The Independent Pharmacy

What Causes Food Cravings And How To Stop Them

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 8 Feb 2024

Food cravings can seem impossible to resist. The intense desire for specific foods like chocolate, crisps, or biscuits can sabotage even the most meticulously planned diet. However, giving in to cravings for unhealthy food too often can negatively impact health and wellbeing over time. It can also be particularly frustrating if your goal is weight loss. The good news is that with the right strategies, people can gain control over food cravings, and here at The Independent Pharmacy, we can help.

Understanding Food Cravings

A food craving is defined as an intense desire to consume a specific type of food. This urge feels difficult to control, different from normal hunger. There are several theories behind what triggers this intense longing.

Physiologically, cravings may arise due to nutritional deficiencies or hormonal fluctuations. For example, women often experience chocolate or other sugary food cravings around menstruation when serotonin levels dip. Emotionally, cravings may occur as a response to stress, anxiety, boredom or other triggers. Memories and environmental cues also spark cravings through conditioning.

There are several common triggers known to spark food cravings:

  • Stress - Heightened stress levels increase cravings for indulgent comfort foods high in sugar and fat
  • Hormone fluctuations - Changes in hormone levels, like around the menstrual cycle, can trigger cravings
  • Sleep deprivation - Not getting enough hours of sleep disrupts hormones that regulate appetite
  • Dehydration - Thirst signals can mistakenly be interpreted as hunger pangs, so it’s a good idea to drink a glass of water before giving in to cravings
  • Boredom or habit - Eating out of boredom or habit without paying attention to actual hunger cues
  • Environmental cues - Smelling or seeing favourite foods sparks brain pathways
  • Giving in to food cravings too frequently can negatively impact health and wellbeing in various ways:
  • Weight gain - The excess calories from bingeing on craved foods promotes overweight and obesity
  • Nutrient deficiencies - A diet high in processed craved foods often lacks adequate vitamins and minerals
  • Mental health - Guilt after giving in to cravings can decrease self-esteem and increase stress

Learning to control cravings is key for both physical health and mental wellbeing.

Strategies to Stop Food Cravings

Getting control over difficult food cravings involves making dietary and lifestyle changes as well as using psychological techniques. A mixed approach can help reduce how often and how intensely you feel cravings, helping to support health goals.

Dietary Adjustments

Adjusting eating patterns and food choices lays the nutritional foundation for curtailing cravings.

Following a balanced diet ensures adequate intake of nutrients that help regulate appetite. Getting enough protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals prevents physiological cravings triggered by deficiencies.

Focus on incorporating more whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, and legumes. These provide nutrients, protein, fibre and healthy fats to induce satiety.

Limit intake of refined sugar, salt, processed foods and junk foods which spike blood sugar and trigger reward pathways in the brain. Moderating caffeine and alcohol intake can also help smooth out energy and mood swings.

Eating smaller meals more frequently helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and prevents intense hunger leading to cravings. Aim for a meal or snack every 3-4 hours. Watching portion sizes at meals and snacks also helps prevent reactive overeating later.

Lifestyle Changes

Making positive lifestyle adjustments helps stabilise hormones, energy levels and emotions that influence cravings.

Chronic sleep deprivation disrupts hormones which regulate hunger. Getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep supports healthy appetite control and curbs cravings. Establish a regular sleep-wake cycle by going to bed and waking up at consistent times. Follow good sleep hygiene practices like limiting electronics before bed, using blackout curtains and creating a restful environment.

High levels of stress triggers the release of cortisol and inflammatory compounds that activate the reward and craving pathways in the brain. Regular exercise, meditation, yoga and social connection help manage stress levels. Set aside time for relaxing hobbies and self-care rituals to give the nervous system a chance to recover from stressful stimuli. Consider seeking counselling to help you get to the root of any anxiety you’re feeling and to help you learn healthy coping mechanisms.

Regular exercise also regulates appetite hormones, stabilises blood sugar, reduces inflammation and stimulates feel-good endorphins. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity spread throughout each week. Mix endurance training like brisk walking or swimming with strength training using bodyweight, bands or weights. Adding movement throughout the day also helps curb stress and cravings.

