Healthy eating: How to combat food cravings

Have you ever stared at a pile of cookie crumbs or a nearly empty potato chip bag, with a belly full of shame, and wondered, “How did I let this happen?” I can relate. I think almost anyone can relate. Besides driving you to eat, cravings can drive you nuts–making you feel like an out-of-control failure who can’t keep from overindulging. It has been four weeks since my surgery and I am on a very restrictive diet. Most of what I eat has to be very well cooked or pureed. In order to reap the benefits of the surgery, I need to stick to the plan. However, I still have cravings…only I cannot give in to the cravings or I risk serious health problems. Last week I made a bowl of pureed mushroom soup that smelled like the taste of buttered popcorn. How weird is that? I cannot have popcorn for at least three months. I did not intend for the soup to smell like popcorn, but it sure satisfied my weird craving. I think sometimes we crave things that we cannot eat nor should not eat.

I am not powerless against these urges, even if it seems that way. It’s not about eliminating your cravings altogether. That’s wishful thinking. It’s not about building your willpower, either. Relying solely on self-discipline all-too-often ends with a binge (and then a whimper and a bad stomachache). The way to confront cravings is to try to outwit them by understanding why, where, and when they occur and creating a strategic action plan ahead of time.

Dig to the root of your cravings. No one hates on themselves when they crave a salad, a healthy smoothie or a grilled chicken breast. But most cravings are closely tied to junk food and have little to do with true hunger. And each time you indulge these urges you reinforce the behavior, creating a “cravings cycle” that can hijack your progress towards creating healthier eating habits.

First comes the urge (the craving), followed by the behavior (finding a food that satisfies that craving). Then, you get the reward (eating the food you wanted). That last part is accompanied by a release of dopamine, giving your brain a “hit” of pleasure. From there it can snowball: The more often you reward your brain, the more likely it is to stimulate the craving, and the stronger that craving may become. Cravings are often brought on by environmental cues such as sight, smell, taste, location, or company. You go to the movies and smell the popcorn. You just had a nice dinner and are full. Yet, you go to the concession stand and buy popcorn to satisfy a craving triggered by the smell. So tracking when and where your cravings occur can you help you figure out what triggers them. From there, you can adjust your environment and habits to disrupt the cycle.

Each time you experience a craving, take a moment to jot down the answers to these questions or think about them BEFORE acting on your craving:

-What are you craving? (A specific food? A certain flavor or texture?)

-Where are you? (Note your location, but also any smells or visual cues–restaurant advertisement in a magazine/newspaper or commercial.)

-What are you doing? (Driving? Working? Watching TV?)

-What are you feeling physically? (Shaky? Lightheaded? Tense?)

-What are you feeling emotionally? (Happy? Cranky? Rushed?)

-What are you thinking? (For instance: ‘I might as well eat this… I’ve already blown my diet.’)

-Who are you with? (Be very specific.)

This isn’t a one-time exercise. Try it for a couple of weeks so you can see what patterns emerge. Change your patterns. Let’s say you tend to reach for ice cream an hour after dinner every night. According to your notes, you’re not even really hungry; you’re just craving something sweet, salty, or crunchy… or maybe a combination of the three. Or perhaps you’ve noticed that every day after your 2 p.m. meeting, you wander to the office kitchen to get a small healthy snack. And you end up with a 500-calorie “treat” you didn’t need or even want. You’ve just identified a pattern. Now you can disrupt the cycle with these smart behavioral strategies.

Strategy #1: Give your craving a timeout

Notice your snack urge, and sit with it for five minutes without taking action. This isn’t about exercising willpower. It’s about pausing just long enough to let your conscious mind say, ‘Hey, I’m in charge here!’ This gives you the chance to evaluate all your options, and make a rational decision, rather than a reactionary one.  Are you actually hungry? Or are you bored or stressed or procrastinating? Granted, you may still decide to go ahead and indulge. After all, maybe you’re truly hungry. Or perhaps you’re just not having your best day. (Trigger alert.) And that’s okay.  Don’t consider this a failure.In your efforts to break your cravings cycle, you won’t be perfect. Simply think of this as an opportunity to gather more data about your cravings, so you better understand them for next time. But here’s the really important part: You don’t have to choose between giving in to your cravings and depriving yourself. There’s a space in between the two, and that’s where you can really break the cravings cycle.

Strategy #2: Choose an activity that doesn’t involve chewing

What happens if you step away from the freezer and go for a walk or sit down with a good book. By immersing your mind or body in an activity long enough, you may run the urge all the way out of your system. That’s because cravings are often psychological rather than physical. And with the exception of very strong grief or trauma, intense feelings don’t usually last longer than 15 to 20 minutes. If you’re not really hungry, the craving will likely dissipate. Ever get so involved in a project that you actually forget to eat lunch? Or the afternoon flies by, and you didn’t even think about a snack? Same concept, only this time, you’ll do it on purpose.

Once you sense a craving, choose an activity you can really dig into, such as:

-working on a project you’re passionate about

-crossing an item off of your daily to-do list

-responding to a few emails

-calling a friend

-playing an instrument or video game

-play an active game (inside or outside)

-coloring a page or two in a coloring book

-exercising, gardening, or cleaning

-take the dog for a walk

Remember, you’re looking to activate and occupy your mind and/or body. So, while different activities may work better for different people, watching TV probably won’t help (and in fact, is often a trigger).

