Unhealthy food cravings might seem mysterious and random, but neuroscience and nutritional science research has shed light on effective methods to combat and even prevent them.
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We know cravings can be influenced by physical factors like an energy deficit or hormone fluctuations. But they’re also impacted by psychological factors like emotions, stress and how our brains process sensory cues, such as the sight and smell of food.
But unhealthy food cravings don’t have to derail your healthy lifestyle or weight-loss efforts. Here are four powerful tactics you can use to outwit cravings. Thanks, science!
Read more: Just Smelling Food Can Make You Gain Weight
1. Build higher-protein meals.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Nutrition reports that a high-protein diet (124 grams a day) reduced participants' fast-food cravings by 15 percent and increased their fullness by 25 percent compared to a control group eating 48 grams of protein per day.
Aim to get 30 percent or more of your calories from protein if you’re struggling with feeling hungry and are prone to junk-food cravings. To do that you’ll want to incorporate high-protein foods, such as eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, tofu or a supplemental protein powder, into every meal.
2. Identify emotional triggers.
When you’re seized by a craving, it’s easy to tune out everything else. But rather than focus on that glazed doughnut you want to scarf down, try to sense what emotions you were feeling just before the craving hit.
Were you smoldering with anger at your husband for leaving the car’s gas tank on empty? Worrying about the sudden limp your dog developed? That anger or worry can be the cause of your craving, even though it seems completely unrelated.
Through a process known as appetitive conditioning, negative moods can trigger cravings and a strong desire to eat, according to 2017 research published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
Stopping these cravings starts with recognizing and breaking patterns you have between unpleasant feelings and food intake. If you realize that each time you feel sad you immediately have a powerful urge to find food, plan on managing your feelings in a different way next time you get the blues.
Each time you choose not to eat in response to that emotional stimulus and instead express yourself by journaling, talk to a friend or allow yourself the space to just feel the emotion without trying to fix it, you’ve weakened the power of sadness to trigger your food cravings in the future. As a bonus, getting a better connection with your emotional state is good for your mental health because it helps you practice adaptive, healthy responses.
3. Confine sugar to an occasional treat.
Eating foods that are high in added sugars causes the brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, a reward signal that not only gives us pleasure, but also makes us crave more.
Eating lots of sugar leads to dysregulation of dopamine signaling, and this skewed reward system is believed by experts to be involved with compulsive eating and the development of obesity. The reactiveness of reward circuits in the brain to sugar are heightened under emotional and physical stress and lowered by the presence of insulin and leptin (hormones that tell you you’re full).
If you don’t want to cut out sugar completely, you can use this information to strategically choose when you want to enjoy your sweet treats. If you want to have some chocolate or a cupcake, the best time to do it is when you’re not overly emotional (see point 3) and after you’ve already eaten.
With some food already in your stomach, you will have an easier time stopping after one portion and won’t encourage compulsive cravings for more and more sugar. So instead of noshing on that treat in the middle of the afternoon, save it for dessert.
4. Get an extra hour or two of sleep.
Research published in 2017 indicates that even healthy adults who have no sleep concerns are typically still sleep-deprived just enough to render their brains hyperresponsive to food cues. Yikes!
So even if you feel like you’re getting by just fine on six hours of shut-eye each night, your sleep habits might be leaving you vulnerable to the allure of food.
To bolster your self-control when faced with free cookies and improve your chances of resisting, prioritize getting seven hours of sleep as a minimum (but eight or nine is even better). Particularly during the holidays, when surprise sweets can cross your path a dozen times a day, that extra pillow time can help you avoid packing on the pounds.
What Do YOU Think?
How often are you hit with unhealthy food cravings? What’s the most common thing you crave? Do you give in or resist? How do you try to outsmart your unhealthy cravings? Have you tried any of these four tips? Are there any others you’d add? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!
About the Author
Georgie Fear, RD, CSSD, is the co-founder of One By One Nutrition and author of "Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss." Read more of her research-backed advice at OneByOneNutrition.com and connect with her on Facebook.