It’s fair to say we’ve probably all experienced food cravings before – that irresistible urge to eat a specific food. Whether it’s chocolate, chips or ice cream, you feel as if you cannot relax until these intense cravings have been satisfied.
Food cravings can really throw a spanner in the works, particularly when you’re working towards adopting a healthy eating pattern. Frequently ‘giving in’ to cravings can be disheartening as your health goals seem more and more unattainable.
So, is there really anything you can do to help curb these food cravings? Accredited Practising Dietitian, Anna Debenham, shares her top 6 tips.
1. Start with a balanced diet
The best place to start when dealing with cravings is to take a look at your overall diet.
Your two main considerations are:
1) Is your current diet nutritionally balanced?
2) Are you eating enough?
If you find yourself experiencing strong food cravings regularly throughout the day, you might need to look at the macronutrient balance of your meals (i.e. the balance of protein, carbohydrates, vegetables and fats).
Afternoon sugar cravings can be avoided by eating a more nutritionally balanced lunch.
This is something we see a lot of, especially when people eat salads or soups for lunch that don’t contain an adequate amount of protein. It’s important to remember that, in order to feel full, you need more than just greens. A serving of protein, a little healthy fat and some healthy carbohydrates alongside those greens is a much more balanced lunch that will keep you satisfied and help keep those cravings at bay.
2. Don’t avoid your favourite treat foods
One guaranteed way to intensify cravings is to ban specific foods from your diet altogether.
While this may sound like a useful way to reach your health goals, banning foods means that they become ‘forbidden fruit’. Once you can’t have it, you’ll find yourself wanting it even more.
There’s no need to ban unhealthy foods from your diet altogether. Focus on a healthy diet but don’t deprive yourself of the foods you love – allowing treats occasionally in small amounts can actually help to avoid those intense cravings. Remember, we are looking for long term, sustainable habits and banning foods typically is not a long term approach.
3. Retrain those taste buds
Did you know that you can actually alter your taste buds to crave less sugar and salt?
Every few weeks, our taste buds regenerate. By slowly reducing your intake of sweet and salty foods, over time your taste buds will slowly adapt to crave these sorts of nutrients less.
The key is not to go cold turkey, or you might find your food tasting a little bland. If you slowly cut back, you’ll adjust and find your cravings may have reduced.
4. Try and break the habit
Food cravings are often a result of a habit you have developed over time. For example if you feel you ‘must’ immediately end each meal with a sweet bite, it is likely this is more so a habit than anything else.
Instead, try changing the behaviour straight after your meal. For example you might make yourself a herbal tea for a tummy settler and palate cleanser. Alternatively, you could go for a walk or if it’s late at night brush your teeth. Replacing your usual behaviour (eating a sweet treat) with another behaviour is a great way to break the habit.
5. Look after your mental health
If you find yourself experiencing strong cravings after a stressful day at work, chances are the cravings are emotionally fuelled.
Emotional eating becomes an issue when you’re consistently using food as a way to cope with emotions. Sometimes, it’s a habit so engrained, you don’t actually realise your craving is related to your emotions. Next time you are craving something, have a think about how you are feeling and ask yourself, ‘Do I really feel like this? Is this going to make me feel better long term?’. Have a list of other things you can do when you are tempted to emotionally eat. Distracting yourself by doing something else that makes you feel good is a technique that works for many. This could involve going for a short walk, journaling or even tending to that pile of laundry that needs washing! If it’s a habit you’ve had for a while, emotional eating can be tricky to break, however finding new ways to soothe these emotions is an important first step.
6. Get enough sleep
Did you know you’re more likely to experience food cravings after a night with too little shut-eye. This is because a lack of sleep affects certain areas of your brain which can significantly increase your desire for highly palatable and calorie-rich foods.
To counteract food cravings associated with sleep deprivation, aim to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night.