Updated: April 10, 2020

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food cravingsThe Challenge

A warm cinnamon roll, 5-layer chocolate cake, a bag of sour cream and onion chips, pizza, or maybe a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Are you now thinking about your favorite food? Maybe you are now craving a specific food? First, sorry for that. Second, this is a common and persistent experience for most people. Third, I plan to share with you some ideas that can help you reduce the frequency of such experiences as well as how to deal with food cravings in a more productive manner.

A food craving is often defined as “an intense desire or urge to eat a specific food” (p.3, Kemps et al 2010). Typically a craving for a specific food is not due to hunger or a physiological need for food, although being hungry can increase the intensity of the craving. A wide range of foods can be craved. Typically these foods would fall into the category of highly-processed foods, “junk foods” or snack foods, such as chips, donuts, ice cream, candy bar, etc. These foods are often a combination of sugar, fat, and salt, and are hyper-palatable, or less technically known as really yummy. However, craved foods can also include foods that would typically be considered healthy. These craved or “comfort” foods often develop during developmental periods due to what foods were available/served in our home on a regular basis as well during special occasions (Troisi et al 2017).  Furthermore, when it comes to gender, there is often a difference of what foods are craved (Hallam et al 2016; Mason & Epel 2015). For women it is more likely sweats and carbohydrate based foods, such as pastries, ice cream, and yes, chocolate and for men, it is more likely savory foods, such as meat, fish, and eggs (Hallam et al 2016).

The craving thing is important because the ability to handle these thoughts and resulting behavior is usually necessary for eating healthy as well as losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight (Boswell et al 2015). Furthermore, cravings are a major aspect of all types of addictions or maladaptive behaviors (Andrade et al 2012; Kober et al 2015). Many researchers have looked at cravings from a variety of angles. The challenging aspect is there are a number of potential causes. However, the good news is there are some promising interventions that will likely help reduce the frequency and intensity of cravings as well as the amount of craved foods eaten.

The following are the current evidence-based interventions for dealing with food cravings. There are two important points to keep in mind. First, it is very unlikely that cravings will eliminated; rather they will be reduced. Second, being able to handle food cravings in a more productive manner is likely needed for short-term weight loss as well as the more important aspect of maintaining a healthy weight. Therefore, the effort put forth to handle them better is very likely to have a positive return on investment.

The interventions fall into two main categories, internal and external. The internal has to do with our thinking/feeling (cognitive) aspects, which has a lot to do with learning, habits and our thinking patterns. The external aspect has to do with our surroundings, sleep and medications.

The Solutions

Here is the list (details of each will follow)

1: Urge Surfing, Defusion, Mindful Attention

2: Flexible and Growth Mindset

3: Goal/Value Priming

4: Self-Talk

5: Imagery

6: Implementation Intentions

7: Expectations/Perceptions

8: Stimulus Control/Surroundings

9: Sleep

10: Exercise

11: Medications

 

1: Urge Surfing, Defusion, or Mindful Attention

These are related terms used to define the mental ability to purposefully observe our thoughts (meta-cognition) in a non-judgemental manner as well as the ability to not act on them. Urge surfing and defusion is the terminology that comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, referred to as ACT (Forman & Butryn 2015). ACT, part of the “third-wave” of psychotherapy, has accumulated a good amount of evidence for its effectiveness in virtually every aspect of life (Hayes et al 2012; Hayes 2019). Within the realm of eating behavior, weight management and food cravings, there is some good evidence it can be an effective approach (Forman & Butryn 2015; Haynos, A. et al 2016).

Mindful attention is part of the larger mindfulness concept and is defined as “…the crucial metacognitive component of mindfulness that allows one to see one’s thoughts are mental events…In other words, mindful attention refers to the insight that even the most compelling simulations, emotions, and thoughts occur only in one’s mind, inevitably arising and dissipating naturally” (Papies et al 2015, p.149, 151). Mindful attention, particularly decentering (another name for defusion) has the potential to help deal with food cravings (Keesman et al 2017). Furthermore, the overall mindfulness strategies, such as mindful attention, have many potential mental and physical health benefits (Davis et al 2011; Khoury et al 2013;)

Overall, the goal is to recognize the thought and be able to accept the thought in a non-judgemental manner, create some distance between the thought and behavior, and feel okay about having some discomfort (physical/psychological) which can allow you to not act on the thought. Over time this can lead to less frequent/severity of cravings and likely a significant reduction in the amount of craved foods eaten (Keesman et al 2017).

WHAT TO DO?

