What Drives Us to Crave Food (and how to stop cravings)
There’s more talk than ever about the addictive power of food. While that topic is heavily debated, there’s no question that people have cravings for certain foods. And by and large, people crave high-calorie, high-sugar, high-fat junk foods, which obviously do little good for your health or waistline. In order to figure out how to stop cravings, we have to have an appreciation for what drives us to eat.
8 Tips on How to Stop Cravings
A long time ago, my good friend and mentor Dr. John Berardi enlightened me with what he referred to as the “first law” of good nutrition: “If a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.”
And this, my friend, is perhaps the most effective lesson you could possibly learn on how to stop cravings. If you want to stop eating and craving junk food, make it unavailable. Yep, get rid of it. Out of sight, out of mind. At the very least, create barriers to eating junk food (and at the same time, remove obstacles from eating foods that make you feel great, energize you, and keep you feeling light).
You probably wouldn’t crave that donut or pastry so much if you changed your route to/from work so you didn’t pass the bakery. Or, maybe you wouldn’t find yourself elbow-deep in the bag of chips if they didn’t make it into your shopping cart in the first place. Or, perhaps that bowl of chocolate candy wouldn’t be so tempting if it weren’t sitting in plain sight, within easy reach.
It’s really pretty simple: How to stop cravings starts with shaping your path and cultivating a junk-food-free environment.
Although you may not think of it this way, the people you surround yourself with go hand-in-hand with your environment. For example, maybe someone you live with is the culprit for the sodas in the refrigerator and chips, cookies, cereal, and candy in the pantry—or worse, on the counter. At the office, maybe someone always brings in donuts on Friday, or maybe another co-worker is notorious for leaving cookies and chocolate on the table in the breakroom.
If you’re surrounded by people who don’t place the same value on healthy eating habits, you’re sabotaging yourself. There’s a 100% chance you’re going to be tempted with junk food. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who make good food choices, you’re much more likely to follow their lead. Renowned businessman Jim Rohn once said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” That applies to your health and fitness as well.
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You may be starting to see a trend developing. The answer to the question of how to stop cravings starts with identifying “triggers,” which can be events, situations, people, the environment, or even foods themselves that prompt us to crave junk food.
A classic example is boredom. Maybe it’s the lull after work before dinnertime. Maybe it’s while you’re sitting down to watch TV at nighttime. Many of us are such highly conditioned busy bodies that the first thing that comes to mind when we have idle time is to eat—usually junk food. (I haven’t met one person yet who caves in to a big bowl of broccoli.)
If this sounds familiar, I can think of at least 10 better uses of your time. If you’re trying to figure out how to stop cravings, lose fat, get more energy, and live a more fulfilled life to boot:
- Read a book
- Call a friend
- Write a thank you note
- Take a walk
- Practice yoga
- Do a 7-minute bodyweight workout
- Organize your closet
- Play with your kids
- Have a discussion with your partner
Stress and Emotions
For many people, stress and negative mood states are huge triggers for junk-food cravings. This is often referred to as emotional eating. In fact, research shows that around 70% of people increase their food intake during periods of stress, and women, overweight folks, and people who are particularly preoccupied with food or their weight are more likely to eat when stressed.1–3
And as you’ve probably experienced, emotional eating rarely involves overeating carrots and apples. Carrot cake and apple pie, on the other hand… In other words, stress typically leads us to eat high-calorie, highly-palatable junk foods, which we often call “comfort foods” because of their strong rewarding effects.4
Speaking of which, want to know something funny about so-called comfort foods? Although people believe comfort foods provide them with mood benefits, researchers from the University of Minnesota have shown that comfort foods do not provide comfort beyond that of other foods (or no food at all for that matter).5
Although fleeting, this pattern of behavior has probably helped you get through some “stuff” in your life. Having said that, it typically results in a vicious, perpetuating cycle of overeating and weight gain, followed by restriction, which again leads to overeating and weight gain.3,6,7
If you find you’re a stress-induced emotional eater, the first step is raising awareness about your habits and tendencies. Instead of turning to junk food, better strategies for how to stop cravings include the following stress-management techniques:
- Setting boundaries and learning to say “no”
- Practicing yoga
- Taking a walk outdoors
- Deep breathing
The Bliss Point, Reward & Habituation
Have you ever noticed that the more junk food you eat, the more you crave it? It’s actually not too much different from going on a “bender,” which is what the kids these days call a spree of heavy drinking. In other words, once you start, it’s hard to stop. Or, “Once you pop, you can’t stop.” Or, “Betcha can’t eat just one.”
