Cravings can be a terrible thing, whether you are craving for sugary, unhealthy foods or craving for a cigarette while trying to quit. This article is going to show you five scientifically backed strategies that will allow you to finally overpower your cravings and live a happier, healthier life where you have those cravings finally under your control.
The first point that needs to be made is a simple one. This is 99% mindset and strategy. Every one of these methods is backed up by science and are proven to improve the chances of overcoming your cravings.
A craving exists because of both physiological and psychological reasons. When you eat sugary and unhealthy foods, you get a sort of psychological addiction to the dopamine that is released (self-esteem also comes into play) when you feel pleasure from the taste. On top of this your body gets used to the amount of sugar you are consuming and becomes used to that level of intake, so when you stop eating so much sugary food, you will find yourself feeling tired and unmotivated at first.
Don’t let this stop you, once you change your lifestyle to be healthier this will leave you with levels of energy you didn’t think were possible for you.
When it comes to food cravings, you must be aware of the obvious fact that you will still get hungry, food is, of course, a necessary part of energy intake. However, there is difference between simple hunger for sustenance and a hedonistic craving for unhealthy food.
This is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy what you eat, it is simply to say that you should have control over your cravings, instead of your cravings controlling you.
Create a Replacement
When you create a replacement for your craving, you take away the result while still satisfying your habitual nature. For example, when you would usually go to your kitchen and eat an unhealthy snack, you eat a healthy one instead.
It is much easier and healthier to replace than remove the craving. Easier because you are not completely getting rid of the act of eating a snack and are simply changing what it is you snack on.
I’m sure the snack you eat when the craving hits do vary somewhat, depending on what you have in your kitchen, so if you ensure that you have healthier food stocked and eat that instead, it is much less taxing regarding motivation when compared to forcing yourself not to eat.
Do some research, try some healthy snacks and find some that you like. This will allow you to receive still the psychological benefits that you would get with unhealthy snacks (dopamine being released in the brain).
From a physiological standpoint, you can still satisfy the need for sugar with fruits and the like, except this is in a much healthier manner as the sugar levels are nowhere near as high. In the UK, the scientific advisory committee on nutrition recommended that the daily intake of sugar for the average person needs to be cut in half as the links to obesity and the associated health problems are clear.
By replacing your bar of chocolate with a piece of fruit, you achieve this goal and ease the effect on your body that cutting down sugar causes.
Identify and Avoid Triggers
A “trigger” is anything that causes you to feel the craving and subsequently give into it. This can be anything; individual people, locations and most commonly situations (and if these situations often arise in your day to day life, they will cause a lot of cravings).
When you are unaware of these triggers, you will almost always react to them, while believing yourself to act entirely of your own accord. This alone can affect your self-esteem significantly as well as the associated health impacts.
Triggers cause many to act out emotionally, some turn to substances and a vast number of people react by eating unhealthy food.
To identify what your triggers are, you must understand that they are personal to you, you cannot find this information out without looking at yourself and noticing what causes you to get a craving. Every time you have a craving from now on, take note of what is happening around you and what situation you are in. If you continue to do this for just a few days, you will notice a pattern.
This is where you find a trigger.
Now that this trigger is revealed to you, you can mitigate its damage.
This will be up to you on a situational basis, some triggers will be unavoidable (and so you will need to rely on the other methods detailed in this article) while some are able to be removed from your life or at the very least mitigated, this will make your journey to overpowering those cravings that much easier.
Controlling Your Desire
Your cravings are somewhat based on how you react to the feeling of hunger when it occurs. If you notice you are hungry and address the situation immediately, you are removing the single largest trigger for craving unhealthy food: feeling hungry.
This hunger reaction theory is called the elaborated intrusion theory which was first suggested in an article published in 2004 (source below) and has since gained a large level of acceptance in the scientific community.
The idea is that if the desire for food (hunger) is satisfied immediately once noticed, it will stop you from imagining the taste and smell of the food you crave.
When you imagine the food, you have chemical, emotional reactions in your brain which lead to craving the food you imagine. If you remove the process by which your brain gets to the point where it is imagining food, you make your brain much less likely to go follow through with a craving. By removing the core reason for your craving, you diminish its effects significantly on both a psychological standpoint and a physiological one.
