We are no strangers to food cravings. That irresistible urge to eat that is so intense it messes with your head and convinces you to throw on a jacket and head to the store for a pint of ice cream and potato chips. Although cravings have a bad rep in the fitness world, they're not necessarily bad. Giving in to those cravings time and time again is when the real issues begin, but those who learn to manage the impulse are still able to hit their weight loss goals or other fitness goals – and that's all while still indulging in occasional treats!
Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against us. Fast food advertisements follow us everywhere! We see food ads on billboards, the radio, television, and even on navigation apps like Waze! Heck, you can even run into delicious pictures of foods while scrolling through Instagram! Constantly being bombarded with food ads can diminish your willpower and make it difficult for you to not reach for that candy bar or bag of chips. We're only human, it's unrealistic to expect us to never eat those types of foods again, even if we wish we could! But it's okay because you don't have to cut everything unhealthy out of your diet.
The key isn't to learn how to stop food cravings, it's learning how to deal with them! Having your favorite comfort foods in moderation is fine. The real challenge lies when you find it hard to stop reaching for more and when you're craving sugar or salty foods all the time. If you want to rise above those temptations continue reading to learn about why food cravings happen and effective tips on how to manage them so you have control over your cravings and not the other way around!
Why do cravings happen?
When you're constantly craving sweets or salty foods, you may start to wonder why they happen and what those cravings actually mean. Everyone's cravings happen for different reasons, but here are a few that might be the culprit of your food cravings...
- Hormone imbalance or changes: Menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or anything that causes a hormonal change can trigger cravings for specific foods. It can also be due to an imbalance in hormones like ghrelin, leptin, serotonin, and cortisol.
- Being stressed, anxious, sad, or bored: People who battle constant stress, sadness, boredom, or anxiety tend to soothe those emotions by eating. This is known as emotional eating and it can lead to a lot of intense food cravings which can lead to binge eating.
- Low blood sugar: Our bodies need the energy to function throughout the day, and its main energy source is food. Not eating enough, forgetting to eat meals, or purposefully skipping meals can cause your blood sugar levels to drop and trigger sugar cravings since your body needs energy. So instead of reaching for something nutritious, you're more than likely going to reach for a sugar-filled snack to quickly give your body energy and raise blood sugar.
- Bad eating habits: The answer could be as simple as your bad eating habits. Constantly feeding your body junk food that lacks nutritional value can lead to a nutrient imbalance. If you're eating mainly processed foods, as opposed to whole foods, your body will be hungry and craving essential nutrients like protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, magnesium, and other nutrients. Not only that, but foods that are high in sugar and carbs are known to fire off serotonin, dopamine, and other relaxing endorphins in the brain. Triggering those feel-good chemicals can cause you to seek that food out repeatedly, and lead to food addiction.
5 ways to control food cravings
Those are just four main culprits of cravings, there could be other causes, but sometimes it could just be as simple as missing your favorite candy bar. Whatever the reason is, it's important to not give in to those cravings all the time because battling a food addiction is much harder than battling cravings.
Whether your cravings happen because of habits, emotions, hormonal imbalance, or other physiological and situational factors, these 5 tips are effective at helping you control them so your cravings don't end up controlling you!
Find your triggers
Emotional eating is one of the main causes of cravings because we crave indulgent foods when we're sad, angry, anxious, or even bored. Those indulgent foods are typically filled with sugar and carbs that give our brain a hit of those feel-good chemicals thus triggering an endless cycle of eating. If you notice that your eating habits are being influenced by your emotions then take a step back to reflect. When your cravings hit, take a moment to reflect on what you're feeling at that moment to identify the emotion that is causing your cravings. Identifying your triggers will help you get control so you learn how to respond to them. For example, if you're a known stress eater then find stress-reducing activities like working out! Doing something that reduces your stress will reduce your cortisol levels which is beneficial because high cortisol levels can lead to your body storing fat. Not only that, but the activity you choose will also get your mind off of the foods you are craving. So, identify your trigger, and find a way to combat that trigger in a healthy manner.
What if you give in to your emotions?
Don't sweat it! However, if you are going to give in to your cravings, practice mindful eating. That means, eliminating all distractions and focus on completely on what you're eating. Chew thoroughly and focus on how it tastes and how it makes you feel, and try to stop once you are full. Actually, eliminating distractions and focusing on the food will make it easier for your brain to know when you are full and when to stop.
Schedule and track your treats
It's not uncommon to want what we can't have... This is the very reason restrictive diets often fail. Most require to completely stop eating a particular food or sometimes eliminate a food group completely, like carbohydrates. Taking specific foods off the table completely can result in even more cravings, hunger pangs, and overeating those unhealthy foods that you weren't "allowed" to eat. This is why many in the fitness world prefer to follow an "if it fits your macros" type of diet. Tracking macros is a flexible diet that has no foods off-limits... The trick is you have to track your macros which forces you to prioritize nutrient-dense food while still allowing you to fit other foods you love that might not be so nutrient-dense. Doing this will be beneficial for your relationship with food and your body.
Most people that track macros also plan their meals and/or prep their food for the week because it helps eliminate the factor of spontaneity and uncertainty that can cause cravings. If tracking macros seems too much for you or triggering, consider scheduling and tracking your treats. Choose one or two more special treats a week and schedule them in. This will help you practice and develop self-discipline, plus you'll know that you have something tasty to look forward to and you'll enjoy it even more when the time comes around to having them! Indulging in your favorite foods a few times a week can help minimize your cravings overall and will help you eat a balanced healthy diet.
