Cravings can be the downfall of any healthy eating regime – not to mention a weight loss plan – but cravings can come for a number of reasons. Over the years I’ve written a lot of articles on how to beat food cravings and the same reasons for them come up over and over again. Fighting a craving is actually better solved by tackling the trigger behind it – so, next time one hits, ask yourself the following seven questions – and you’ll know just how to handle them.
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Question 1: Have you eaten in the last 3 hours?
If not: Then there’s a very good chance you’re craving because your blood sugar has fallen too low.
Most people need to eat every 2-3 hours to stay satisfied and so, if you don’t eat something soon chances are you’ll binge when you do eat next.
But keep things controlled. Go for something sweet, low-cal and high fibre like a piece of fruit, a bowl of cereal with a few sultanas added or a piece of toast with some mashed banana on the top to satisfy things.
If you’re not sure how much you should eat, then, take a look at this guide to healthy portion sizes to keep things under control
Question 2: Have you had a drink in the last hour? And I don’t mean booze
If no: Then get one. Many of us confuse thirst with hunger, as a general rule you should be drinking a small glass of water, or another low cal fluid-like diet soda, sugar-free squash, tea, coffee or herbal teas every hour you’re awake.
And no, it’s not true that coffee dehydrates you (see more on that in this post on the health benefits of instant coffee)
The number one thing that stopped me craving sugar in the middle of the afternoon was to drink more water in the morning. On top of preventing hunger, proper hydration also revs up your metabolism. Make it a rule to drink regularly.
Oh, and if you have had booze in the last hour then chances are that’s behind your urge to eat everything in the fridge. Alcohol switches of the parts of our brain that inhibit behaviour and so, you’re more likely to start craving things you normally deny yourself.
If you find yourself craving after a drink or two, you might want to swap for some non-alcoholic options – and no, not sweet sickly things, the ones in this list actually taste like the real thing.
Question 3: Are you feeling tired, bored, stressed or like you need a reward for a tough day?
If yes: Then you’re comfort eating, and while it might make you feel temporarily better, it won’t really sort out what’s making you blue.
So instead of eating, think for a few minutes about what you’re really feeling and what you could do to change it: for example, if you’re lonely or need to talk through a problem, call a friend, if you’re stressed out sniff some relaxing essential oils, if you need to wake up tap the acupressure point on the top of your head to wake yourself up (yes that does actually work, there’s studies and everything).
You can find some other tips in some of our How To Guides which cover things like how to raise your energy; how to raise your mood, how to fall asleep faster. Find the full list here.
If you’re not quite sure what’s wrong, there’s also a theory that says what you’re craving might signify the emotion you need to satisfy. People who are stressed often crave salt (it replenishes tired adrenal glands), lonely people crave bulky carbs like rice or pasta that fill them up, angry people take out their moods on crunchy foods and sad people crave sugars that make them happy
Another way to tell if a craving is caused by emotions. You aren’t satisfied with one or two bites – you have to eat the whole thing.
If you want to find out more about this theory and how to use it to beat your food cravings, here’s the book that explains it fully.
Question 4: Are you craving a specific food and nothing else will do?
If yes: This is a fully-fledged food craving. The good news is, it will pass.
On average food cravings only last a few minutes and if you can get past that without actually putting the food in your mouth you’ll forget about it.
There are lots of different ways you can pass that time but one of the best is simply to go for a walk. Researchers at the UK’s University of Exeter found a 15-minute stroll was all it took to switch off craving sensations.
If you want to take your mind of it further, you might also want to try a themed walk like a short version of our 10,000 steps treasure hunt.
However, you might also just want to take a look at how balanced your diet is.
There is a school of thought that says that cravings for specific foods (particularly if it’s non-treaty foods like a certain fruit or some yogurt) can mean your body is crying out for a particular mineral it needs. If you’re lacking iron, for example, you’ll crave red meat which provides high levels; if you’re lacking essential fatty acids you’ll get cheese urges; whereas salty foods like sardines come from a general lack of minerals.
Because of this, the way to beat this type of food craving is to give in to it with a small portion of the food you really want, otherwise, you’ll eat everything else and still not feel satisfied.
Aim for about 100 calories of whatever you need, and try and add it to your daily diet for the next few days to boost your levels and eliminate cravings.
Question 5. Do you always crave the same food (and it’s not chocolate, ice cream or biscuits)?
This is when another theory on cravings kicks in. That they may be your body’s way of alerting you to a food intolerance.
If someone is intolerant to a food they often crave it.
The reason is that the presence of an ‘intolerant’ food in the body causes a reaction almost like a high. Firstly it sends blood sugar (and energy levels) soaring and also, it can create substances called exdorphins which mimic the pleasurable effects of endorphins (brain chemicals that make us happy)
However once these reactions have worn off the body is left ‘depressed’ and low in blood sugar – so it sends out a message for the ‘fix’ it got earlier and you crave the bread, the milk, the cheese or whatever.
Not surprisingly, it’s the worst thing you can do.
A food diary can help you spot patterns that signify intolerances. It’s best to work with a nutritionist if you suspect one, but keeping a diary for a month will give you a good clue as to what is going on.
Check out our guide on how to keep a good food and symptom diary here
If you do want to try and explore things yourself, The Six Secrets of Successful Weight Loss by John Mansfield is a brilliant book discussing the link between intolerances and weight gain.
Question 6: Are you close to your period?
Just before your period, your body experiences a metabolic surge that increases the calories you burn each day by about 500.
To supply these your body often sends out signals for sugary or starchy foods that it can break down quickly for fuel.
However, PMT cravings for chocolate have also been linked to low levels of the calming nutrient magnesium (something chocolate is high in). Balancing your nutrient levels with a multivitamin could, therefore, help beat this food craving and stop your monthly chocolate binge.
If you do suffer quite badly from PMS, have a look at the work of Dr Maryon Stewart who was one of the pioneers in the field of treating PMS naturally and wrote a number of books on this.
Another brilliant expert in this area to investigate and again one who works with a natural approach to balancing hormones is Dr Marilyn Glenville.
Question 7: Could you eat an apple and satisfy your craving?
If yes: You’re probably actually hungry and need to eat.
It might be that the meal you ate a few hours ago was too small to satisfy you, or it contained too low levels of filling protein.
Have a small protein-based snack like a handful of nuts or seeds or a low-fat yoghurt, and from now on make sure your lunch contains a little protein as well as vegetables and carbohydrates.
So there you have it, seven questions that can help you find the root of why you need all the food NOW – and beat your food craving without eating everything in sight.
What to Read Next
If your cravings always hit in the evening, you might also want to take a look at this post on how to stick to your diet at night to add to the advice here.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.