How to Resist Food Cravings—and When It's Okay to Give In
Just because that bag of chips is calling your name doesn't mean you have to answer. Beef up your willpower with these tips.
We've all been there: You start your day off right with a healthy breakfast of Greek yogurt, fruit, almonds, and a conviction that you will eat healthy all day. Lunch is grilled fish and a salad and you feel like you’re ready to tackle J.Lo’s no-sugar, no-carb cleanse. But then the afternoon slump hits and you figure you ate well all day, what can a little handful of M&Ms really do? By dinner you're ravenous and down half a loaf of French bread while the spaghetti cooks. Bedtime finds you zoning out in front of the TV with a pint of ice cream instead of hitting the sack early. When you finally stumble into bed too late and too tired, you resolve to do better tomorrow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
You're not crazy if you feel like you're having an internal battle over whether you should or shouldn't get into your emergency Oreo stash. "We're at our most creative when we're trying to justify giving in to a craving," says David Colbert, M.D., a coauthor of The High School Reunion Diet.
And cravings seem to hit harder as the day goes on. According to a survey conducted by now-defunct Massive Health (a daily food intake tracking app), people all over the world have trouble figuring how to resist food cravings—especially when the sun goes down. (A new study has the verdict: Is it truly that bad to eat late at night?)
"There is a 1.7 percent overall decrease in healthiness of what's eaten for every hour of the day that passes after breakfast," says Aza Raskin, Massive Health founder. "That's as true in Tokyo as it is in San Francisco as it is in São Paulo. It teaches us something fundamental about the way people make decisions about food—and decisions in general."
Luckily, scientists now know more than ever about using our powers of persuasion for good, not evil, any hour of the day. Here's how to resist food that’s not so great for your health goals. (But before you go any further, read: Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Foods as 'Good' and 'Bad')
How to Stop Food Cravings
Try these six strategies to reframe your mindset, build healthier habits, and learn how to resist food cravings—without depriving yourself.
Old Excuse: "If I deprive myself now, I'll just eat more later."
New Mantra: "I'm making a choice, not a sacrifice."
We tend to want what we can't have. But when it comes to cravings, not getting what you want can dampen your desire. "Studies show that we crave what we eat," says Stephanie Middleberg, R.D., a dietitian in New York City. "So if you eat good-for-you foods, you'll start wanting them instead of cookies and cake." The key is getting your mind on board as you figure out how to resist food cravings until your body can take over. (Related: How One Woman Finally Curbed Her Sugar Cravings)
How to resist food cravings strategy: Reframe the story. "Depriving yourself is about resisting, and resistance is difficult. Choosing whether to eat something, on the other hand, is empowering," says Michelle May, M.D., the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. So instead of trying to will your way through how to stop food cravings, put them on the back burner until you've fit in a workout or finished dinner. "That way you can indulge, but in your own time and on your own terms," says Keri Gans, R.D., the author of The Small Change Diet.
The tactic may also help you eat less: Research has found that people who were told to put off eating chocolate consumed less than those who were told to eat it immediately. The researchers believe that when you wait to indulge, you're probably in less of an impulsive mindset and in more of a reflective, ready-to-savor one. (P.S. Here’s what science says about how many cheat meals you should have per week.)
Old Excuse: "I deserve a treat after the kind of day I've had."
New Mantra: "I deserve kindness, not calories."
Sure, satisfying a craving can give you a quick hit of the pleasure hormone dopamine (and if you're doing it with carbs, a rush of calming serotonin too). But research shows that chocolate's comforting effect lasts only three minutes. And once the high passes, you're left with the same frustrations as before. (Good news: Dark chocolate might combat coughs, according to a new study!)
How to resist food cravings strategy: Verbalize what's making you feel lousy. While emotional eating can add to your woes by pushing up your pants size, "pinpointing your problems is the first step to resolving them," says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Compassion Diet. Give yourself a few minutes to write about a problem in an email, then read what you've written and delete the draft. Research says that virtually throwing away your woes makes it easier to let them go in real life.
