Free yourself from food cravings in three simple ways


Food cravings might be a part of your battle to lose weight. Maybe you crave specific foods you find irresistible, like pizza, chips, bagels, chocolate, or cupcakes. Or your cravings are not about a particular food but rather about eating when feeling stressed, overwhelmed, bored, or sad. In either case, you might feel powerless, out of control, and even defeated by your cravings. Free yourself from food cravings and feel in control of your eating.

In this article, we’ll discuss the following:

  • What’s a food craving, and how is it different from hunger?
  • Some unfortunate consequences of cravings
  • How to tell if you are hungry or craving
  • How do we develop cravings for specific foods?
  • The reward system and the function of cravings 
  • How to free yourself from food cravings

Hunger vs. craving

We eat to satisfy the need for nourishment and energy. And hunger is how our body lets us know we need to eat. Hunger is not a pleasant sensation, and we strive to eliminate it. We experience satisfaction and even pleasure after eating. Both hunger and satisfaction ensure our motivation for food intake and, ultimately, survival.

Craving, however, is when we want to eat without needing nourishment. We want to eat just because eating gives us pleasure, distraction, novelty, or temporary relief from physical or emotional discomfort. We crave food with or without feeling hungry.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re eating to satisfy hunger or craving. The physical sensations we interpret as a desire to eat can be similar, and in both cases, eating gives us pleasure. Most of us are too busy or not interested enough to want to know the difference.

Three consequences of eating due to food cravings

  1. You develop a dependence when you consistently use food to satisfy a craving vs. hunger.
    • If you wake up in the middle of the night and eat to “help” you fall asleep, you are conditioning yourself to depend on food to fall asleep. And with time, it will become hard to fall asleep without eating.
    • If you come home from work and your default is snacks and wine to “relax,” you are building a need for food to achieve relaxation.
    • If you eat when you get anxious and restless, you might feel temporary relief, but you are teaching yourself to rely on food to feel better.
  2. Cravings often lead to overeating. You are too focused on your emotional upset and mindlessly overeat. Because eating gets you only temporary relief, you need to keep eating to distract or comfort yourself. You expect a specific food to give you such pleasure that you can’t stop eating it. As a result, you gain weight.
  3. You feel powerless and out of control when it comes to your cravings.

How to tell between hunger and cravings

To avoid building intense cravings and food dependencies or to free yourself from food cravings, start by learning to tell the difference between a craving and actual hunger. Here are some suggestions: 

  1. Ask yourself: Am I hungry? Do I need to eat?
  2. If you feel hungry for a specific palatable food X, like chips, cheese, sweets, etc., ask yourself: will I be satisfied if I substitute X for some steamed broccoli (or whatever else you consider just okay food)? Many foods satisfy hunger, but we usually crave something specific.
  3. Have a regular eating schedule. Your body will quickly adjust and start sending you hunger signals around the time you typically eat your meals. Thinking of food in between meals should catch your attention and trigger curiosity. 
  4. Notice and rate your emotional state from happy (10) through neutral (0) to unhappy(-10). 

If your emotional state is below neutral, you want food at an odd hour, and you desire a specific and very palatable food – it’s most likely a craving, even if you feel hungry.

Of course, it’s possible to be hungry between meals. Usually, it’s related to what and how much you ate at the last meal. After eating a big salad with mostly lettuce and not much else, you can feel satisfied at the end of the meal and be hungry again two hours later. Adding more protein and fat to your salad will satisfy you until dinner. Chicken, cold steak, salmon, feta or parmesan, nuts, and avocado are my favorite choices to add to a salad.

Cravings and trigger foods

Like most people, you probably have a specific food you love. You can’t have enough of it, you feel a strong desire to eat it even when you’re not hungry, and you tend to overeat it. 

What matters is not the food itself but rather what you think and how you feel about it. For example, a birthday cake is attractive not only because it’s a tasty sweet sponge with icing but because the entire birthday experience intensifies our desire for it – the arrival of guests, the excitement of opening the presents, and the euphoria of being the center of attention. So when we think of a birthday cake, instead of expecting mild pleasure from eating, we anticipate and crave “happiness.”

Be it a birthday cake, a beautiful display of pastries, or the smell of freshly brewed coffee – any food that you think will make you happy triggers the reward system in your brain and hijacks your attention. Your mind becomes fixated on obtaining that reward. 

Interestingly, even if you never get the level of satisfaction, you think a piece of cake can give you, the hope for it is enough to keep you hooked.

The reward system and the function of food cravings

Scientists attribute the experience of craving to the release of dopamine and stimulation of the “reward system” area in the brain. The reward system is a part of the brain’s most primitive motivation system that propels us to action. 

The rush of dopamine doesn’t feel like joy or happiness. It doesn’t give us any satisfaction. Instead, it captivates our attention and makes us alert so we are ready to act and don’t miss out on the promised reward. 

