7 Tips to Control Your Food Cravings

Food cravings can derail healthy eating if not kept in check

Woman with food cravings finds healthy foods in her refrigerator.

Food cravings can derail healthy eating if not kept in check

If you are one of the many who have gained weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, you are not alone. Shuttered gyms and comfort cooking have caused many to gain weight, but now is the time to shed those lockdown pounds.

Excess weight can lead to obesity, which puts you at greater risk for COVID-19 and other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The good news: a healthy diet and regular exercise can help boost immunity and increase a sense of well-being during this time of crisis.

It should be no surprise that food cravings — an extreme desire for a particular food — can sabotage weight loss attempts. Snacking on salty popcorn during a Netflix binge or going out for ice cream with the kids after a stressful workday can quickly become daily habits that are hard to break.

“Cravings have little to do with true hunger,” says Vikki Lane, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “While there are many different reasons for food cravings — from physiological to emotional — you can stop them with some simple strategies.”

Try controlling craving gremlins with these tips:

1. Eat a variety of foods

Your body gets the nutrients and vitamins it needs from different types of foods, and no single food can supply all the nutrients in the amounts you need.

“Eating a variety of foods makes it easier to get a balanced diet and the essential nutrients you need every day,” says Dr. Lane. “Sometimes cravings may indicate that you are lacking in a particular nutrient. For instance, if you crave sweets, you may be lacking in chromium, which is a mineral found in many foods, including some fruits.”

2. Drink water

Often, our bodies mistake thirst for hunger. When you are craving potato chips, drink a tall glass of water and wait 20 minutes. You may find that your craving is either gone or dramatically reduced.

3. Distract yourself

You can break a craving’s hold on you by distracting yourself for at least 20 minutes. Focusing on something else for a while and changing your environment interrupts the craving, and it’s easier to make a better choice.

“Separating yourself from a craving can give you some space to think consciously about maintaining a healthy diet and help you realize that what you are experiencing is not true hunger,” says Dr. Lane.

Read a book, call a friend, walk the dog, clean your car, garden or take a bath.

4. Plan consistent meals and snacks

Plan your meals and snacks for the day or the week, so that you eliminate the factor of uncertainty. If you know what you will be eating throughout the day, you won’t grab junk food when hunger hits.

“Have meals at the same time each day and plan for nutritious snacks to prevent hunger and low-blood sugar between meals, which can trigger cravings,” says Dr. Lane.

Keep healthy snacks at home so the right food is always at your fingertips, making you less likely to give in to a craving for chocolate chip cookies or ice cream.

5. Don’t let yourself get too hungry

Hunger can cause you to reach for sugary foods to get your blood sugar and energy up quickly.

“If you get too hungry, you can end up overeating and craving quick-fix foods like candy bars that are absorbed by the body fast,” says Dr. Lane. “Snack instead on fruits, nuts, vegetables or seeds.”

6. Get enough sleep

Cravings can sneak up when you are tired. When you have a sleepless night, you are more likely to crave carbohydrates and sugar to keep going.

“Lack of sleep is related to an increase in hunger and appetite,” says Dr. Lane. “When you’re overtired, your tired brain craves junk food and lacks impulse control — not a good combination for your health.”

7. Manage stress

The high level of uncertainty and change we’re experiencing is stressful for nearly everyone. Cravings for foods that signify comfort, such as chocolate, can be allayed by managing stress.

Try limiting your exposure to the news, practicing deep breathing or meditating. Even if you’ve never meditated before, there are plenty of apps that make it more accessible, including Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer.

Exercise is another proven way to relieve stress. Go for a walk, sign on for an online dance class or workout at the gym if you’re comfortable.

“Experiment to see which techniques to stop food cravings work best for you,” says Dr. Lane. “Once you have your go-to strategies in place, you will find that your cravings are manageable.”

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