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June 26, 2017

Kick the Cravings to the Curb

Tips from Avance Care’s registered dietitian Christina Dauer, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE


It happens to all of us: one minute you are going calmly about your day and then, without warning, your mind is consumed by thoughts of sweet and creamy chocolate, or, perhaps the delightful crunch of a salty potato chip. Suddenly, you’ve fallen victim to a food craving! We are all familiar with this feeling of powerlessness with certain foods, but what is a food craving, really? And, how can you outsmart these cravings to prevent unwanted weight gain or worsened health? Keep reading to find out!

A food craving is an intense, psychological desire to consume a specific food and is different from physiological hunger. Scientists are not sure exactly what causes food cravings. A frequently cited theory is that these urges may be fueled by certain brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin that are released when eating high carbohydrate foods. Their release creates a short-lived euphoria that rewards the brain. The brain then seeks this feeling over and over, creating a cycle of craving and indulging. So, how can you break this cycle?

The key is to discover what you are REALLY craving, and to have a strategy in place to help you “ride the wave of an urge” -you need to wait it out!

One of the first questions to ask yourself during a food craving is, what emotions am I experiencing right now? Many people automatically reach for sweet, salty, and/or high-fat foods when stressed, angry, lonely, or sad. These are common emotional triggers. This behavior creates a powerful connection in the mind and sets the expectation that food is a solution to unpleasant emotional experiences. This is, of course, not the case! Often, what you really craving is to feel better. So, what are the next steps to take when you are in the moment of a craving? Follow the 5’D’s!


DELAY: set a rule that you will wait at least 10-15 minutes for a craving to pass before giving in to your craving.

DISTRACT: While delaying, try distracting yourself by focusing on another task you enjoy and keep your mind occupied. Remember, it is likely that you really want to improve your mood, which food will not accomplish. Some example including going for a walk, taking a relaxing bath, calling a friend or family member, working on a puzzle, reading an interesting article, concentrating on one of your tasks at work or having a friendly conversation with a coworker. 

DETERMINE: After delaying for 10-15 minutes think about how much you really want the food and decide if it is worth indulging in. Ask yourself, what will the nutrients in this food do for my body, will this food assist or deter me from reaching my goals, will eating this food really improve my mood or will I feel worse after indulging?

DECIDE: if you do choose to have the food, decide how much of the food to eat and stick to that portion; it is often not the food that is the problem, but how much of it you choose to eat and why. Avoid the all or nothing mindset and realize it is ok to have the occasional small portion of your favorite treat. 

DISTANCE: Don’t keep tempting items in your home, car, or office. Out of sight, out of mind- if you do not have tempting items such as sweets and salty snacks readily available, you are less likely to give in to your craving. 

Some other questions to ask yourself if you struggle with food cravings are:

  1. Have I been eating less than usual lately? Significantly restricting calories or food groups (like carbs) makes it more likely for you to experience strong food cravings. 

2. Have I been sleeping enough? Sleep deprivation is linked to increased levels of hormones that stimulate hunger.

3. Have I developed a habit? Seemingly innocent behaviors such as regularly having dessert after dinner or eating in front of the TV create powerful associations in the brain, which can cause cravings at specific times. Eliminating food cues in your environment, such as removing tempting foods from view or changing your routine by taking a walk right after dinner instead of watching TV can help change habits over time. Practicing the 5 Ds in the moment of cravings will help as well. 

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