Curious about how to stop food cravings or how to control cravings? Wondering what causes food cravings or constantly asking, “Why am I craving food so much?”
Instead of looking for how to fight food cravings, you can actually make peace with your body’s cravings (they might be sending you an important message). Keep reading for practical tips to control hunger cravings.
What Causes Food Cravings?
Food cravings can arise for a number of reasons. From physical hunger to emotional eating, finding the root cause of your cravings can help you seek solutions.
Physical hunger is often easier to recognize than emotional cravings. It’s that familiar sensation in the stomach that nudges you to eat. Most people describe their stomachs as feeling empty or “growling” audibly.
Hunger of a physical nature often comes on slowly and gradually increases. It can also be accompanied by other physical sensations like fatigue or difficulty concentrating, especially if the desire for food is not addressed early on. Physical hunger can also be impacted by many daily activities.
For example, the amount of sleep you get can affect how hungry you feel. Lack of sleep is linked to imbalances in hormones that influence appetite, and fluctuations in these hormones can lead to overeating. Deprivation can also affect blood sugar levels, which can affect weight regulation.
Another activity that greatly influences hunger is exercise. This isn’t necessarily a surprise, as most people know that athletes often have specialized diets to keep them fueled and focused on performance. Exercise generally lowers appetite and appetite-stimulating hunger hormones.
After exercising, hunger signals typically resume gradually, and shorter workouts (meaning less intensity and/or duration) may not interrupt appetite at all.
Medications can also affect hunger receptors throughout the body and brain. Antidepressants, for example, can affect appetite since they interfere with chemicals in the body that impact mood and appetite.
Emotional hunger, what people most often mean when they talk about cravings, describes a sensation of hunger linked to strong emotions. It’s often discussed as a coping mechanism or response to feelings of intense anxiety, stress, or excitement.
Unlike physical hunger, emotional hunger is usually intense and immediate. One helpful way to recognize it is to try and name the accompanying emotion. For example, you can ask yourself, “am I physically hungry or am I just feeling sad right now?” You’re allowed to eat in any case, but stopping to assess can help you make a choice that ultimately honors your health.
Stress can have a profound effect on emotional eating. Short-term (acute) stress tends to suppress appetite while long-term stressors (chronic stress) can increase cravings for nutrient-poor foods. This is due to the fact that cortisol (often called the “stress hormone”) stimulates appetite and cravings.
Women, in particular, experience extra hormone fluctuations (not just cortisol during times of stress). For people who have a menstrual cycle, changes occur during different phases that can affect eating preferences and intake. For example, increasing estrogen is associated with feelings of fullness and suppression of hunger.
How to Control Hunger Cravings
Reduce cravings by better recognizing your body’s hunger cues. Here are four tips to help you figure out when you’re truly feeling hungry.
Engage In Mindful Eating
Ignoring hunger cues can ultimately lead to overeating, and may even suppress these signals in your body (making them harder to recognize). Instead of eating restrictively or reactively, learn to recognize when you’re hungry and when you’re feeling full. This practice is part of the mindful eating philosophy, which is designed to help you eat more intuitively by listening to your body’s natural cues. In other words, mindful eating can help you make more meaningful food choices instead of participating in mindless eating.
Keep Your Blood Sugar Balanced
Even if you’re not diabetic, it’s important to make sure your blood sugar is balanced.
This is best accomplished by eating a diet full of a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Blood sugar “crashes” are often caused by eating foods with high sugar and fat levels (usually saturated fat) on their own without an accompanying protein or fiber to help slow down the digestion process.
Massive changes in blood sugar can cloud judgment when it comes to hunger. To solve this problem, spread out carbohydrate-heavy snacks between satisfying meals, or accompany foods like the occasional candy or chip with some nourishing nuts or a delicious dip. Look for foods that contain a combination of the following:
• Complex carbohydrates
• Healthy fats
• Lean protein
Plan Satiating Snacks
Eating a balanced diet with adequate protein can help you feel full throughout the day. Plus, if your goal is weight loss, having healthy snacks on hand can help.
