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9 Proven Ways to Control Your Strongest Cravings

Cravings are inevitable. These science-backed healthy habits can stop food cravings for sugar, salt, and junk food.

It’s possible to beat food cravings

Once the thought of a juicy burger, chocolatey cookie, or any other food or drink comes to mind, it’s hard to forget about something so tasty. It’s possible that your food cravings are trying to reveal something about your health. Still, although it’s OK to eat the foods you crave, it’s also OK not to want to indulge in every single delicious one. Here are some healthy ways you can stop cravings.

woman tapping on smartphoneiStock/AleksandarNakic

Play a game on your smartphone

Cravings typically last for 10 minutes so try to distract yourself with something simple like playing a game on your phone. In a study published in 2015 in Addictive Behaviors, volunteers reported that playing the video game Tetris reduced the intensity of their cravings for alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, food, and activities such as sex and gaming. “Playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support that imagery,” says study co-author Jackie Andrade, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in Plymouth, UK. “It is hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time.”

man and woman walking at sunsetiStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Take a walk

Research has shown that exercise reduces the urge for chocolate in normal-weight people. One study published in 2015 in PLoS One found that walking briskly for 15 minutes reduced cravings for sugary snacks in overweight people.

colorful M&M's candyiStock/Sjoerd van der Wal

Imagine yourself eating

If you do give in to the urge to eat, a bit of imagination before digging in can help satisfy your craving sooner, according to a review of studies published in 2016 in Social and Personality Psychology Compass. When people imagined eating 30 M&Ms before being allowed to eat as much of the real candy as they wanted, they tended to eat fewer than people who imagined eating just three M&Ms ahead of time. The theory is that by picturing yourself chowing down, you feel like you’ve already eaten and you’ll feel you’ve had enough sooner. You could even whip up one of these delicious treats dietitians eat to beat their sugar cravings.

woman in cross-legged yoga pose outsideiStock/MilicaStankovic

Relax

When you’re stressed, the hormone cortisol floods your system, triggering the urge to eat foods high in fat or sugar. If you find yourself reaching for food to deal with stress, try taking a few moments for meditation. A review of studies published in 2014 in the journal Eating Behavior suggests that mindfulness meditation can decrease stress and make it easier to resist binge eating. Check out the other medical reasons why you’re hungry all the time.

two fists on a wooden tableiStock/lolostock

Make a fist

Weirdly, tightening your muscles could give your willpower a boost. In a review of studies published in Journal of Consumer Research, participants who clenched their fists, tightened their biceps or calf muscles, or stretched their fingers while making food choices picked healthier foods than those who didn’t. The researchers say firming your muscles while trying to exert self-control could strengthen your resolve.

woman holding a hamburger in one hand iStock/stock_colors

Cut yourself a break

Giving up junk food produces similar withdrawal-like symptoms as drug addiction, suggests a study published in 2018 in Appetite. Researchers asked 231 adults to report what happened when they reduced the amount of highly processed foods they ate in the past year. The study participants reported that sadness, irritability, tiredness, and cravings peaked during the initial two to five days after they quit eating junk food, but then the negative side effects tapered off. Follow these 10 ways to train your brain to hate junk food.

woman sleeping on stomach with smile on her faceDavid Prado Perucha/Shutterstock

Take a power nap

Cravings sneak up when we’re tired. Focus on the fatigue: Shut the door, close your eyes, re-energize. In fact, a good night’s sleep, will help banish those sugar cravings, in particular. A study published in 2017 in Sleep Medicine found that slightly sleep-deprived participants who got just 20 minutes of extra sleep ate an average of nearly 10 fewer grams of added sugars each day compared to those who didn’t make any changes to their sleep schedules. Aside from tiredness, here are the 8 other feelings you mistake for hunger.

Toothbrush with toothpaste underneath running faucetChaninny/Shutterstock

Get minty, fresh breath

You could try brushing your teeth or gargling with mouthwash: “When you have a fresh, clean mouth, you don’t want to mess it up,” says Molly Gee, RD, managing director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Plus, most foods don’t taste great after using a minty toothpaste or mouthwash. 

woman holding a square slice of pizza Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

Plan out your cravings

Try to map out time in your day to either indulge in a craving or find a way to avoid it. If you can’t walk by your favorite pizzeria without buying a slice of cheese pizza, then find a new walking route. Or if you know you’ll be face-to-face with an irresistible birthday cake, allocate enough calories to fit it into your overall tally for the day without going overboard or feeling guilty. Next, read up on the 15 best foods for your belly.

Sources
  • Addictive Behaviors: "Playing Tetris Decreases Drug and Other Cravings in Real World Settings."
  • Jackie Andrade, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK.
  • PLoS One: "Acute Effects of Brisk Walking on Sugary Snack Cravings in Overweight People, Affect and Responses to a Manipulated Stress Situation and to a Sugary Snack Cue: A Crossover Study."
  • Social and Personality Psychology Compass: "Mental Simulation as Substitute for Experience."
  • Eating Behavior, "Mindfulness Meditation as an Intervention for Binge Eating, Emotional Eating, and Weight Loss: A Systematic Review."
  • Journal of Consumer Research, "From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation."
  • Appetite, "Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale."
  • Sleep Medicine: "The Feasibility of a Sleep Extension Intervention to Improve Dietary Intake and Energy Balance in Habitually Short Sleepers: A Randomised Controlled Trial."
  • Molly Gee, RD, managing director, Behavioral Medicine Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How to Handle Food Cravings." 
Medically reviewed by Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, on December 20, 2019