Psychological Approaches

In addition to lifestyle and diet improvements, making certain cognitive and emotional changes can help reduce food cravings.

Mindful eating

Mindful eating cultivates present moment awareness while eating to recognise physical hunger and fullness cues over emotional and habitual eating triggers.

Practise mindful eating by noticing the colours, smells, flavours, textures and even sounds of food. Chew slowly and put down utensils between bites to prevent mindless overeating. Check in periodically during the meal about hunger levels on a scale of 1-10. Stop eating when moderately full at a 5 or 6 rating.

Bringing non-judgemental awareness to eating helps gain insight into emotional versus physical hunger which is key for controlling cravings. Over time, mindful eating habits help sever conditioned “wanting” of foods from actual hunger signals.

Cognitive Behavioural Strategies

Unhealthy thought patterns often drive emotional eating and cravings for comfort foods. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aims to reshape unbalanced thinking.

Keep a food thoughts journal to identify situation triggers, emotions and craving thoughts. Challenge craving statements like “I need something sweet” and replace them with more realistic thoughts like “this craving will pass”. Over time, these mental habit changes reduce the motivation to give in to food urges.

Behavioural strategies like conscious breathing, visualisation or calling a friend when a craving strikes make impulsive eating less automatic. Gradually adopting alternate behaviours creates new neural pathways to short circuit the craving response.

In some cases, seeking guidance from a psychologist, dietitian or nutritionist can help uncover root contributors to emotional overeating and bingeing. Making sustainable lifestyle adjustments is more achievable with professional support.

Long-term Management and Prevention

Gaining lasting control over food cravings requires establishing a sustainable healthy lifestyle that balances nutrition, exercise and stress resilience.

Developing a Sustainable Approach

The most effective eating pattern for curbing cravings is one tailored to individual needs that embraces flexibility and moderation. Choose the right recipes, with the right vitamins and nutrients, and meal timing approaches that provide consistent energy, keep blood sugar stable and keep you full and happy.

Allow for nutritious snacks to head off intense hunger that leads to impulsive craving-driven eating. An 80/20 approach allows room for enjoying favourite foods in moderation within the structure of mostly whole, minimally processed meals and snacks. This prevents the backlash of overly rigid restriction. Find a “food freedom” mentality by listening more to your body’s needs rather than strict diet rules.

Staying Informed and Motivated

Ongoing education about the latest science-based strategies for preventing cravings provides helpful tips to strengthen healthy habits. Connecting with support communities sharing the goal of curtailing emotional or stress eating also supplies much-needed camaraderie and motivation during challenging times.

Celebrate victories while maintaining realistic expectations about periodic backsliding. Progress towards more mindful eating and balanced nutrition is a gradual journey requiring self-compassion to weather temporary setbacks.

FAQs

How do I stop craving junk food?

Eliminate trigger foods from your home environment. Stock up on convenient healthy snacks like fruits, nuts and Greek yoghurt to satisfy cravings. Practise mindful eating and check in on physical hunger levels before finishing a meal to prevent overeating.

What takes away sugar cravings?

Getting enough protein and healthy fats stabilises blood sugar and reduces cravings. Supplements like chromium and magnesium have also been found effective. Sipping herbal teas and increasing bitter flavours helps blunt sweet cravings.

What should I eat if I crave junk food?

When a junk food craving strikes, opt for a healthy snack with protein and fibre like an apple with peanut butter. The nutrients help induce satiety while the act of mindfully eating redirects the brain’s habitual response.

How do I stop carb cravings?

Balance complex carbs from whole grains with adequate protein, fat and fibre to stabilise blood sugar. Take a walk or do an alternate activity instead of heading straight for the pantry when a craving emerges. Over time this helps retrain conditioned “carb-seeking” thoughts.

Conclusion: What can The Independent Pharmacy do for you?

Gaining freedom from food cravings is possible by making targeted lifestyle changes and employing science-backed psychological strategies. Still, creating new habits and coping mechanisms takes time.

The Independent Pharmacy offers customised support, quality medications and over-the-counter remedies, and expert advice to help you overcome your cravings. Get in touch today to see how we can help you break free from your cravings.

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