Snacks with high-fat levels (preferably healthy fats) and high fiber can also keep you satiated and satisfied. For example, try eating apple slices with peanut butter or carrot sticks with hummus. This can be both satiating and satisfying!
Some dietitians also suggest scheduling snacktime. If you’re prone to forgetting to feed yourself in-between meals, this tactic can help suppress hunger pangs.
Drink Water First, Followed by Food
The old adage “If you’re hungry, drink water first because you might just be thirsty” may actually hold a kernel of truth. Studies show water intake may influence hunger and food preferences. While more research needs to be done in order to make specific recommendations, experts generally suggest staying hydrated to help support your body’s natural hunger cues.
Water is crucial in delivering nutrients to your body. In fact, food and water work together to keep you from feeling hungry and thirsty.
How to Control Emotional Cravings
Sometimes, physical hunger and emotional cravings can overlap. Here are four helpful tips for deciding what to do when you feel like emotions might get the best of you.
Find The Root Cause
Keeping a food journal can help you associate triggering activities with emotional eating habits. In other words, it will help you associate your cravings with the root cause. Maybe you cave and buy nutrient-poor foods if you’re grocery shopping while hungry.
If that’s the case, simply investing some time in planning nutritious lists and meals may help redirect your efforts. Identifying the when, where, and why behind your cravings can really make a difference.
Seek Alternative Coping Strategies
Sometimes, food cravings are simply creative distractions that take you away from processing important feelings. It’s important to do the emotional work of separating cravings from feelings. For example, if your response to stress, boredom, or sadness is to eat, you may need to seek other coping strategies.
Here are some ideas of what to do when you’re feeling stressed:
• Call (or meet up with) a friend
• Start a new hobby
• Take a walk
If you’re having trouble on your own, a dietitian can help you find strategies that work for you individually. They can also help evaluate your motivation (your “why”) underneath it all, which can be a helpful framework for your diet changes.
Don’t Demonize Food
Instead of thinking of junk foods or certain types of food (like potato chips or ice cream) as “bad”, it can be helpful to categorize them as items for special occasions. Specific foods you like can be enjoyed sparingly while you still eat a balanced diet.
Avoid shoving foods into categories like “healthy” or “not healthy”, and aim for overall balance instead.
Create Healthier Comfort Foods
Even amidst goals like losing weight, you can still enjoy comfort foods. Eating can provide comfort without being a coping mechanism. Food can both satisfy hunger and help you feel better.
Creating healthier versions of your favorite comfort foods can help you feel nourished. For example, making homemade mac and cheese can give you control over the ingredients. You can make a tasty dish by swapping your usual noodles for whole wheat macaroni and using low-fat cheese instead of its full-fat counterpart.
In Summary on How to Stop Food Cravings
You may not be able to get rid of food cravings completely, but you can learn how to better respond to physical hunger or emotional cues. Becoming more in touch with your body’s signals can help you respond with confidence.
The best part is that you can still eat foods you enjoy, while you also enjoy more control over what you eat.
Why am I craving food so much?
You may be cluing into cravings because your body needs nutrients. For example, if your diet lacks variety, your body may be sending signals that it’s not getting what it needs. If you’re dieting dangerously or eating too restrictively, you may not be getting enough nutrients to quell your hunger cues.
Why am I craving salt?
Traditional diet advice tells you to decrease your salt intake. However, salt (sodium) is an important nutrient that helps balance the level of fluids in your body. You may be craving salt due to the following factors:
• Disease or nutrient deficiency
• Hormone changes
• Lack of sleep
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Cleveland Clinic. Why Do You Crave Salt? Health.clevelandclinic.org. Published December 2020.
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Hartley R. Emotional Hunger Vs. Physical Hunger: How To Tell The Difference. Rachaelhartleynutrition.com. Published August 2022.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Cravings. Hsph.harvard.edu.