AT A GLANCE

Where exactly do food cravings come from and how do they affect our well-being? In this article we’ll take you through the process of how your brain responds to “food cravings.” We’ll also provide several tips you can utilize to help you minimize your cravings in the first place.


Where exactly do food cravings come from and how do they affect our well-being? In this article we’ll take you through the process of how your brain responds to “food cravings.” We’ll also provide several tips you can utilize to help you minimize your cravings in the first place.

What is a food craving?

A Food Craving is something that we are all familiar with. It’s an innate desire to consume a specific food. It’s something far too familiar for those who pursue a fitness lifestyle. As a result, it’s important to deal with “food cravings” properly. In this article, we’ll briefly go through the psychological components of food cravings and address the following food craving prevention tips.

  • Talk yourself out of indulging
  • Develop healthy alternatives to your cravings
  • Count your calories, decrease your portion intake, and avoid “open-bag snacking.”
  • Forgive yourself for indulging and press on with your healthy eating habits
  • Recover from cravings by increasing your exercise routine
  • Consider having a “cheat day” to minimize your cravings

"By reinforcing your brain to want to avoid something, you motivate yourself in the long-run and your craving for an unhealthy item begins to diminish."
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Where do food cravings come from?

Food cravings don’t originate without some form of repeated exposure to something that your brain interprets as pleasurable. Your brain is made up of regions that directly affect your pleasure levels.  After exposure to something for the first time, such as chocolate, if the brain perceives it as pleasurable (rewarding), then the reward center of the brain saves this memory, by releasing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This dopamine signal, then reminds the brain which experiences in life have felt rewarding and which have been negative. The stronger the positive feeling of reward, typically the more the brain craves that reward. The challenge is to curb this craving through behavior, and by ‘convincing’ your brain that you do not need this reward – mostly through alternative healthy rewards.

In approaching food cravings, if you cannot permanently give up the desired food altogether, then your best option is to eat it sparingly. Your brain (reward center) is “happier” thinking that it will occasionally get to have this treat, as opposed to feeling that this particular food is completely “off limits”, which leaves the brain feeling deprived2. If you make a particular food “off limits”, and this food is something that you often crave, then you are going to crave it even more. Therefore, you should either give it up entirely or like we just discussed, eat it infrequently in minimal portions.

Talk yourself out of cravings

One of the most important things you can do to limit your cravings is to talk yourself out of them and gain self-control. All too often, we find ourselves in situations where we feel as if we have to force our minds to avoid food cravings in the first place.  However, that’s not the case at all. In order to succeed, we need to develop a desire to avoid that delicious chocolate cake or ice cream cone as opposed to feeling like we have no alternative.

"In approaching food cravings, if you cannot permanently give up the desired food altogether, then your best option is to eat it sparingly."
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Instead of using phrases such as “I need to avoid this”, try saying “I want to avoid this” or “I don’t need this.” It doesn’t help when we feel as if we have no choice when it comes to avoiding cravings. The only thing we accomplish is a sense of deprivation. The latter statement expresses an innate desire as opposed to a forced option. By reinforcing your brain to want to avoid something, you motivate yourself in the long-run and your craving for an unhealthy item begins to diminish.

Use healthy alternatives to prevent and combat your cravings

Try to prevent your cravings ahead of time by pre-emptively adding very tasty (yet healthy) options to your meals and daily snacks. Remind yourself how juicy and sweet tangerines are, and tell yourself that the tangerine with your lunch is your dessert. Tricking the brain into thinking it has already had dessert, should help curb most food cravings during the day, if you are eating a calorie-restrictive diet. Alternatively, if you get a craving and you cannot resist, then you could substitute a piece of fruit for the item you are craving. You could also tell yourself (your brain) that you are going to eat something healthy involving the food you are craving. In this case, eat something like an apple or handful of nuts – then, see if you are still hungry enough to indulge in your food craving; this might allow you to fill up on the healthy alternative and not end up indulging.

Try drinking a large glass of ice water, when you feel hungry at times that you should not be eating. This might work, to take your mind off of your craving. If you get a craving and you cannot resist, then try selecting the healthiest choice within this food craving category. For example, if you are craving chocolate, then try to have a piece of dark chocolate, which has the most health benefits3. If you decide to eat potato chips, then try to have the baked ones as opposed to fried chips. If it is ice cream, then try to go for low-fat/low sugar ice cream or frozen yogurt instead of the full-fat/full-sugar ice cream. If it is crackers, try going for a whole-grain alternative cracker. These choices will help you to avoid feeling guilty about your indulgence, be healthier, and help you save on the calories as well.

"If you did give in to you craving, remind yourself to enjoy it that day, because the following day you are going to get back onto your healthy eating routine."
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Do you want to do the math?

