We’ve all felt cravings before: that visceral need for something – whether it’s a hunk of dark chocolate, a handful of crisp, crunchy, salty chips, or an ooey gooey slice of pizza. But food cravings don’t just come out of nowhere – and understanding them may be the best way to overcome them.
The Science Behind Cravings
There’s a big difference between hunger and food cravings. According to Marra St. Clair, Project Juice co-founder and board Certified Nutritional Consultant, “Food cravings come down to biology and psychology.”
The biological side of cravings stems from a physical response to nutritional deficiencies or hormonal responses to individual foods. For example, a person will generally crave salty foods when stressed, sweet foods to cheer up, fried foods when their diet is devoid of healthy fats, and carbs when they’re eating overly restrictive diets.
The psychological side, meanwhile, is all about the link between a certain food and the feelings associated with it – the whole idea of comfort food stems from this side of cravings, but so does wanting popcorn in front of the television or craving a snack even when you’re not hungry, just because that’s the time you usually have a snack.
Both the biological and the psychological side of cravings are controlled by the hippocampus, caudate, and insula parts of the brain – the same three that are induced in the instance of drug addiction – so it’s no surprise that they can be tough to overcome.
7 Ways to Overcome Food Cravings
To harness food cravings, you’ll need to target both the biological and hormonal reasons behind them, and there are a number of different ways to do this.
1. Strive for a Balanced Diet
Balancing out your diet is one of the best ways to overcome food cravings. Choosing real, healthy, delicious food will help keep you full and satisfied, and controlling the kinds of food you eat rather than depriving yourself entirely will keep you from bingeing out of frustration.
According to St. Clair, different cravings can be a sign of different lacks in your diet, so focusing on what you usually crave may help you balance out your diet.
Salt cravings, for example, can stem from a lack of essential minerals. Instead of reaching for chips, be sure to fulfill your daily sodium needs with mineral-rich Celtic or Himalayan sea salt, which are rich in trace minerals. Cravings for fried foods, meanwhile, stem from a lack in healthy fats. Choose healthy fat sources like avocado, olive oil, and nuts to keep these cravings at bay.
And above all, make sure you’re eating enough food. Carb cravings hit “when your body feels deprived,” according to St. Clair. “If you are constantly craving carbs, you could be restricting your calories too much or consuming empty calories that offer no nutrition.”
Plan ahead and be sure that you’re consuming enough nutrient-dense calories to sustain your body and optimize your energy.
Mood plays a huge part in cravings, especially sugar cravings.
“We literally eat sugar to make us happy,” explains St. Clair. “Sugar signals a burst of serotonin that leaves you happy for a moment… but then you crash again and crave more sugar.”
Targeting your mood rather than your craving can help with this. Stop to ask yourself if you’re actually hungry, and if the answer is no, choose something else that can bring your mood up, like taking a walk in nature, reading a book in the sunshine, or calling a friend.
You can also break the cycle of sugar cravings by indulging in a slower releasing natural sugar source, like a piece of fresh food.
“Thanks to their high fiber content, apples, pineapple and berries will not cause the same drastic crash as a piece of candy or that donut does,” says St. Clair.
3. Juice Cleanse
Juice cleanses like the Project Juice juice cleanse can help effectively eliminate cravings on both psychological and biological fronts.
Because a well-designed juice cleanse feeds your body with necessary nutrients, it can help combat nutritional deficiencies and thus cravings, but a juice cleanse also breaks habitual eating habits – like snacking or a post-dinner bowl of ice cream in front of the TV.
“The forced break in your standard habitual eating can allow you to break through psychological cravings,” explains St. Clair.
4. Drink Water
The hypothalamus is the region of the brain that controls both hunger and thirst, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other; Organic Authority and EcoSalon Editor-in-Chief Laura Klein notes that this is one of people’s most common missteps.
“Some people mistake dehydration for hunger,” she says. “Drinking lots of water throughout the day can actually help keep you full.”
This feeling of fullness will help you keep from making the snap judgment to grab something easy, like juice, soda, or even snacks to fill the void.
Keeping water around in a Klean Kanteen or mason jar so that you don’t even have to think about taking a sip can make this an easy tip to follow.
5. Choose a Stand-In
According to dietitian Julie Upton, MS, RD, restricting too much can cause you to crave things even more, which means that when you finally cave, you tend to indulge.
Instead, she recommends that you choose healthier substitutes, like an ounce of premium dark chocolate instead of gooey brownies or air-popped popcorn with a dash of mineral-rich sea salt instead of chips. Pick a healthier alternative that meets the textural and flavor characteristics of the food you’re craving, and you might be able to help your body forget about the richer, unhealthier option.
6. Eat Breakfast
The oft-cited adage that breakfast is the “most important” meal of the day has recently been challenged by researchers in Canada, who noted in 2016 that breakfast consumption was not necessarily linked to instances of being overweight. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016 came to the same conclusions.
But while you certainly don’t need to eat breakfast to be healthy, it is a good idea to eat first thing in the morning to stave off cravings. MRI scans of high-protein breakfast eaters in a University of Missouri Study showed that these people have reduced activity in areas of the brain associated with cravings.
7. Get More Sleep
Sleeping can help stave off cravings, as your body’s hormones will be in better balance.
A University of Chicago study showed that levels of leptin, which signals fullness, were significantly decreased after a few sleepless nights, while levels of ghrelin, which triggers appetite, were boosted. These two changes caused sugar cravings to jump 45 percent, so be sure that you’re hitting the hay early enough to get eight hours. This also has the added benefit of keeping you away from the fridge during cravings for a midnight snack.