Practicing meditation is one way to develop these skills but is not necessary. The following are a couple of resources for this

UCLE Health – Guided Meditations

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Surfing the urge, a mindfulness technique, which you can think of as literally surfing a wave. Imagine you are surfing on top of the wave, which represents the thought/craving, and you are not trying to fight the wave, clearly a futile endeavour, rather just riding along it until it ends.

The following is from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D., she explains urge surfing as;

“Whatever your drug [food] of choice, surfing the urge can help you ride out cravings without giving in. When the urge takes hold, pause for a moment to sense your body. What does the urge feel like? Is it hot or cold? Do you feel tension anywhere in your body? What’s happening with your heart rate, your breathing, or your gut? Stay with the sensations for at least one minute. Notice whether the feelings fluctuate in intensity or quality. Not acting on an urge can sometimes increase its intensity—like an attention-seeking child throwing a temper tantrum. See if you can stay with these sensations without trying to push them away, and without acting on them. As you practice surfing the urge, the breath can be a wonderful source of support. You can surf the sensations of breathing—noticing how it feels to inhale and exhale—alongside the sensations of the urge.” (2012, pp. 231-232)

Another good mindful exercise to defuse from the urge is the Leaves on a Stream exercise; go to the following website for the audio file for this exercise.

https://portlandpsychotherapy.com/mindfulness_and_acceptance_exercises/

Purposeful exposure to the foods you typically crave and you want to learn to eat less often or not at all. You can start by looking at pictures of food you like and sitting with how you feel about it, and progress to actual food. Look at the food, sit with how you feel about it and realize that it’s only a thought. I would suggest you don’t start with doing this when you are hungry.

There are a number of apps that can be used to help develop this ability, such as HeadSpace, which has their 30-day Coping with Cravings pack and EatRightNow https://goeatrightnow.com/

To get good at this, you should consider practicing daily, even if just for a few minutes can be helpful. This will take practice, but cultivating this ability seems to confer many benefits, including dealing with food cravings.

2: Flexible and Growth Mindset

These mindsets are about being able to see things as falling along a continuum of good and bad as well as to keeping things in perspective with respect to your overall behaviors. Furthermore, it’s about how we have the potential to make improvements with consistent effort.

This opposite of a flexible mindset is dichotomous thinking,

“which is defined as the tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions such as “good or bad,” “black or white,” “healthy or unhealthy”…and could be regarded as a form of cognitive rigidity, reflecting thus a less complex thinking style…” (Palascha et al 2015, p.638)

Dichotomous thinking is also referred to as cognitive distortions. There are many of these, which you can explore more at the Psychology chapter as well as the following article

15 Common Cognitive Distortions

A few particularly pertinent cognitive distortions are:

“Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white” — all or nothing. We have to be perfect or we’re a complete and abject failure — there is no middle ground. A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and most situations. A person with black-and-white thinking sees things only in extremes.” (Grohol 2019)

When it comes to eating, this usually manifests as thinking of foods as “good or bad” or being “on or off” a diet.

Overgeneralization

In this cognitive distortion, a person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, they expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.” (Grohol 2019)

In the realm of eating this can manifest as “I didn’t stick to my diet today, I will NEVER be able to do this”.

Global Labeling

In global labeling (also referred to as mislabeling), a person generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgment about themselves or another person. This is an extreme form of overgeneralizing. Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy universal label to themselves or others.” (Grohol 2019).

In this context, this can manifest as “I ate some cookies last night, I have NO willpower”.

Collectively, this type of thinking can turn a lapse into a relapse, often manifesting as “I blew it” self-talk and a general “fuck it” mentality. This can lead to disengaging with your goals, often for days, weeks or even months.

When it comes to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, some level of cognitive (purposeful) restraint is needed to be successful. To be able to handle the twists and turns of life and be consistent with a way of eating, being able to NOT think of things in an all-or-nothing manner, as well as the other distorted ways of thinking, can be very helpful for eating behavior and overall mental well-being (Antoniou, E., et al. 2017; Berg AC, et al 2018; Hayes 2019; Kashdan 2010). When it comes to weight loss, this seems even more important over time, meaning the longer you are dieting the more important it will be to have a more flexible mindset (Meule et al 2011; Palascha et al 2015).

Growth Mindset

One additional aspect related to a flexible mindset is a growth mindset. A growth mindset refers to the belief, implicit and explicit, that one can improve on something (malleability of an attribute) with consistent effort (Burnette et al 2013; Dweck 2008). The opposite is a fixed mindset, which is the belief that abilities are all, or mostly, fix and cannot be improved with effort. Developing a more growth oriented mindset, which can be done, is likely to lead to improved performance in all kinds of situations, including eating and other health related behaviors (Burnette et al 2013; Dweck 2008; Ehrlinger et al 2017; Orvidas et al 2018; Veit et al 2020).

