Things You Can Do To Manage Your Food Cravings

For many of us, food cravings are harmless and dealing with them could be as straightforward as satiating our hunger -– or letting ourselves enjoy that giant chocolate brownie (via Current Nutrition Reports). But for some, cravings can become persistent and distressing. They may start to dictate an individual's thoughts and behavior, and some people may find that their relationship with food becomes a bit more strained than usual (via Clinical Chemistry). 

Delving into the research around cravings can feel like you're descending a rabbit hole (via Journal of Health Psychology). There's no one single driving cause of food cravings — the phenomenon is at once incredibly simple and infinitely complex. Identifying the underlying reasons behind your cravings can feel challenging, since they may be born out of a complex combination of psychological, hormonal, and biochemical factors. If you're seeking strategies to help you feel less out of control around food, it could be a matter of trial and error to uncover an approach that works best for you. Here are a few ways you might be able to manage your food cravings.

Avoid micromanaging what you eat

Letting go of control to feel less out of control may sound counterintuitive. Or perhaps not? If you've trudged your way through a number of restrictive diets, you're likely to be familiar with their high potential to backfire. Studies have shown that most diets don't work -– at least not in the long-term (via The BMJ). That's because food restriction is a massive precipitator of cravings. When we persistently try to avoid foods that we enjoy and get pleasure from, we begin to feel deprived and want more of what's being shunned (via Current Nutrition Reports).

Some researchers say that absolute restriction can be challenging. "It's just not doable for the normal person to avoid things forever, so they overcompensate by eating more of what they're trying to restrict. It's not enjoyable to live like that," Abby Langer, a registered dietitian and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition, told SELF. Rather than cutting out specific foods and food groups entirely, it may be helpful to give yourself permission to have all foods in moderation, while paying attention to your body's internal signals of hunger, satiety, and fullness.

Reframe your self-talk

Some researchers insist that our cravings are mostly culturally and socially instilled rather than stemming from a nutritional deficiency (via PLoS One). After all, different people pine for different foods depending on where they live or grew up: Chocolate is a commonly craved food in the U.S., whereas mangoes are a preferred indulgence in Tanzania (via Tanzania Journal of Health Research). 

Many of us receive the message from our culture that treasuring food is a sign of indulgence, Ruth Striegel Weissman, a professor and psychologist specializing in eating disorders, told Health Digest. Instead, we are taught to be afraid of food, she says. The story we tell ourselves about what we eat is critical. Labeling foods as "good," "bad," and "off-limits" can create a psychology of deprivation that makes our cravings stronger since we tend to romanticize foods that are considered "forbidden," particularly when we're feeling a bit crummy (via Current Drug Abuse Reviews). Changing our language around food and getting rid of terms like "guilty pleasure" might be a helpful step toward changing our relationship with food. 

Replace highly palatable foods with natural, nutritious foods

While moderation is a healthy rule to live by, it's sometimes easier said than done. Some people may find certain foods hard to consume in small quantities, such as highly refined and processed foods that are typically full of sugar (via Clinical Chemistry). Sugar consumption has been said to elicit addiction-like cravings and compulsive food-seeking behaviors. That's because sugar produces a repeated increase of dopamine similar to many illicit substances, activating the brain's reward circuit and training its neurons to seek out more to achieve that "good" feeling. Studies also suggest that eating lots of carbohydrates with a high glycemic load like potatoes and sweets can sometimes make us overeat by causing a blood sugar dip and subsequent hunger.

There's evidence that eating less of these highly palatable foods could decrease the desire for them in the long term (via Advances in Nutrition). So, it can be helpful to replace highly processed foods with natural, nutritious options that you enjoy. For instance, a 2020 study showed that people who followed a low-carbohydrate diet had fewer food cravings than others (via Nutrients). Protein decreases the activation of brain regions that are linked to food rewards and cravings, according to a study from Nutrition Journal, which is why a high-protein diet is more likely to enhance feelings of fullness than a high-carb one.