Strategy #3: Eat the right foods during the day

Though cravings can happen any time of day, nighttime cravings and overeating are very common. What you eat during the day matters. Not so much what you eat on any given day, but what you eat most days. Fiber (especially from low-calorie vegetables) helps fill you up, and protein keeps you full longer between meals. This makes eating a combination of these nutrients, in sensible portions at regular intervals, key for regulating appetite. Small adjustments to eating habits, such as adding a daily breakfast with a healthy dose of protein and veggies–along with reasonable amounts of smart carbs and healthy fats–can help curb after-dinner overeating.

Strategy #4: Indulge your cravings–just doing mindfully and with a quality “junk” food

Really craving a chocolate bar? Okay, have one. But choose a pricey, high-quality dark chocolate. Eat it slowly, and savor the experience. You will probably eat far less of the chocolate (or any craved food) this way.

Step 1: Decide if you want the real thing

Enjoying a full-fat ice cream in a reasonable portion beats a compulsive, automatically-gobbled pint of a “healthy substitute” that leaves you with a weird chemical aftertaste. And no matter what your goals are, you absolutely have the right to choose to indulge from time to time.

So before opting for a junk food alternative by default, decide whether or not you truly want the “real thing.” Ask yourself:

When was the last time you had it?

Are you actually hungry? Or do you just feel like eating?

Do you think you can eat it slowly, mindfully, and stop when you’re about 80 percent full?

Will you be able to feel happy and satisfied after eating it? Or are you more likely to feel guilty and regretful?

If you decide you want to eat the real thing, enjoy it. Savor it, and then move on.
If you decide the real thing isn’t worth it or that you don’t really want it all that badly, go for a swap that’s healthful and satisfying.

Remember, not eating anything is also an option. If you’re not truly hungry, you may find doing one of the activities listed earlier helps relieve the craving.  Trying drinking a glass of water with lemon. Being thirsty actually gets confused for being hungry.

Step 2: Satisfy your craving with a healthier substitute

Disrupting the cravings cycle is key, but it takes time and practice to master it.

And no matter how in tune you are with your appetite, emotions, and eating habits, there are going to be times when you have a craving, truly feel hungry, and want another choice.

If you’re craving: Chocolate…

Chocolate Avocado Mousse
Prep time: 15 minutes | makes 16 servings

4 ripe bananas

2 ripe avocados

4 tbsp almond butter

4 tbsp cacao powder

Place all ingredients into a blender or food processor. Purée until smooth.

Divide mixture equally into eight small containers. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days.

If you’re craving: Spicy potato chips…

Edamame with Wasabi and Sea Salt
Prep time: 10 minutes | cook time: 10 minutes | makes 2 servings

2 cups frozen edamame beans (in pod)

1 tsp coconut oil

1 tsp Kosher salt

½  tsp wasabi paste or powder

Bring a medium-sized pot of water to a boil.

Add edamame and cook for two minutes.

Drain and toss hot beans in a bowl with coconut oil, salt, and wasabi. Serve immediately.

If you’re craving: Coffee ice cream…

Espresso and Cacao Nib Ice Cream
Prep time: 20 minutes, plus overnight freezing | makes 8 servings

½ cup pitted prunes

2 tablespoons instant coffee

1 ½ teaspoon cocoa powder

1 scoop chocolate whey protein powder

1 ½ teaspoons brandy

¾ cup unsweetened almond milk

½ (14 oz.) can full-fat coconut milk

½ cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt (or unsweetened almond milk)

¼ cup cacao nibs

In a blender or food processor, blend the prunes, instant coffee, cocoa powder, protein powder and brandy until a smooth paste forms.

Add the unsweetened almond milk and coconut milk in a slow stream.

Add the yogurt and cacao nibs, and pulse until just combined.

Freeze overnight.

If you’re craving: Fudge…

Date and Almond Balls
Prep time: 30 minutes | makes about 30 servings

2 cups chopped almonds, divided

1 cup pitted dates

1 cup dried figs

½ cup hot water

2 tsp ground cinnamon

½  tsp ground cardamom

¼  cup warm honey

Using a food processor, blend dates, figs, water, spices and one cup of the almonds into a paste, scraping down the sides as you go.

Form mixture into one-inch balls.

Roll each ball in honey and coat with remaining almonds.

Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks or freeze for up to three months.

If you’re craving: French fries…

Baked Sweet Potato Fries

Prep time: 10 minutes | cook time: 20 minutes | makes 2 servings
1 (½ lb) sweet potato, skin on, cut into ½ inch batons

1 tsp Kosher salt

½ tsp coconut or extra-virgin olive oil

½ tsp smoked paprika or any other herb/spice (garlic powder, curry, etc.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Toss all ingredients in a large bowl until evenly coated. Spread onto baking tray in a single layer.

Bake for about twenty minutes, turning once, until golden brown.

Let cool for 10 minutes on tray before serving.

– By Deborah Binder

Deborah Binder lives in Edmonds with her family. She is “dancing with N.E.D.” (no evidence of disease) after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009. She is a foodie who loves to cook from scratch and share her experiments with her family and friends. She attended culinary school on the East Coast and freelances around town for local chefs. Her current interest in food is learning to eat for health and wellness, while at the same time enjoying the pleasures of the table. As Julia Child once said, “Everything in moderation including butter.” Deborah can be contacted at

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