Have you ever had that feeling late at night when suddenly you have a massive craving for sugar?
It’s as if that chocolate bar you grabbed at the deli, or those random jelly beans you have in the kitchen completely take over your thoughts. No matter how much you try to shake the image of the food you are craving out of your mind, the image grows larger and more vivid. Within minutes, your stomach feels empty even though you just ate dinner an hour ago.
You begin to reason with yourself, “Alright, I’ll just have one bite to get it off my mind”. One bite invariably leads to more bites, until you slam down a day’s worth of sugar right before bed.
If this sounds eerily familiar to what you experience, you are not alone. In fact, everyone experiences food cravings at one time, or another, with some feeling it more frequently and more intensely than others.
The science behind overeating, hunger, and cravings is vast and can easily fill a book. This short article will briefly explore some of the mechanisms of hunger and cravings, and give you 7 actionable tips you can use to help reduce, or possibly even stop the food cravings you experience.
Physiological vs. Psychological Food Cravings
As living and breathing organisms, humans need calories and nutrients to function and stay alive. So how do you figure out how many calories and nutrients your body needs?
The short answer is you shouldn’t have to grab a calculator to figure it out. Our bodies are finely tuned machines that have evolved over millions of years to regulate our hunger. We eat when we need the calories, and stop eating when we are full – or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Various theories exist as to why and how our built in hunger regulation gets seriously out of whack when presented with a plate of hot fudge brownies. The second we start eating more calories and nutrients than our body needs for survival, we start shifting from physiological eating to psychological eating, from feeling hungry because our bodies need calories and nutrients to “thinking” we are hungry because the food we are eating is so tasty we just can’t control ourselves.
Research has proven that food can be just as addicting as heavy recreational drugs.1 In fact, the same part of the brain that is activated by these drugs is activated by the sight, smell, and taste of those delectable foods you crave. To make matters even more challenging, food marketing companies exploit our addiction by combining fats and sugar2 in ways that purposely over-stimulate our brains.
The following 7 tips can help you stop your cravings that are deeply rooted in your psychology and physiology:
1. Take Notes
Making your subconscious habits conscious to identify in what situations you start to have cravings could be the most important step you take. Writing down the situations when you feel the cravings, or simply doing this as part of your food journal can help stop the food cravings from happening, or directly allow you to address them. The sight or smell of the food, location, time of day, your emotional state (such as if you are stressed), or lack of sleep are just some of the situations that can spark a food craving.
Once you identify the situations where you crave foods, anticipate these situations like an elite athlete before a competition. For example, you may say to yourself, “If I smell fresh chocolate chip muffins on my way to work, I’ll keep walking”. This rehearsal process conditions the mind to make the body react favorably before you can enter into a deep inner monologue, which invariably doesn’t work out well. The cravings process works in a linear, step-by-step fashion with (1) a cue, (2) activation, (3) arousal, and (4) release. Rehearsing stops the food cravings at the cue step before going deeper into the process.
3. Think Negative
Pair unhealthy foods and those foods you crave with a stream of unappealing images. It’s the exact opposite of what advertising agencies do. For example, next time you have a craving for coke, picture in your mind a large bag of sugar. Then imagine opening up the bag and scooping 10 teaspoons worth of sugar into your mouth. That’s how much sugar is in a can of coke, because there is 1 teaspoon per 4 grams of sugar, and a can of coke has 39 grams of sugar.
4. Chew Gum
Cravings can rear their ugly head when you are experiencing a stressful situation, or even lack of sleep. Grabbing a piece of gum can help stave off that craving for pastries, chocolate, or whatever the vice. The thought of taking out the gum, then putting the gum back in after snacking is not that appealing for most people.
5. Drink Water
Water is not only very important for maximal fat loss and improved health, but it can also help prevent cravings. Oftentimes, our bodies have trouble differentiating between dehydration and hunger. Your body can trick you into thinking you will be satisfied with some more food, when all you really need is a tall glass of water. When you feel a craving, drink a glass of water and wait a few minutes. The cravings may subside.
6. Wear Form-Fitting Clothes
Wear clothes that are fitted to your silhouette and that flatter your figure. When you wear clothes that make you look good and feel good, you’re more likely to be active and make smart food choices. This can remind you of your fitness goals and also help motivate you to avoid unhealthy cravings. Take pride in the body you have today, as you continue to work towards your longer-term weight goals.
7. Purge Your Cupboards
While this tip is listed as #7, it could be #1, or #2 on the list. Purge your house or apartment, your desk at work, and any other place that you may have foods devoid of nutritional value. Empty calories belong in the garbage, not in your stomach! The power of “out of sight, out of mind” cannot be underestimated. There’s no reason to create any more cues, because our minds are getting assaulted with savory images of food all day long.
Some More Tips to Stop Cravings
Late night snacking is mainly something that’s habitual, so brushing your teeth after dinner is a tactic that can help. Many times when we eat late at night, it’s by force of habit, not because we are really hungry. Another tactic is to avoid the kitchen after a certain time at night, say 8pm. Many of us go in the kitchen like mindless zombies looking for stuff to munch on, so this “no kitchen re-entry” rule can be very helpful. Brushing your teeth and making this commitment can help prevent you from digging into that stash of oreo cookies right before bed (but hopefully you’ve already thrown out that stash of oreos). Finally, ending your day with some herbal tea can do the trick.