The reward system doesn’t give us pleasure itself. Instead, it makes us anticipate it. And this promise, the anticipation, keeps us coming for more and more. 

The experience of wanting or craving does not guarantee satisfaction, but it keeps us hooked on the promise of pleasure. Can we wear off the magical spell of the reward system and free ourselves from a craving? The good news is, yes, we can get disenchanted with our trigger food and free ourselves from it. 

First of all, make a list of your trigger foods. Which foods compel you and feel irresistible? You want to address them one by one, not altogether. Become a true detective of your desires, reactions, and feelings. What captivates your attention and unleashes the promise of a reward? Make sure to have a notebook to keep your ideas and discoveries recorded.

How to free yourself from food cravings

There are three simple steps to free yourself from cravings. Simple doesn’t mean easy or one-and-done. Chances are you’ll have to practice these steps consistently before you let go of the attachment. 

1. The meaning behind your food craving

Get very curious about your particular craving. Can you connect it to an experience from the past that made this food so attractive to you? You might realize it’s not so much about the food itself and discover the real need behind a craving.

For example, one of my clients loved donuts. When she got curious, she remembered a particular shop in her hometown where she used to go with her friends as a child. She loved the experience of hanging out with them at the shop and eating donuts. My client realized that when thinking of donuts, her reward system promised her the pleasure of the wonderful time she had with her friends. She also realized that a donut could never fulfill that promise. As a result, the donut became a tad less compelling for her.

Another example is eating to satisfy a need for distraction, novelty, comfort, soothing, etc. One client told me she ate out of boredom. When I asked her how entertaining her snack was, she realized it really wasn’t that much fun, and there were better ways to satisfy a need to stimulate her mind.

Another client told me she “rewarded” herself with a bag of chips after a hard day at work. I asked her if she’d accept a bag of chips from her boss if they offered it as a reward. She laughed and said no.

2. Test the promise of your reward system

Because our attention is captivated by the promise of feeling good, we are primarily aware of how much we want our favorite food. We rarely pay attention to how much we actually enjoy the food when we eat it. And most of the time, we are not mindful of the bad feelings that come after we satisfy our dopamine-driven desire. 

Here is how you can test your reward system promise:

  • Get plenty of that food you think you love so much. 
  • Make sure there are no distractions, no TV, no phone, no one to chat with, and not even a book to read. It’s just you and the food. 
  • Then start eating it slowly, savoring every bite, paying attention to the flavor, the smell, and the texture. 
  • Notice how much you enjoy the first bite, the second, and the third. Notice what happens with the fourth and the fifth bites. Are you still enjoying them just as much? Write down your discoveries and keep eating until you don’t want to eat anymore. What did you learn? Write it down.
  • When you are full and can’t take a single additional bite, how do you feel physically? How does your body feel? Write it down. 
  • How do you feel 1, 2, or even 3 hours into the day? What physical sensations are you having? What are your thoughts and feelings about the experience? When, if ever, did you experience satisfaction? And yes, you guessed it, write it down.

Most people find out that one of two things is true for them. Some stop enjoying the food after only a few bites and realize they need much less food to feel satisfied than they initially thought. Others discover the experience unsatisfying altogether. They learn that their expectation and reality don’t match. 

But don’t take my word. Find out for yourself. Learning by doing gives you evidence you can’t deny.

3. “Play it Forward” approach

When people give in to their reward system temptation and eat their trigger food, they feel bad afterward, either physically from overeating or emotionally. We use that “hangover” feeling in the “Play it forward” approach.

Let’s assume you are going somewhere, and you know your favorite food will be there (a social event, a grocery store, or your boyfriend’s house). Take a deep breath and imagine what’s ahead of you: the setting, the food, and your anticipation of eating that food. Notice if there is a hint of stress and anxiety that comes along with it as well. Now see yourself eating the food the way you typically would. Then continue going through the whole scenario of what might happen. You’ll see that the promised pleasure will take you all the way to pain. And your brain will go: “OH, NO! I don’t want that pain!” You don’t want to feel heavy and stuffed or feel bad about yourself, guilty, or ashamed. At that point, the food you crave so much won’t seem so attractive anymore. 

What could be a better offer? Come up with another idea that will feel good. It could be some other foods you can eat that will make you feel comfortable in your body and happy because they take you closer to your lighter, healthier self. It could also be something unrelated to food, like calling a friend or doing something you enjoy.

What you want to remember

The reward system is there to motivate us and propel us to action. Its job is to point us to temptation and keep us coming back for more. Our mind mistakes our cravings for actual pleasure and happiness. And what’s even worse is we often chase after things that don’t make us happy or satisfied. 

However, we have a say in where our reward system points us to! To free yourself from an undesirable craving, you should:

  1. Find out what your craving really means
  2. Put the promise of the reward system to the test
  3. Practice the “Play it Forward” Approach

You can find more information on the reward system and how we mistake wanting happiness for happiness itself in Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct.

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