It is common for humans to not be aware of certain biases, which includes a growth or fixed mindset. This unawareness could be holding you back. Keep in mind;

“Just as implicit social attitudes may differ from people’s explicit beliefs about social groups and stereotypes, conscious food-related goals or preferences may bear little resemblance to the unconscious mechanisms that influence what and how much people eat and the relation between food intake and weight gain.” (DeJesus 2017)

Therefore, it could be helpful to see if you lean more towards a growth or fixed mindset. The following graphic can help illustrate the two mindsets. This particular image uses the intelligence attribute, but you can substitute this with any other attribute that you are working on. Look it over and consider where you likely fall. If it seems that you likely have a strong growth mindset, great. However, if it seems that you have a more fixed mindset, then you can consider working on developing a more growth oriented mindset.

Two-Mindsets-graphic-2018_07-01

WHAT TO DO?

Asses your thinking

https://psychcentral.com/blog/cognitive-distortion-how-does-black-and-white-thinking-hurt-us/

Accept the fact that you will mess up

Perfection is the enemy of progress

When you notice your having an unhelpful type of self-talk, you can step back (cognitive defusion/urge surfing) and accept that you are having this thought as well as accept that it does not mean it is true

You can dispute these thoughts, asking yourself, what is the evidence that I “always do this” and “when is a time I have acted differently”?

You could ask yourself, “what would I say to a friend who did this?”

When working on your eating behavior, you can take a Growth mindset; “I can improve it, if I put in the effort, although it is likely to be challenging”

When thinking about food you could take a health mindset instead of a fullness or pleasure mindset

3: Goals Priming/Values

This strategy helps deal with the ubiquitous unconscious drivers of doing what we normally do (habits) as well as what can feel more immediately rewarding (hedonic response) instead of behaviors that lead to long-term benefits (goals). There are many triggers (emotional, visual, auditory, etc) that can drive us to want to eat and eat certain foods (i.e. a craving). One strategy that can help is goal priming, which is defined as “…a type of cueing intervention that activates a healthy goal in a tempting situation and thus facilitates behavior in line with the health goal” (Papies, 2016, p12). These cues need to be available at the time and place when the choice/behavior will happen, referred to as a situated intervention. These cues can be visual, such as a picture as well as a word or phrase. Overall, for these cues to be beneficial, they need to feel like they represent something important and valuable (Papies 2016; Weingarten et al 2016).

Values

As highlighted above, one important aspect of Priming, for it to be effective, is for the desired behaviors to feel valuable. Therefore, clarifying your values and seeing how your new behaviors and long-term goals connect to them has been shown to consistently help with being more consistent with self-regulation (Berkman et al 2017; Cohen et al 2014; Hayes 2019).

Values are not the same as goals, however, they are related. Dr. Hayes clarifies this well, stating;

“Goals are finite; they are achievements, and once achieved, you are done with them. Values are enduring, ongoing guides to living. You cannot achieve a value; you can only manifest it by acting in accordance with it” (p.117). Furthermore, “Goals are in the future until they are achieved, and then they’re quickly in the past. Values are always in the now. And that is crucial to their motivational power. Living day to day according to our values is enormously rewarding” (2019, p.231)

Overall, having a clear understanding of what you value and connecting your new behaviors and goals to this is often very helpful with dealing with the challenges that will occur during the development of new behaviors.

It should be made clear that there are no studies that have directly tested the goal priming and values aspects with food cravings. However these aspects are likely to help with many aspects that would impact our ability to deal with food cravings, and eating behavior in general, more productively. Therefore, they seemed worth covering and ultimately utilizing them.

WHAT TO DO?

Have visual cues (pictures, words, phrases, objects) to remind you of what your goals and values are; places these at locations that you will be making decisions, for example;

Posting a picture on the refrigerator

Put a post-it note with a word or phrase that relates to your goals, on the foods that you want to eat less of

“Does this move me closer to my goals?” on a container of chips

“What am I looking for?”

“Am I bored or hungry?”

