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How to Handle Cravings

By Dana Babeu, R.D. | December 18, 2020


Have you ever had a sudden urge to have a certain food or drink immediately or in a particular  moment? Such as, while watching your favorite TV show you felt the need to have a chocolate chip cookie. Yes - then you’ve experienced a craving. Here’s a look at what causes cravings, how to identify them and some effective ways to deal with them when they inevitably strike. 


Common Causes of Cravings


Lack of sleep and altered sleep patterns are among the top causes of cravings. Shift workers or those with chronic stress are just some of the people who may regularly experience a loss of sleep. Lack of sleep can result in a shift in hormones that changes how the body responds to food. This complex process is known to cause cravings for quick energy foods like simple carbohydrates and added sugars. Then, to make matters worse, our metabolism slows down and we store more of the calories we eat as fat instead of burning it for fuel. 


Even a mild case of dehydration can lead to cravings since our body may be looking for a quick boost of energy. A diet that includes plenty of vegetables and some fruit combined with 8-10 servings of water or other healthy beverages, like unsweetened tea, flavored water, skim milk, almond milk and unsweetened coffee, is a good rule of thumb for staying hydrated. The next time you feel a craving coming on, try drinking a glass of water or seltzer first, then decide if you’re still hungry. 

Stress and other hormones

Hormones are a complicated and necessary component of a healthy body. When we’re under stress, however, we may experience an unwanted shift that affects hormone balance. Similar to a lack of sleep, stress can trigger the wrong signals when it comes to food. Even in cases of genuine hunger, it may be difficult to turn to healthy choices for fuel. High sugar and high carb foods may seem extra appealing and may even feel impossible to resist. Having some non-food outlets for stress like exercise, talking to a friend, breathing techniques or making a warm cup of tea can all be effective ways to manage stress without giving into a craving. 

Eating habits

Sometimes our cravings are a direct result of our eating habits. For example, you eat potato chips a few times out of true hunger when a long workday delays your dinner. Your brain may begin to associate the chips with the pleasant feeling you got from eating them initially, and you may find yourself yearning for chips even when you know you’re not hungry. To make matters worse, you may also feel the need to eat larger portions or eat chips more often to get that same pleasantness you experienced the first few times. Changing a habit can take time and dedication, especially when it involves food. Some techniques to try are the craved food with a healthier option or planning out your meals and snacks each day ahead of time.

Hunger vs. Craving

Being able to tell the difference between  a craving and true hunger can be a challenge, especially if you’re experiencing some of those mixed signals discussed earlier. Here are some tips to quickly determine what you’re feeling:

RELATED: Physical vs. Emotional Hunger - Understanding the Difference 

How to outsmart your cravings

Once you’ve identified a true craving, it’s time to outsmart it. Be proactive when you don’t want to let a craving get the best of you:

Challenge the trigger

If a certain behavior like watching TV, hanging out with a specific friend or driving past a favorite place triggers a craving, it’s time to shake up your routine. Also associations and cravings go hand-in-hand. Watching TV and eating chips. Dinner with friends and   dessert. Passing that coffee place and stopping for the drink. We can try to get ahead of our craving by having a healthy snack ready to go before we turn on our show. But other times it’s best to abandon the trigger all together and opt for a new activity. Take a hike with your friends or a new route home from work to outsmart your craving before it even appears. 


There’s something in mint that helps suppress cravings, so instead of eating try a cup of peppermint tea, sugar-free gum, breath mints or brush your teeth. 

Have a drink instead

No, not that kind of drink! Make yourself a glass of lemon water, some decaf tea, your favorite coffee or a seltzer and enjoy that in place of food. 

Move, move, move

Movement of any kind is known as a powerful stress reducer and can be very effective for combating cravings. A neighbor of mine always does yard work when he needs to beat a craving. He not only found a way to maintain a personal health goal but has the best looking lawn on the block! If yard work isn’t your thing you can take a walk, clean a room, do some stretching or throw on music and dance. Your body will thank you and you’ll send that craving packing. 


Dana Babeu, RD, is a registered dietitian at New Jersey Bariatric Center, a medical & surgical weight loss center with offices in Springfield, Somerville, Hoboken, East Brunswick, Hackettstown and Sparta, New Jersey. She provides pre-operative and post-operative nutritional counseling to New Jersey Bariatric Center’s Gastric Bypass, Gastric Sleeve, LAP-BAND (gastric band) and revision patients, in addition to dietary counseling for patients in our Medical Weight Loss program.
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