Sweet foods and those rich in other carbohydrates fire off feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and other relaxing endorphins in the brain. The effects of these chemicals may make a person more likely to seek them out repeatedly.
Satisfying cravings can become a habit, and it may be easy to eat sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods without thinking about the consequences.
Once a person kicks the habit, for example by following a restrictive diet, the cravings usually end soon afterward.
The strategies below can help with managing food cravings.
1. Drinking water
The body can misinterpret thirst for hunger, and drinking water may help to curb food cravings.
The body can misinterpret signals from the brain, and what feels like a food craving may be a sign of thirst.
Some people benefit from drinking water as soon as a food craving hits. Drinking more water may also help people who are dieting to lose weight.
Authors of a study from 2014 examined overweight female participants who drank an extra 1.5 liters of water per day.
The study found the participants who drank water weighed less, had less body fat, and reported more significant appetite reduction than matched participants who did not drink the water.
When a food craving strikes, try drinking a large glass of water and waiting a few minutes. If the craving goes away, the body may just have been thirsty.
In 2015, researchers published the results of an investigation into the effects of quick exercise sessions on cravings for chocolate in people who were overweight.
They found that brisk, 15-minute walks were more effective at reducing cravings than sitting passively.
The next time a craving hits, it may help to try taking a quick walk or using the stairs instead of the elevator.
3. Mental games
One way to differentiate between cravings and real hunger is to ask questions, such as:
Would I eat a piece of fruit?
This exercise is called the fruit test. If a person cannot tell whether they are really hungry or just craving a sugary sweet, asking themselves whether they would eat a piece of whole fruit can help.
If the answer is yes, the body is likely hungry, and if the answer is no, a person may be having a craving.
Is it worth it in the long term?
Visualizing the long-term consequences of snacking or otherwise indulging can help some people to curb cravings.
These consequences may include:
- difficulty losing weight
- health risks
- feeling reduced levels of energy and happiness throughout the day
This exercise can also help a person to see the big picture and remember why they are dieting or trying to restrict their intake of certain foods.
4. Reduce stress
Stress-relieving exercises, such as tai chi, may reduce hunger cravings.
Stress can play a role in hunger cravings, and long-term stressors can cause some people to crave foods that are sugary or more calorie-dense.
Finding ways to reduce stress may help to eliminate cravings.
Simple means of reducing stress, such as taking regular breaks from work, or even taking a few deep breaths, can help the body to refocus and calm the mind.
It may also help to try mindful stress-relieving practices, such as:
- breathing exercises
- guided meditation
- tai chi
5. Avoid hunger
Many people who are dieting cut back on calories, but calorie restriction can pose challenges and lead to more frequent feelings of hunger.
If a person feels hungry all the time, making certain dietary changes may help to curb sugar and carb cravings.
Some people recommend structuring the diet by setting specific times for meals each day. This can help to retrain the body and brain, and communicate that there are times to eat and times not to.
If a person cannot sit down for set meals, they are more likely to snack throughout the day. In this case, it is important to have healthful snacks on hand. This may also make a trip to the convenience store, fast food restaurant, or vending machine less tempting.
6. Eat more protein
Increasing the amount of protein in the diet may reduce the number of cravings and keep the body satisfied for longer after eating.
Many people find that eating more protein helps to keep hunger pangs and cravings to a minimum.
Protein may help the body to feel more satisfied for longer.
According to findings published in the research journal Obesity, overweight males who increased their dietary protein intake to represent at least 25 percent of their total calorie intake reported a significant reduction in food cravings.
Protein may be especially helpful at breakfast. Research published in Nutrition Journal studied the effects of eating breakfast on cravings in teenage females who were overweight or obese and who usually skipped breakfast.
They found that eating breakfast resulted in fewer cravings for sweet or savory foods. Those who ate breakfast with a high protein content had fewer cravings for savory foods.
The authors considered the protein content to be high when the meal contained 35 grams of protein from certain sources.
7. Plan times to indulge
Completely ignoring cravings can have negative consequences, so it may be a good idea to plan times to eat otherwise restricted foods. This may look like a cheat day or an after-work treat, depending on a person's dietary needs.
Sticking to a restrictive diet and ignoring cravings may be easier if a person has a planned indulgence to look forward to.
8. Try a stick of gum
Some people find that reaching for a piece of sugar-free gum helps them to avoid food cravings when they strike.
Authors of a study from 2015 concluded that chewing gum may reduce appetite and cravings, and they attributed these effects to the process of chewing.
Gum may be a more healthful alternative to sugary or high-calorie snacks.
Any of the strategies above, or a combination, may help to reduce cravings for foods rich in sugars and other types of carbohydrate. However, it may still be a good idea to speak with a professional.
A dietician or personal trainer can help a person to develop a healthful diet plan that reduces cravings and associated stress.
Ultimately, a person will see the best results if they make dietary changes that they can maintain in the long term.