Make clever swaps
Let's be real, snacking is inevitable. But you don't need to give up snacking... just swap your usual unhealthy cravings for smart, healthy snacks! The great thing about healthy eating is that there are so many foods that are delicious and can be turned into healthier variations of not-so-healthy foods. Implementing healthy swaps might not give you the same pleasure as eating donuts or a bag of potato chips, but it will leave you satisfied and decrease unhealthy food cravings that don't support your goals.
Here's a list of clever food swaps:
- Instead of french fries cut up some sweet potatoes, drizzle them with olive oil, and any seasoning you like, and then pop them in the oven or air fryer. Sweet potatoes are a complex carb and filled with fiber which means they'll digest slower and keep you full longer, plus they're delicious!
- Craving ice cream? Try to make nice cream at home! This icy treat is dairy-free and has no added sugar. It's just your favorite frozen fruit (bananas, mangoes, etc) blended into a creamy, rich treat! You can also add in your favorite protein powder to up the protein, plant-based milk for a creamier texture, or vanilla extract or cocoa butter to sweeten it up, and use toppings like almond butter or chia seeds... The possibilities are endless!
- Chocolate is one of the most common cravings, a good way to satisfy it is by making your own trail mix at home. Gather your favorite nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and dark chocolate chips to make a sweet treat that won't sabotage your goals. Or make dark chocolate strawberries and store them in the fridge for when your sweet tooth strikes again!
- Binge-watching your favorite tv show can lead to a craving for a salty snack like a big bag of chips. Instead of grabbing that bag, make some butter-free popcorn at home! You can make stovetop popcorn using avocado oil or extra virgin olive oil then add any spices or seasoning you like.
- They say fruit is nature's candy...They're not wrong! Having a piece of fruit can satisfy your sweet craving, think berries, grapes, mangoes, cherries, watermelon, etc. Although there are very sweet fruits with high sugar content, it's important to know that our body metabolizes fruit sugar differently than processed or added sugars. So don't be afraid to grab a sweet piece of fruit, you're better off eating that than an entire bag of sour gummy worms.
- It can be hard to ditch your favorite sugary drinks like soda, but all those liquid calories are just not worth it. Whenever you're craving soda, energy drinks, or even diet drinks, try flavored sparkling water! You can also try homemade iced tea, kombucha, or BCAA's for a midday energy boost!
There are so many more sneaky swaps you can make of your favorite foods! Just remember that it's all about moderation. Overeating any food can lead to weight gain, so be mindful of your portions.
Change your mindset
Sometimes the fight is within your own mind! Your mind is very powerful, if you let yourself think about food all day then that's all you will be thinking about. One way to help ease the cravings is by tweaking your mindset. When a craving hits, before even thinking about hitting the nearest vending machine, take a moment to reflect. Just like with finding triggers, except instead of thinking about why you're reaching for the snack, think about what will happen if you do! Have a moment of self-reflection, think of the long-term consequences of snacking like heart-related health risks, bloating, reduced levels of energy, and it can even lead to obesity. After you go through the consequences, think to yourself is it worth it? Most of the time the answer is no.
One way to change your mindset is by thinking of the consequences, mentioned above, but you can also do other things like...
- Distract yourself by thinking about something other than food, or get up and do something physical! Some people like to chew gum or drink a glass of water to curb cravings, so try that out and see if it works for you!
- Accept the thoughts and coexist with them. Accepting and allowing those thoughts will help keep you calm and in control.
You'd be surprised to hear that this actually works! There's a study published by researchers from Brown University that examined the brain activity of obese or overweight study participants when they looked at enticing pictures of foods like pizza, ice cream, and fries. They tested different strategies and told them to focus on thinking about the consequences of eating those foods, distracting tactics, accepting the thoughts and riding them out, and even thinking about the good feeling they'd have if they indulged. Some of these cognitive strategies worked and caused the participant's cravings to diminish. 
Ditch the low-calorie diets
The first thing people do when dieting to achieve fitness goals is to go on a calorie deficit and heavily restrict the foods they eat. Although this will help get you results, those results might not last long... Diets too low in calories are notorious for increasing cravings to the point that they can be hard to manage. It can give you a feeling of deprivation which in often cases leads to binge eating and giving up that diet completely.
Obviously, you can't eat what you want and expect results, but what you can do is calculate your macros based on your information and the goals you want to achieve. Most macro calculators don't use a huge caloric deficit for those trying to lose weight, it can range anywhere from 10-30% (depending on your body type). They will rarely ever cut your calories down by too much. Again, if you don't want to track your macros, then focus on eating 2-3 meals a day with 1-2 snacks in case you get hungry in between meals. Your meals should have a protein source, veggies, healthy fats, and complex carbs. This will ensure that you're hitting your protein intake (or at least close to it), getting enough vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients your body needs!
At the end of the day, your body needs the energy to conquer the day and your workouts. Eating a low-calorie restrictive diet is just going to put you in a bad mental state and make you crave certain foods even more. And remember, it's not about learning how to stop food cravings, it's about learning how to deal with them!
That said, be mindful of what you eat, fill up on whole foods, have occasional treats, and take a moment to reflect when those cravings hit so you can determine whether it’s hunger or something else. Doing this will not only help you on your fitness journey, but it will also help you improve your well-being and overall health!