14 Proven Ways to Control Your Strongest Cravings
Cravings are invevitable. These science-backed healthy habits can stop food cravings for sugar, salt, and junk food.
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.” Make sure you know what your food cravings can reveal about your health.
Take a walk
iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
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.
Consider the consequences
A 2014 study from researchers at Brown University had participants use four different strategies to overcome the urge to eat: distract themselves by thinking about something other than food; accept their thoughts as something that need not be acted upon; focus on immediate reward of the food; or focus on negative long-term consequences of eating the food. The last approach reduced participants’ cravings the most. If you’re dieting, here are 6 ways to curb pesky cravings without skipping a meal.
Imagine yourself eating
iStock/Sjoerd van der Wal
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. Researchers had participants imagine putting quarters in a laundry machine or eating M&Ms before eating the candies in real life. Those who imagined eating 30 M&Ms and inserting quarters three times ate significantly fewer chocolates than those who imagined adding 30 quarters and eating three M&Ms, or just putting 33 quarters in the machine. The researchers guess that imagining yourself chowing down makes you feel like you’ve already eaten, so you’ll be able to stop eating sooner. You could even whip up one of these delicious treats dietitians eat to beat their sugar cravings.
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.
Make a fist
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.
Steer clear of your trigger foods
“You crave what you eat, so if you switch what you’re eating, you can weaken your old cravings and strengthen new ones,” says Marcia Pelchat, PhD, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. This can happen pretty fast. For five days, she and her team had study volunteers drink bland dietary-supplement beverages. During that time, they craved fewer of their trigger foods. By the end of the study, the volunteers actually wanted the supplements instead. The first few days are always the hardest, and you probably can’t completely eliminate your old cravings. But the longer you avoid your trigger foods, the less likely you may be to want them. In fact, you’ll probably begin to crave the foods you eat, a real bonus if you’ve switched to fresh fruit.
But 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.
Destroy your most tempting foods—literally
If you’ve succumbed to a craving and bought a box of cookies or some other trigger food and start to feel bad while eating it, destroy it. “Don’t just throw it away; run water over it, ruin it,” says Caroline Apovian, MD, professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine in Boston. “You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that you’ve licked your binge.” As for the waste of money, don’t give it a second thought, adds Dr. Apovian. You’re doing this for your health and wellbeing.
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.
Go nuts for nuts!
Drink two glasses of water and eat an ounce of nuts (6 walnuts, 12 almonds or 20 peanuts). Within 20 minutes, this can extinguish your craving and dampen your appetite by changing your body chemistry, says Michael Roizen, MD, Chief Wellness Officer at Cleveland Clinic. Nuts aren’t the only food that banish cravings! Here’s how eating this one food can stop your junk food cravings for good.
Jolt yourself with a cup of joe
Try sipping a skim latte instead of reaching for a candy bar. The caffeine it contains won’t necessarily satisfy your cravings, but it can save you the calories by satisfying your appetite, says Dr. Roizen. As an added bonus, the warm richness and ritual of making or buying one will distract you.
Get minty, fresh breath
Brush your teeth; gargle 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. Plus, most foods don’t taste great after using a minty toothpaste or mouthwash.
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.
- 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.”
- Marcia Pelchat, PhD, Monell Chemical Senses Center. Philadelphia, PA.
- Journal of Consumer Research, “From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation.”
- Mayo Clinic, “Understand Your Eating Triggers.”
- Appetite, “Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale.”
- Caroline Apovian, MD, professor of medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston.
- 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.”