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Are food cravings sabotaging your diet?

Diets, General Nutrition, Sleep & Stress, Weight - Body Shape and Composition, Healthy Eating, Obesity
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It is estimated that 97% of women and 68% of men battle with food cravings, especially for foods high in sugar, fat, or carbohydrates.1  Many people are powerless over these cravings and trying to not indulge can lead to stress and anxiety. Cravings have little to do with actual hunger as we can crave sweets even when we are completely satisfied after a meal. So what can you do if your cravings are sabotaging your diet?

First, it is important to understand that food cravings have been shown to be as powerful as a craving for drugs. Several foods, especially those high in sugar, affect the same part of the brain as heroin would. High carbohydrate foods trigger a release of serotonin, a natural opioid.2  A 2007 study found that cocaine-addicted rats switched their addiction to sugar water once it was provided to them.3  The researchers believe that our preference for sweets was developed during ancestral times when diets were low in sugar in order to motivate us to look for sweet foods.

There are several emotional reasons we may crave certain foods, such as depression, anxiety, boredom, exhaustion or loneliness.4,5 Certain people or situations can also trigger a craving, for example, maybe you and your best friend always eat chocolate chip cookies together. Just seeing her makes you want cookies!

Before you indulge in a craving, ask yourself  “Am I hungry?” If the answer is no, then follow-up with, “Am I anxious? Sad? Tired? Lonely? Bored? Is this a habit?”, to help you identify possible reasons for the craving. Once you know what is going on you can identify your next plan of action. If you’re a tired, go to bed! If you are lonely, call a friend. If you are bored, find something to do. If it’s a situational craving, try to set up a new habit in that location, like maybe your friend greets you with an apple instead of a cookie.6

Regular exercise can also help with food cravings, as it reduces insulin levels. Too much insulin can contribute to food cravings, especially for sweet foods.7 Exercise also helps manage stress, anxiety, and depression, so that you don’t use food to cope with those feelings. Aim for thirty to sixty minutes per day of exercise.

When you are trying to fight cravings, the best thing you can do is be mindful of the choices you are making and the reasons behind them.

  • Try keeping a journal of your food and feelings to help you identify what some of your triggers might be.
  • If a craving sets in, have a glass of water and distract yourself for 15-20 minutes, then see if you still want that food.
  • Eat every 4-5 hours to prevent yourself from getting too hungry. Include lean protein, vegetables, and whole grains at every meal to provide your body optimal nutrition and stabilize your blood sugar.8

Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself! We all have some cravings from time to time and if our diets are balanced overall, its ok to indulge sometimes.



1.     Somer, E. (1999). Food and Mood. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.

2.     http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/3/835S.short

3.     http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000698

4.     http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938406000424

5.     http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027273589900032X

6.     http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442469608#.UF31-LKPVLc

7.     http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/52/8/1888.short

8.     http://www.nutritionist-resource.org.uk/articles/controlling-cravings.html

Are food cravings sabotaging your diet?