Certainly, some of this comes down to the magical “bliss point” that the processed food industry has engineered. You see, food manufacturers know the precise combination of sugar, fat, and salt—the “three pillars of processed foods”—to “override our dietary self-control” through foods “so perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times Michael Moss discusses in his book Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.8
The other aspect of this is the reward we experience from eating junk food and the subsequent habit-forming tendencies. In other words, junk foods can have a powerful effect on your brain, and the more you eat them, the more they’ll trigger your cravings and motivation. Oddly enough, you may feel your day won’t be complete without them.
Here’s another key on how to stop cravings: Experiment with avoiding junk food on back-to-back days, then three days in a row, then four days in a row, and so on. According to Dr. Stephan Guyenet, “Over time, the less and less you expose your brain to those foods, the more their power over you will dampen…they have less power over you the less you eat them.”9
As we’ve talked about on many occasions, by itself, exercise is a pretty futile tool for weight loss. One observation some people have mentioned to me is that exercise makes them hungry. That makes sense, right? You’re more active, you burn more calories, and your body responds by telling you it needs more food.
While the effect of exercise on appetite can vary from person to person, in reality, there’s very little scientific evidence that corroborates this explanation. In fact, experiments often reveal that exercise decreases appetite.
A more likely explanation is that many people compensate for exercise by overeating. Think about how many times you’ve justified making a poor food choice because you worked out. It happens all the time. We reward ourselves for being active by (over)consuming food. And more often than not, we rationalize our junk food with exercise.10
If you’re desperately looking for how to stop cravings, I’ll tell you something you shouldn’t do: DIET. In other words, restrictive diets (in particular, those that restrict calories) are a surefire way to send hunger and cravings through the roof.
For starters, levels of the “satiety hormone” leptin plummet with decreasing caloric intake. In fact, research shows that leptin levels can drop, on average, by 43 – 63% after just one week of calorie restriction.11 What’s more, because fat cells are responsible for the secretion of leptin, when you lose fat, leptin levels also drop, as you have less of the very tissue that produces this hormone.12
At the same time, levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin steadily increase with weight loss and caloric restriction, a change that corresponds with the simultaneous drop in leptin levels. In addition to stimulating hunger, ghrelin also “turns on” reward centers in the brain, increasing the pleasure and reward response to eating and reinforcing the consumption of calorie-dense, highly palatable food.13–15
Together, the changes in this dynamic duo of hunger hormones work in tandem and result in an (often insatiable) increase in hunger and heightened activity of food reward pathways. In other words, junk food becomes even tastier, and it becomes even harder to stop eating it!
Getting plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep is a crucial component of the how to stop cravings equation. Have you ever noticed that when you don’t get a good night’s rest, your appetite tends to be more voracious and you experience more cravings?
There’s no question that lack of sleep increases cravings, particularly for high-carb, high-fat junk foods. Interestingly, sleep deprivation amplifies the release of naturally-occurring endocannabinoids, which bind to the same receptors as the active ingredients in cannabis. This increase in endocannabinoids results in a greater desire to eat highly palatable foods—also referred to as munchies.16
Sleep deprivation has also been shown to suppress levels of leptin and elevate ghrelin levels. As mentioned above, this hormonal cascade leads to a surge in appetite, and it also makes normally tasty junk foods even more palatable.
Sleep deprivation also goes hand-in-hand with staying up late. The more hours you’re awake, the more food you’re going to eat. It’s as simple as that: Sleeping less means increased caloric intake.17 Of course, we all know what types of foods people reach for at those late hours—high-calorie junk food.
While it’s probably not possible to never be tempted by junk foods ever again, by using the above eight strategies, you can avoid sabotaging yourself. And that will lead to greater success—and less cravings. Remember, it’s not about perfection but rather progress.