If you still can't stop thinking about what went wrong, do something soothing that doesn't involve consuming calories, like taking a walk. Or snuggle with a pet or a loved one, a proven way to make stress hormones plummet and the feel-good chemical oxytocin spike. (Or even just think about them—that works, too!) Whatever you do, don't get hung up on the past: A study from Wake Forest University found that dieters who didn't beat themselves up over a perceived failure ate less candy than those who were self-critical. (Related: Should You Really Hate on Processed Foods?)
Old Excuse: "It's a special occasion."
New Mantra: "Special doesn't mean stuffed."
"It would be crazy to pass up a piece of your own birthday cake," says Gans. But that doesn't mean you have to eat a ginormous slice—or two.
How to resist food cravings strategy: The satisfaction you get from any one food often drops off with every bite, and research shows that small portions can be as satisfying as large ones. So if the situation merits a calorie-packed treat, try eating just a few forkfuls, and give them your full attention: Focusing on what you're eating helps you consume fewer calories later on. (This is the whole idea behind why mindful eating helps you figure out how to stop food cravings.)
And remember that you'll have a lot more fun if you feel sated, not stuffed. "You want to experience what's happening to the fullest, and being in a food coma makes that difficult," Fain says.
Old Excuse: "I need to listen to my body, and it wants ice cream."
New Mantra: "What I want isn't necessarily what I need."
Think of your body as if it were a baby monitor: You should pay close attention to it, but you don't have to stop what you're doing each time it rumbles. "While hunger is your body telling you that you need to eat, cravings are a suggestion, not an order," says Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of Eat.Q.
How to resist food cravings strategy: Start by determining whether you're actually hungry. Aside from the obvious symptoms like fatigue and irritability, pickiness is also a good indicator of appetite. The less you care about eating a specific food and the more you just want to eat something, the likelier it is that you don't have just a hankering.
If it's only a craving (for example, you would kill for a cookie but could easily pass on an apple), make yourself a cup of jasmine green tea and take a big whiff of it before you sip. In recent studies, women who smelled jasmine were able to significantly reduce their chocolate cravings. Or use your imagination: Other research has shown that visualizing yourself eating your favorite food can tamp down your desire for it by tricking your brain into thinking you've already indulged.
Old Excuse: "I've been really good lately."
New Mantra: "I've been feeling really good lately, and I want to keep it that way."
"When you use food as a prize, you risk sabotaging your motivation by signaling to yourself that you've reached an endpoint; you got the medal, so the race is over," Albers says. "This can be an open invitation to revert to unhealthy behaviors." (BTW, how you reward yourself for working out majorly affects your motivation.)
How to resist food cravings strategy: Rather than rewarding yourself for a job well done, focus on how eating healthfully has already paid off (aka non-scale victories). Do you have more energy? Do your clothes fit better? Then take a moment to let the emotions that come with that benefit sink in. Why? In the same way you can get addicted to the endorphins your body releases when you work up a sweat, "you can get hooked on the feeling of pride or progress, which makes you want to continue down a healthy path," Dr. Colbert says.
Old Excuse: "If they can eat a brownie sundae, so can I."
New Mantra: "I need to eat what's right for me."
Everyone has a thin friend or coworker who seems to live on junk food and lots of it. And because studies have found that women tend to eat more when they're together, you probably want what she's having every time you two go out to lunch. (Related: How to Eat Healthy While Dining Out)
"Imitating other people, or 'social modeling,' is how we learn to navigate the world almost from the time we're born, and it's a hard habit to break," says Sonali Sharma, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York City. But as tempting as it is to imagine that your friend has discovered some kind of fifth dimension for dieters, whatever is going on with her probably doesn't translate. "Maybe she has a fast metabolism or spends hours in the gym every day," Dr. Sharma explains.
How to resist food cravings strategy: Having a healthy role model can play a key part in helping you stick to your diet and exercise plan. So think of someone, whether it's a celebrity or a friend, whose eating habits you aspire to. (Skip the pin-thin actress who subsists on diet soda alone and instead choose a woman who has professed her love for pizza but limits herself to two slices.) Then, rather than matching Ms. Sky-High Metabolism bite for bite, think, What would my health hero (say, these badass females recognized by Nike) do? and act accordingly.