For most of us, food is a source of pleasure and comfort. Sometimes, a little too much.
For some of us, food cravings can be a daily struggle. The problem with uncontrollable food cravings is that they can’t be treated like other cravings. We can stop drinking or smoking, but we can’t stop eating. We need food to survive. For this reason, we need to change our relationship with food.
This is a list of tips that have helped me control my sugar cravings in the last few years. To be clear, I’m just speaking from personal experience. You’re probably tired of seeing some of these tips, but the truth is, this is what works for me. I hope that this list helps you in some way, whether the tips are new to you or not.
I also want to note that I understand that sometimes cravings are so strong that most of these tips won’t work. I do remember when my cravings were so strong that the only thing I could do to control them was to get out of the house and avoid being anywhere near my triggers. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. That’s okay. We all have to start somewhere. With time and practice, cravings can become easier to handle.
So here are my 22 tips to make handling food cravings a little easier.
Try to identify what triggers your cravings. Many things can trigger cravings, including going long periods without eating, skipping a meal, following a restrictive or low-calorie diet, inactivity, stress or lack of sleep. Maybe your trigger is a feeling. Maybe you have cravings when you’re stressed, sad or lonely. Maybe your trigger is a location or a time of the day. I often had cravings when coming home after a long day at school/work. I went to food for comfort. Maybe you have cravings every afternoon after lunch? Or every evening while watching television? When the cravings hit, take a minute and think about the situation. Are you truly hungry or are you craving a specific food? I find that if I’m hungry, I would eat anything (vegetables, fruits, etc.), but when I have cravings, I want a specific treat. Write it down if that helps!
This is the first thing I did and it’s what helped me the most. I stopped eating added sugar cold-turkey. Before you say anything, NO, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. It’s just something that worked for me. I found that if I tried having ‘just a little bit’ of sugar, it never ended up being just a little bit. For me, complete avoidance was best. However, limiting the frequency and amount of the foods you crave could certainly help tame the cravings. The more sugar/salt/fat you eat, the more you can crave it. It becomes a habit. The more often you have it, the harder it is to break that habit. Of course everyone is different, but for those with addictive personalities like me, having just “one bite” is never enough. The bottom line is: have your craving foods in moderation. The less you have it, the less you’ll crave it.
This has to be one of the most important things when it comes to managing cravings. If you keep the food you crave in the house, you’ll eat it. I’m a dietitian and I love eating a healthy diet, but if I would have chips in the house at all times, I would eat it all until every bite is gone. Try keeping those trigger foods away and buy a one-time portion whenever you want the treat. For example, I never keep chips in the house, but once in a while, when we’re planning a to have a treat, we’ll get ourselves a smaller bag and eat it that day. That way, you get to enjoy your treat, but you’re not tempted on a daily basis. That being said, if this tip isn’t possible…
Or away from whatever triggers your cravings. This is something that really helped me when I first stopped eating sugar. I was living at my parents’ place and they had sugar in the house all the time. For that reason, I often left the house in the evenings when my cravings were worst. I went to a bookstore or spent some time at my favorite coffee shop (don’t do this if you’re tempted to eat all of their baked goods). I found that my house, especially after school/work was one of my triggers. Every time I came home, I had instant cravings. So, for the first few weeks or months, I made plans to be away from home at that time. I also believe it’s important to find a distraction that you love. I love reading or being in a coffee shop, so I wasn’t discouraged to go. I actually looked forward to it, which distracted me from my cravings. After a while, I got used to that new routine and I no longer had cravings after school.
This comes to the same thing as my last tip, but more specifically, go outside. A change of scenery can make a big difference. Go for a walk in nature, away from home and the food you crave. After a relaxing walk in nature, chances are you’ll feel relaxed and the cravings will most likely be gone. I always feel relaxed and energized after a walk in the woods. Hiking has been a big help with controlling my cravings over the last few years.
Eat regular meals and snacks. This is crucial. Do not starve yourself!!! If you let yourself go without food for too long, you’re more likely to overeat or binge the next time you eat. Eat enough to satisfy your hunger and stop trying to limit your calorie intake more than needed. Eat a balanced diet to nourish your body and include some fiber and protein with each meal and snack. Protein and fiber help keep you full. Once I started seeing food as fuel (and not as something I should limit), I saw a reduction in the intensity and frequency of my cravings. Do yourself a favor and don’t count calories. Listen to your hunger cues and choose nutritious food as much as possible.
Don’t force yourself to eat something you don’t love just because it’s healthy. There must be some healthy meals that you love? Eat those. Try to make sure you enjoy every bite. Eating a healthy diet doesn’t mean you’ll need to stop eating the food you love! Of course you should have treats in moderation, but find some healthy recipes that you love and have them often. Make a comforting vegetable-filled casserole for supper. Have a delicious healthy granola bar or your favorite fruit for a snack. Eating healthy doesn’t mean you should eat bland salads every meal. If you make recipes that you truly enjoy, you shouldn’t feel deprived. Feeling deprived only leads to stronger cravings.
I know I said earlier that for me, going cold-turkey was better. However, it doesn’t stop me from having an occasional refined sugar-free treat or a little salty snack. My date-sweetened desserts may not have any added sugar, but it doesn’t stop them from being addictive. This means that I try not to have them every day, but I do have them as a treat. Also, approximately once every week or two, Shaun and I make homemade popcorn and watch a movie together. Sometimes we have chips. Those treats are what keep me sane. Don’t see those treats as cheating, but instead, see them as a normal part of a balanced diet. Plan to have a treat. Whether it’s once a week or once a month. Whatever works for you, plan your spurge and enjoy every minute of it. Do NOT feel guilty.
