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A young woman eating a donut.

How to understand and tame food cravings

What should you do when you crave a certain food, especially a comfort food or a sweet treat? Treat yourself with care and think about what it is you really want and need. Hunger and cravings are different: Hunger is the need for fuel, while cravings are an intense desire for a specific food — with or without hunger. It is essential to your health that cravings not shape your daily eating habits. Learning strategies for handling cravings is essential. So let’s break this down into why you have cravings and what to do about them.

  • Hunger: Whenever you feel like eating, pause to ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” You can be hungry and crave a specific food to satisfy that hunger. Being overly hungry makes it harder to think rationally and to eat mindfully.
  • Stress: People commonly crave foods like chocolate, cookies, chips, and other high-fat foods because they stimulate the reward center of your brain. These foods cause your brain to release endorphins, which make you feel good.
  • Associations and memories: Pairing certain foods with certain places, events, or people creates a link in the brain. In the future, similar circumstances—can trigger a craving for that particular food.
  • Deprivation: As you resist “forbidden” foods, the cravings may increase, eventually leading to eating, and then overeating, those foods.

How to Handle Cravings

Pause for a body-mind-heart scan. Stop for a moment to notice what’s going on when you’re craving a particular food.

  • Body: Focus on your physical sensations, including hunger, thirst, fatigue, discomfort or pain.
  • Mind: Notice your thoughts. Besides the food you are craving, what other thoughts do you have? For example, “I’ll never get this all done!” might be driving the desire for an escape into a bag of potato chips.
  • Heart: Next, focus on your emotions. What are you feeling right now? For example, could feeling stressed out be the reason you’re craving homemade chocolate chip cookies, a treat that reminds you of a simpler time in your life or makes you think of someone in your family?

If you adopt these habits, you can make your favorite foods a part of your healthy diet:

  • Eat mindfully. There is nothing wrong with eating a food that you’re craving. Granted, you’ll enjoy it more when you’re hungry, but either way, eat it mindfully without distractions. After all, if you wanted it that badly, then it deserves your full attention.
  • Don’t feed the eat-repent-repeat cycle. What you resist persists — and insists! If you are experiencing guilt and telling yourself that you shouldn’t be eating that food, you may paradoxically find yourself eating more of it. Allow yourself to enjoy it fully, mindfully and without guilt.
  • Seek balance, variety and moderation. All foods can fit into a healthy diet, so there are no good or bad foods. There’s plenty of room for eating the foods you love if you balance your menu, eat a wide variety of foods and eat in moderation.
  • Practice self-care. By taking care of yourself consistently, you are less likely to crave food to fill the holes in your life.

From Loyola Medicine's dietitians