This article is just scratching the surface of complex topics like hunger, overeating, and cravings, but I hope it was a helpful introduction for you. Try out some of these actionable tips to help you stop food cravings, and let me know how it goes!
- Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Tomasi D, Baler R. Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction . Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2012;11:1-24. ↩
- Naleid A, Grimm J, Kessler D, Sipols A, Aliakbari S, Bennett J, Wells J, Figlewicz D. DECONSTRUCTING THE VANILLA MILKSHAKE: THE DOMINANT EFFECT OF SUCROSE ON SELF-ADMINISTRATION OF NUTRIENT-FLAVOR MIXTURES. Appetite. 2008 January; 50(1): 128–138. ↩
Thank you once again for an insightful article. I always read you emails the minute they appear in my Inbox and I’m never disappointed…keep up the good work!
I’ve seen more tricks like this that really helped and i think the most important for me,is not to have it in my house…If I don’t have chocolate in my house…I can leave without it for ever,but if i do…oh nooo.My mom has to ruin it!
Great tactics and activities to engage in Marc… well done!
You’ve laid out a very helpful road map to success here.
Great suggestions, I find that tip #1 and 5 are very helpful when I have cravings for chocolate or chips. I make mental notes about situations that bring on these cravings. Drinking water definitely helps me, but it takes a good three days to finally stave off the cravings.
To help with tip #3, I printed out small copies of my “before” picture (with all its glorious flab) and taped it to the snack shelf in the pantry and to the beer shelf in the fridge. It has been the perfect last-ditch stop-sign after I’ve mentally convinced myself otherwise.
Sometimes when I have a craving to eat something, I make myself tea instead. Drinking a big cup of tea is quite filling, and has some taste (unlike water).
Even though drinking tea works, it does not last for long. In about 1 hour I get the craving back! However, if it’s night then that means I am already in bed and sleeping :).
I didn’t mention this in the article, but just came across an interesting study where the words that we use and how we frame cravings can impact our ability to control cravings. For example, using “I don’t eat…” vs. “I can’t eat” helps create a feeling of autonomy and self control – http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/243030.php
How can I think negatively about ramen?!?!
Haha. That’s a tough one.
I went from 135 lbs in high school and blew up to 241 eating ramen noodles at night for years. I did this in 10 years and now am abusing my body at the gym to fix it. There is your motivation
Greetings from Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland. Thank you so very much for all the wonderful information that you send by email to me. I am teaching diet and healthy eating classes to some wonderful people and they are getting terrific results from the information that I give them. Since I have been receiving your emails, I have been educating myself further so as to be in a better position to help my clients, so thank you. I have just been reading the comments and how lovely that you respond to the people. That is so very refreshing. So thank you again. Regards to you.
@orla odium – thank you for the kind note! Very glad to hear the information has been helpful for you and those who you help.
How do you successfully purge the cupboards when you have kids? I’d still like them to be able to have things around to enjoy. Any tips on getting around this?
@Josie – That’s a great question and one I encourage you to think critically about. In my opinion, certainly your kids can enjoy the typical american foods here and there, but kids eating empty calories and sugary filled foods every day is not benefiting their health. Especially around the house, I personally wouldn’t keen empty calories and carbs around. When I was a kid, I got plenty of those types of foods when I was away from home. At least when they are home, they have some healthy foods to munch on. The other way to think about it is if you know it’s not healthy and you wouldn’t want to eat it yourself, then it shouldn’t be in your house. Your the boss.
Marc, I totally agree with your response to the question raised by @josie. “junk” food is no good and especially not for children. Obesity in kids is increasingly a concern in urban settings globally and precisely because of their lack of nutrition value and possible addictive nature. My wife and I have consciously encouraged our kids to eat home cooked food or freshly cooked food and that perhaps has been the single biggest reason why they don’t actually even enjoy commonly available junk food.
You are a new yorker like me, so I have to ask this: Are Knishes ok to eat? They seem to be but ultimately I’m not sure. It’s my late night snack of choice. I’ve thrown away all chips in my apartment, there is no soda, I don’t drink anymore but I do eat at night. I use Adobo seasoning for a lot of things?
Sorry, just making sure I have the eating part down pat, thanks
@Anthony – Knishes are not the ideal late night snack, but are certainly ok to eat here and there. Many knishes are deep fried, so I would definitely recommend avoiding those. Others are baked. Adobo is a group of spices, which are definitely healthy for you. I would recommend following the late night snack ideas I have in the BuiltLean Program, which I know you have now. Eating part is most important to get the results you want, so I’m happy to see you focusing on them.
I’ve taken a photograph of a beer and added text in photoshop. The text is how many minutes of weightlifting that beer costs. I also have one for 1 oz. of potato chips and 8 oz. of potato chips, another for a piece of pizza. Just knowing that if I eat a large bag of chips, I need to weightlift for 2 hrs. and 16 minutes is a big enough discouragement. I haven’t eaten any of those things ever since.
@uncadonego – That’s a great idea, thanks for sharing!
Oh, I forgot to mention, the signs are right on the fridge door…..
Darn! Sorry….also forgot to mention that I’ve lost 22 lbs. in seven weeks. Thanks Marc for all the info and motivation.
@uncadonego – That’s awesome news. Congrats!