Eat mindfully without distractions

When people eat without distractions or time limits, they feel satiated longer than when they are distracted or rushed, psychologist Ruth Striegel Weissman told Health Digest. Indeed, a recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions discovered that people who used a mindful eating app were better able to manage their cravings. "Food cravings are programmed by neurotransmitters such as dopamine which drive habit loops that feel rewarding –- a basic function of our brains –- but fortunately, mindfulness can reverse this process, helping us work with cravings and find bigger, better rewards such as improving health and feeling nourished by our food," Jud Brewer, a neuroscientist and senior author of the study, reported via a press release (via Cision PR Newswire). 

Weissman recommends that we learn to savor the foods that we eat. "Take out the piece of chocolate and eat it as though you are a taste tester: Without passing judgment, let it melt on your tongue, observe the various flavors and the texture of the piece, notice how texture and flavors change over time," she says. "Some people find that they actually do not like the food item as much as they thought; or, even if they love it, they may learn at even at a small quantity, the item can be surprisingly satisfying and not lead to wanting more of it or to loss-of-control eating."

CBT and hypnosis may help

Depriving ourselves of the foods we love can set off cravings. But research suggests that eating the foods we crave less frequently can also reduce cravings over time (via Current Nutrition Reports). In other words, the less we have something, the less we want it. Emotional eating is a knee-jerk reaction that develops into a habit with repetition, when we turn to food to comfort ourselves. "The upside of craving is that it is a conditioned response that you can unlearn," John Apolzan, director of Pennington Biomedical's Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism Laboratory, told ScienceDaily. "It's not easy, but it can be done."

Luckily, there are some therapeutic techniques that may help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based intervention that can help you to challenge and reframe unhelpful thoughts and beliefs (via Trials). People typically receive CBT from a therapist, but some individuals may benefit from using instructional YouTube videos or self-help books to practice CBT on their own. Equally, hypnotherapy can help people temper their cravings by changing their narrative around food and helping them develop new habits. A study published in the journal Obesity in 2018 found that individuals who worked with a therapist to learn self-hypnosis techniques felt less out of control around food and were able to improve their eating behaviors.

Eat when you're hungry

Sometimes cravings are a physiological response to needing more food in the body. A recent study showed that hunger has a huge impact on food cravings (via Frontiers in Psychology). It can put you in a pretty foul mood –- colloquially known as feeling "hangry" –- and an individual's emotional state is another key factor that drives cravings and food-seeking behavior. Therefore, eating regularly may be a helpful way to stave off both hunger pangs and cravings. This is bound to look different for each person, but a general rule of thumb might be to avoid waiting too long between meals.

Research indicates that some people, particularly those with disordered eating behaviors, have poor interoceptive awareness (via Journal of Psychosomatic Research). This means they have a hard time detecting and navigating bodily signals like hunger and fullness. It could be helpful to learn to differentiate between cravings and actual hunger: Are you simply longing for a particular food or flavor? Or are your mid-afternoon "cravings" your body's way of calling out for fuel?

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Ensure that your emotional needs are being met

Beyond the many physiological causes for cravings, the desire to comfort eat sometimes springs from uncomfortable emotions like loneliness, dissatisfaction, or pent-up anger. Sadness, in particular, can make a person yearn for a particular tasty food as a way to self-soothe, notes the American Psychological Association. Cravings sometimes strike when we're stressed. This could be tied to a number of different factors such as the tendency to sleep and eat poorly when we're anxious, increased sedentary behavior, or the fact that when stressed our bodies are churning out hormones like cortisol that send our appetite into overdrive (via Journal of Health Psychology).

It can be helpful to reflect on how you're feeling when you notice those cravings creeping in: Are they a symptom of actual hunger, or a desire for comfort? Could these cravings be relieved by addressing your emotional needs, such as reaching out to a friend? Some experts recommend food journaling as a healthy outlet for thoughts and feelings, per the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. This can help you investigate the origins of your cravings while documenting any interesting patterns that may accompany them.

Keep your blood sugar levels stable

People who experience dips in blood sugar levels two to three hours after eating tend to feel hungrier and consume far more calories than others, reports a 2021 study (via Nature Metabolism). When blood glucose levels plummet, various hormones are released including cortisol, epinephrine, and growth hormone (via Physiology & Behavior). This can bring about feelings of anxiety and stress, which often trigger food cravings. Blood sugar fluctuations are sometimes caused by a lack of food due to big gaps between meals or following a low-calorie diet. It could also be tied to individual differences in metabolism or contextual factors like how much exercise or sleep the person has had (via Nature Metabolism).