If you have a planned daily calorie limit, you know how many calories you are supposed to eat in one day and often times, how many calories you’ve already consumed and have left to spare at that point in time. If you want to indulge in your craving, you have to consider what else you wanted to eat and what you have to give up to still meet your calorie restriction. All of this consideration allows your mind to do some work on whether the food craving is worth it or not. Best case scenario, your calculations distract you from your craving and you just go back to whatever you were doing before having the craving, or you decide the extra calories are not worth it.

Eat a small portion

Additionally, if you do indulge your food craving, then try to have a small portion of the treat as possible. If it is a candy bar – try to get a mini one, fun size. If the full size is your only option, ask a coworker or friend to share. You wind up eating less, likely making someone’s day and engaging in a conversation that might wind up distracting you from eating your portion (especially if you were feeling the need to indulge due to boredom).

Have a no open bag rule

Another alternative is to have a no “open-bag snacking” rule. This essentially means that you avoid opening a bag and eating directly from it. Instead, get a plate or bowl and pull out a 100-200 calorie-serving. The smaller the plate, the better. You can fill this small plate and trick your brain into thinking it’s about to consume more than what is actually there. This will also help you prevent from “mindlessly” eating. We have all experienced opening a bag of potato chips, small candies, or crackers and 20-60 minutes later realized that we have consumed half of the bag or 4-6 servings’ worth of calories.

If you indulge, forgive yourself and do not give up

If you have a bad day and completely indulge in your food craving(s), do not throw your hands up and abandon your healthy eating/diet for good – forgive yourself and move on. We all have occasional days where we experience life hassles. These may include daily stressors, exhaustion, job stress, family obligations, etc. When this happens, we end up completely going overboard in what we eat and most of it may be junk food. Do not completely derail your diet/healthy eating just because you have a bad day.

If you did give in to you craving, remind yourself to enjoy it that day, because the following day you are going to get back onto your healthy eating routine. It doesn’t do any good to be angry with yourself all day. However, make sure to keep those situations to a minimum. You definitely do not want to give up on your diet or healthy eating routine just because you slipped up one day.

Bounce back with exercise

If you have an “off day” in which you splurged all day, try increasing your exercise routine to burn off some of those additional calories either later in the day or sometime during the week. This can be in the form of cardiovascular activities such as jogging, cycling, and swimming. This will help you feel less guilty about your day of splurging, and help you to avoid gaining as much weight from your indulgence.

Pump up your workout and focus on increasing your routine the day or two afterwards as well, to try to keep yourself from gaining weight. Doing so will not only give you the benefit of losing those extra calories you gained, but you will also put your mind at ease knowing that you accommodated for your cravings by increasing your exercise routine.

Consider a cheat day

Another way to trick the reward centers of your brain into thinking they are getting a treat is by giving yourself one “free day” per week in which you do not worry about your eating habits. This gives you something to look forward to all week. Most people would want that “free day” to be on the weekend, but if you know you have a special event during the week, then you might want to save your “cheat day” for that particular day. In the end, it doesn’t matter when you decide to have a “cheat day”. The important thing is that you minimize your cravings by rewarding yourself once a week.

Take Home Points

In the end, it’s important to remember food cravings do not have to take over your life and completely damage your fitness routine or diet. Just like we can commit to a workout routine, we can commit to diet restrictions that help us in the long run. In the end, food cravings can be dealt with appropriately. Deal with them with self-take, healthy alternatives, calorie restrictions, self-forgiveness, increased exercise, and minimal intake.

  • Food cravings arise as a result of your brain being exposed to something it perceives as pleasurable.
  • It’s important to use phrases like “I want to avoid”, in order to avoid cravings and gain motivation in the long-run.
  • It’s important to move towards healthy alternatives such as tangerines.
  • You should count your calories, eat small portions, and avoid large consumption of bags (i.e., potato chips)
  • It’s important to practice self-forgiveness when you succumb to your cravings for a day.
  • Focus on increasing your exercise routine to burn off the extra calories you gained from your excessive intake.
  • You can minimize your cravings and reward yourself by having a “cheat day.”

Articles References

Veit R. et al. Health, pleasure, and fullness: changing mindset affects brain responses and portion size selection in adults with overweight and obesity. Int. J. Obes. (Lond.) 2019 Jun 18. doi: 10.1038/s41366-019-0400-6.
Richard A. et al. Effects of Chocolate Deprivation on Implicit and Explicit Evaluation of Chocolate in High and Low Trait Chocolate Cravers. Front. Psychol. 2017 Sep 12;8:1591. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01591.
Zięba K. et al. Cardioprotective Mechanisms of Cocoa. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 2019 Aug;38(6):564-575. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2018.1557087.

Ph.D
Melissa Walker is a Neuroscientist, having earned her B.S. in Neuroscience from UCLA in 2000, and her Ph.D. in Medical Neuroscience from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2016. She greatly enjoys the many facets of medical and technical writing. She has 8 years of neurotrauma research (spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury), 3 ye... Continue