Eat slowly and enjoy every bite. It takes 20 minutes before you start to feel full, so try not to get seconds before 20 minutes. If you’re still hungry then, have a little more. Most importantly, don’t finish you plate if you’re full! It’s as much of a waste to finish your plate when not hungry as it is to throw away the rest. Listen to your hunger cues! When my cravings were at their worst, I never felt satiated. I couldn’t identify my hunger cues anymore, I felt like I could eat forever. What I did then, is I made myself a reasonable plate and made sure I stopped at that. After a while, I started feeling full again after my meals. I also started craving healthy foods more and more. All you need to do is listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. I know it’s easier said than done, but with practice, it does get easier. Eating at a table can also make it easier.
Either reduce the stress in your life or find comfort in other activities. Of course reducing stress is not always possible, so finding ways to cope with stress is very important. Try finding a relaxation technique that works for you: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, etc. There are many apps and Youtube videos out there to help you meditate (I like Headspace). I must admit, I do have a hard time meditating and yoga seems to work better for me. Also, try to find comfort in other things. Take a bath, read a book, call a friend, draw or paint, go for a massage, drink tea and curl up on the couch, watch a television show that makes you laugh. As for reducing the stress in your life, don’t be afraid to say no. Don’t stretch yourself too thin and allow some time for yourself.
Try to get an appropriate amount of sleep every night. Sleep should always be a priority. Not only do we feel better when rested, but sleep could also help manage stress. I don’t know about you, but I definitely feel stressed and hungry when I’m tired.
Whenever I have cravings, I love to sip on something to curb the craving. I either sip on a cup of coffee or tea or I make myself a glass of sparkling water with lime. I know it’s not the same as eating a treat, but sometimes it’s just enough of a distraction. If I’m watching a movie or television, I usually like to have something to eat, so instead, I try to trick myself and have a drink instead.
Sometimes you just need to eat something. When that happens, try to have some fruit or a little something sweet. Have popcorn made at home if you crave chips. I like to have unsweetened carob chips. Those are not for everyone, but they did help me quite a few times. They’re naturally sweetener than unsweetened chocolate, so when I want something to snack on, I’ll sometimes have a little bowl of those. A little bit is often enough to satisfy my cravings.
Exercise makes us feel good about ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I always feel good after a workout and it boosts my self-esteem. I rarely feel like eating treats after a good workout. Find an exercise that you truly enjoy and you’ll be more likely to stick to it. If you don’t like training in a gym, then don’t get a gym membership! You’ll end up going twice and then waste your money. Maybe you’d like to try something new? I like hiking, yoga and running in the trails. When you find something you enjoy, it doesn’t feel like a task.
Make time for yourself daily. This could help keep stress at bay, it could make you happier and it could distract you from your cravings. Spend at least 30 minutes for yourself each day (more if you can!). It’s not selfish, it’s self-care.
Cravings usually weaken after 15 minutes. If it helps, try to visualize the craving as a wave. If you’re able to wait long enough, the craving should go away. I will admit that this would not have worked for me at first, but with time, it gets easier. When your cravings are intense, try to find a distraction, which brings us to the next point.
Make a list of ways to distract yourself when cravings hit. That way, you’ll have a few ideas on hand when it happens. It could be going outside for a walk, reading a book, painting your nails or calling someone. Try to keep yourself busy. Sometimes we simply crave food out of boredom!
Reach out to friends, family or a professional. Each one of them can help you in a different way. For example, your family may be able to help by agreeing not to bring your favorite treats in the house. A friend may be able to help you find strategies or may be able to distract you. Make a plan to go for a walk every day after work with a friend if that’s the time your cravings are strongest. A professional may help you find other strategies and get at the root of the problem, whether it’s anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or something else.
Many people who struggle with eating are perfectionists. They may have high expectations and describe food as bad or good. There is no in between. I was guilty of telling myself “I’ve eaten something unhealthy, I ruined it, so might as well continue eating unhealthily for the rest of the day and try again tomorrow”. Try to avoid that! No one can be perfect all the time. Like I said earlier, we all need a treat once in a while to prevent feeling deprived. Try the 80/20 rule.
Keep a journal and write down what you eat, how much, when, where and how you’re feeling. Were you stressed that day? Maybe sad? Were you at home or at work? Do it for a few weeks ore more if possible and try to find some patterns with your eating. When I stopped eating sugar, I kept a food journal for the first 6 months and it definitely helped me find some triggers. By keeping a journal, you can learn from your mistakes.
Everyone is different. These tips are all things that have helped me manage my cravings, but it doesn’t mean that all of them will work for you. Pay attention to your triggers, try out different things, keep track of what works or what doesn’t and learn from your mistakes. Even when you’ve found some things that work for you, you may need to regularly reevaluate your strategies and find new ones.
Write down your goals and keep track of them. I find that writing them down makes them real and there’s something satisfying about accomplishing a goal. Make sure to start small. It may be writing down a list of healthy distractions that will help you manage your cravings. Try writing down a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely). Make it realistic and start with weekly goals. That way, at the end of each week, you can reevaluate the situation and change the goals as needed.
What are your strategies to help manage cravings? I would love to hear your tips!