all essential nutrients, but when managing cravings, increase your protein and fiber intake.
High-fiber foods are bulky. They provide a lot of content with minimal calories. Some types of fiber have no calories and move right through you, while others have far fewer calories than other carbohydrate. Choose berries, apples, legumes, chia seeds, and whole grains for more fiber.
Protein has the same number of calories per gram as carbohydrates (four grams), but you can eat less and feel as full. Protein takes more time and energy to digest, so you feel satisfied longer between meals. Smart high-protein sources include lean meats and seafood, low-fat dairy, Greek yogurt, and healthy protein shakes.
Sometimes, going cold turkey is the best way to get over junk food. It is not realistic, or necessarily healthy, to completely cut out all indulgent foods at once. Start smaller and see how it affects your cravings.
Pinpoint the food or snack that gets you into the most trouble and take a month off from eating it. Allow yourself some other indulgences to cope but notice how your craving for that one food changes with time. You should find that when you no longer eat it, cravings lessen or go away entirely.
Get a lot of sugar cravings? Learn more about sugar and why tracking how much you consume can benefit your health.
This trick is twofold:
It’s hard to crave any of your favorite foods after brushing your teeth with minty toothpaste. Nothing tastes good after that minty flavor is in your mouth. Ever tried orange juice after toothpaste? Not exactly the peanut butter and chocolate combination anyone is looking for.
Brushing your teeth may help trick your brain into thinking the meal is over. You typically brush your teeth at the end of the day when you are getting ready to go to bed. Your body will pick up on this pattern and will begin to associate brushing your teeth with no more food for the day.
If your clients are struggling with late-night cravings, encourage them to brush their teeth. Even if they aren’t heading to bed yet, it may help curb that late-night temptation for ice cream and peanut butter.
We all know that sleep is important, and we probably don’t get enough of it. But did you know that sleep can affect your appetite and even increase your food cravings? Inadequate sleep causes the body to change the way it releases the appetite-controlling hormones: ghrelin and leptin. Each of these hormones sends very important messages regarding your body’s appetite.
Ghrelin: Hormone released from the stomach to tell your body you are hungry.
Leptin: Hormone released from adipose tissue sending a message of satiety, telling your body you are full and satisfied.
When the body experiences sleep deprivation, it releases ghrelin in larger amounts and leptin in smaller amounts. Not only do you feel hungrier (due to increased ghrelin), but once you are full, your body cannot recognize that it’s time to stop eating (due to decreased leptin). This can lead to increased food cravings and consumption resulting in unwanted weight gain.
Additionally, lack of sleep influences the reward center of the brain. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and when you are tired, increased activity in the amygdala can lead to emotional eating. These changes to the reward center of the brain cause the body to crave chocolate, cookies, candy, and high-fat sugary foods.
So how do we remedy our lack of sleep? With life being so busy, sleep is one of those things that gets put on the back burner if we aren’t careful. Yet, sleep is just as important as getting regular exercise and consuming a healthy diet. Encourage your clients to make sleep a priority and make a habit of getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
Food cravings will never fully go away. But, the more you build healthy habits and choose alternatives to junk food indulgences, the less frequent they become. Use these tips and help your clients learn to manage and lessen cravings on their health or weight loss journeys.
Consider becoming an ISSA-certified nutrition coach if you have a passion for food, health, and helping people. The Nutritionist Certification course has everything you need to get started in a career coaching clients to eat better and feel better.
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.
NPR. (2015, December 16). How the Food Industry Helps Engineer our cravings. NPR. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/16/459981099/how-the-food-industry-helps-engineer-our-cravings
American Psychological Association. (2013). Stress and eating. American Psychological Association. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/eating
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