If you are getting hungry but know you have eaten enough, this is your body requesting the regular intake it experiences. This is where you must be careful. You may have replaced the unhealthy food, but you do not want to simply give in to the cravings in a different (albeit less damaging way). The goal here is to improve the quality and quantity of food you eat and remove the cravings for excessive and/or unhealthy eating.
It is suggested that you engage in something that stimulates the brain in some way, keeping your thoughts off the topic of food and engaged in the current task. If you have ever worked on something and finished, finding yourself hungry at the end having not noticed it while working, this is the very same effect naturally in action.
Good ways to distract your brain include playing special awareness games such as Tetris, cleaning a room or completing puzzles. In different ways, these activate the visual centers of our brain and remove the ability to visualize food and keeping you focused on the task at hand instead of allowing your mind to wander into areas whereby the craving will take over.
However, cravings can be frequent, and there are other ways of controlling your desire (you can’t spend all day completing puzzles!). If you imagine an activity that you enjoy and find interesting, you stimulate your brain in the same way you would with a craving, without leading to a craving.
Another method would be to engage your brain with something that is out of site. Typing works well here in the workplace so long as you can type while keeping your eyes fixed on the screen instead of on the keyboard by touch typing.
Hunger as a whole is affected by a variety of different factors, sleep can play a huge role in how often you get hungry (and open yourself up to cravings), exercise is another major factor, this will make you want to eat every time, after the initial tiredness associated with going to the gym you will find yourself hungry very quickly, looking to replace the calories and energy you have burned.
Even stress can affect your hunger levels, causing you to eat when you don’t need to (this is the source of comfort eating for many).
To start, we will address sleep. While it has been a commonly known fact that sleep deprivation leads to an increase in ghrelin and decrease in leptin within your body.
These are thought to be associated not only with the normal human need for food (known as homeostatic hunger – the need to maintain certain energy levels as a baseline) but also with the hedonistic need for food for reasons other than sustenance.
When you are lacking sleep, your body and brain will feel the lack of energy, and because you are have not recharged through sleeping, it concludes that you need to find energy through other means, in this case, eating.
When you are, sleep deprived you will get hungry easier for this very reason, which in turn leads to an increase in cravings. While the above methods of “controlling your desire” can help with avoiding the cravings for unhealthy food, it is necessary to decrease the frequency of cravings over the long term, else there are more opportunities to give in to the craving.
By sleeping an adequate amount every night (7-9 hours for those aged between 18 and 64-per the national sleep foundation), you can move towards this long-term solution to your cravings.
When it comes to exercise, the research is a bit lacking when compared to sleep, but it does exist, and it has been known to produce results.
While working out does cause hunger for many, this is more common when people conduct less intense exercise (walking on a treadmill for instance) as the body sees an easy way to replenish energy through eating. However, if you were to conduct more intense exercise (such as trying to beat your previous time on the rowing machine at say, 2.5km), not only does this have a massive positive effect on your cardiovascular health but it is also known actually to suppress hunger, avoiding your cravings.
We advise that at times when you would normally find yourself with a craving, schedule a small and intense workout session to achieve this state of hunger suppression.
Stress is an interesting one when it comes to battling your cravings, for some stress can lead to what is commonly referred to as stress eating, while others find themselves losing appetite completely (which means that when a craving for unhealthy food hits you are many times more likely to give in as your body does need energy and your levels of willpower are weak from lack of sustenance).
The split is roughly 40/40/20 with people stress eating, losing appetite and reporting no effect respectively.
It has been shown that high levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) can cause you to “stress eat” as a reaction to the increased levels of stress. It has even been suggested that your entire metabolic system can be affected by this which will, of course, have a serious impact on your body.
If stress eating or lack of appetite leading to giving into cravings is an issue for you, practice stress reduction methods, studies have shown that activities such as exercise, practicing mindfulness and even meditation can have a lasting impact on your stress levels.
In the end, there is a multitude of methods to combat cravings as there are many causes that can be addressed. Some of these causes may resonate with you, others are not so much. But by using the strategies outlined in this article you now have the tools with which to finally can overcome and overpower your cravings as and when they arise.