One simple way to make sure you're not being tricked by hunger-induced sugar dips is to get some food in your stomach, recommends the Cleveland Clinic. A healthy snack like a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts can quickly get your blood sugar back up and prevent you from fixating on less nutritious foods. The authors of the aforementioned study suggest that opting for foods that complement your unique biology is another way to keep your blood sugar levels in check and help you feel fuller for longer (via ZOE). This may involve experimenting with eating different foods to see what works for you, or seeking the help of a registered dietician.

Connect with others

There's evidence that we crave food in pretty much the same way that we crave social interactions. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2020 revealed that the desire to connect with other people when we're feeling lonely is neurologically similar to the food cravings we experience when we're feeling hungry. The same brain regions are activated, and seeking out interactions stimulates dopamine release, driving the craving and reward cycle. This might be just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to explaining the surge in disordered eating over the past couple of years, as the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major cause of isolation (via Frontiers in Psychology).

Findings ways to connect with friends or family can go a long way to warding off those niggling cravings, suggest researchers. "One general takeaway of our study is that it highlights how important being connected with others is for humans," Livia Tomova, a study author and research associate at the University of Cambridge, told Verywell Health. "If one day of being alone makes our brains respond as if we had been fasting for the whole day, it suggests that our brains are very sensitive to the experience of being alone."

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).


Mindfulness meditation has been practiced across various traditions for centuries as a way to deal with cravings and impulses. Mindfulness strategies can interrupt the craving process by engaging a part of your short-term memory that's associated with perception and language skills, namely a portion of the mind that contributes to the rise of cravings, says a 2020 review study published in Clinical Psychology Review. Meditation has been shown to help in a multitude of ways. It allows you to witness uncomfortable thoughts and emotions and cultivate an attitude of acceptance for the present moment instead. Some mindfulness interventions can help people reconnect and tune into their bodily sensations, such as their internal hunger and satisfaction cues, keeping automatic reactions in check. Mindfulness also has the potential to lead to greater resilience against discomfort and pain, so you're better able to cope with intense feelings like cravings when they arise.

Yoga and exercise may help

Yoga and exercise may also help you get a handle on cravings. People who maintain a regular yoga practice generally report healthier food cravings and eating behaviors than others, noted a 2018 study (via International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity). Physical activity interventions are sometimes prescribed to help people keep their cravings at bay, say researchers (via Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity).

One explanation for why yoga and exercise work well as cravings busters are that they can help increase levels of ghrelin –- a metabolic peptide produced in the gut –- according to a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Physiology. Ghrelin levels regulate food intake and may even play a role in the long-term management of weight loss. You might expect ghrelin — an appetite-stimulating hormone — to be higher in people who overeat, but research shows that ghrelin levels are usually lower in people with obesity and other metabolic issues. So next time you find yourself bombarded by cravings, try rolling out your yoga mat or get outside for a walk or jog to help rebalance those chemicals in your body.

Get sufficient sleep

If you've been more preoccupied with food than usual recently, it might be down to a lack of shuteye. Several studies have connected sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep with junk food cravings (via Nutrients). Even one night of insufficient sleep can play havoc with your appetite and could be the reason why you're constantly snacking or thinking about food. One explanation for this is that not getting enough sleep causes your levels of ghrelin (the hormone that stimulates hunger) to spike, and the appetite suppressant hormone, leptin, to plummet (via Psychoneuroendocrinology). Insufficient sleep also changes the activity in your frontal cortex and amygdala — areas of the brain that heighten the desire for highly palatable foods (via Nature Communications). On the other hand, people who are well-rested feel satiated for longer throughout the day and have fewer sweet and salty food urges, according to a 2019 review in the Journal of Sleep Research. Although more research is needed to investigate the relationship between sleep and cravings, there's plenty of evidence in favor of a good night's sleep to help you better manage your food cravings.