Put your food scale on the kitchen counter

If losing weight is a goal, put your body weight scale in the kitchen

Have some pictures, words, or phrases on your phone so that you can view them when making decisions outside the home

See section on Stimulus control/environment for more information about removing triggers of behaviors you are trying to avoid or minimize

CLARIFYING YOUR VALUES

Dr Harris has a great worksheet for this, see the following

Clarifying Values and Making Life Changes

The following is another excellent free on-line tool

PERSONAL VALUES ASSESSMENT

One final value aspect is writing about one of your core values for 10 minutes.Writing about values, more so than just identifying values, for this relatively brief amount of time, can have significant benefits (Cohen et al 2014; Hayes 2019). Here is how Dr Hayes suggests this be done;

“To start, take out a piece of paper and write for ten minutes about a value you care about deeply in any domain from the list I just gave you. Really do it – ten minutes is not very long! As you do so, address the following questions:

What do I care about in this area? What do I want to do in this area that reflects that caring? When in my life has this value been important? What have I seen in my life when others pursue this value or not? What might I do to manifest this value more in my life? When have I violated this value and has that been costly?

Try to focus your writing on the qualities of your lifes as you want to live it – qualities of your own that you hold as being of intrinsic importance. This is between you and you; it’s not about seeking approval or following a bunch of rules. You are not trying to avoid guilt or tell a self-justifying story.

If it feels like you are beginning to write a holiday list to Santa – a list about what you want from life or others – redirect your writing in the direction of describing the qualities of actions you would like to manifest in your life. If you get bogged down, just rewrite things you’ve already written until new things show up. Since this is between you and you, you cannot get it wrong.”(Hyes, 2019, p.239)

4: Self-Talk*

*The previously explored Flexible and Growth mindset (#2) does fall under the umbrella of self-talk, but I felt it was necessary to have it listed separately to give better clarity to each as well as that section has some research looking at cravings specifically. Conversely, the following self-talk aspects have not looked at food cravings directly, rather overall eating behaviors or just general goal directed behavior. But, based on how cravings work and how we can deal with them these rather simple aspects of self-talk seem worth covering.

How we talk to and about ourselves, which is normal to do, can have substantially different effects on how we feel and what we do (Dolcos et al 2014; Kirby et al 2017; Kross et al 2014). Lashbrook correctly declares; Go ahead, talk to yourself out loud, in your head, or even in the third person! It’s hugely beneficial.” (2019).

To be “hugely beneficial” self talk has to be done correctly. The following are a few simple changes to our self-talk that can facilitate more consistent goal directed behavior (again see the Flexible/Growth Mindset section as well).

I Don’t versus I Can’t

The potential difference between I don’t eat chips versus I can’t eat chips can be significant. “I don’t” is likely to stimulate feelings of empowerment and control and “I can’t” is likely to do the opposite (Patrick et al 2012). There is a caveat to this. if the goal feels externally imposed, then I can’t could be helpful. Overall, using DON’T is likely to be helpful with being more consistent with your eating goals.

Will I versus I will

Another self-talk strategy is posing your goal/intention as a question, i.e., Will I exercise for 30 minutes Monday, Wednesday and Friday? instead of a statement, such as I will exercise for 30 minutes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (Senay et al 2010). It seems posing it as a question can increase intrinsic motivation which is the type of motivation that typically facilitates more consistent goal directed behavior (Senay et al 2010).

3rd Person/Distanced Self-talk

Talking to ourselves in the 3rd person means we would use pronouns such as you, he, she, it, or your own first or last name instead of first-person pronouns, such as I, me, or my. Taking the 3rd person perspective seems to put us into an observer viewpoint (e.g. fly on the wall) and increases psychological distance (seeing our thoughts as separate from ourselves) which typically helps with emotional regulation and self-control (Dolcos et al 2014; Kross et al 2014; Moser et al 2017; Zell et al 2012). The simple change of wording, and resulting perspective, is likely to help deal better with the thoughts and emotions connected to food cravings (Furman et al 2020).

Self-Compassion Self-Talk

The following is how Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer, two prominent researchers of self-compassion, defines it;

“Self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time—even if your friend blew it or is feeling inadequate, or is just facing a tough life challenge. The more complete definition involves three core elements that we bring to bear when we are in pain: self-kindness, common humanity (the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and feels pain), and mindfulness.” (Neff & Germer, 2019)

As alluded to in the above definition, there are multiple aspects that encompasses the self-compassion concept. The details are a bit outside the scope here, but if you want to learn more about it, which I strongly encourage, I would suggest starting with the following article.

The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion

For now the pertinent message is that if we talk to ourselves in a more compassionate manner it will increase our ability to handle life’s challenges with less of a stress response, be more resilient and actually take more responsibility for our actions (Neff 2011). Collectively, we will likely be more consistent, relative to self-critical self-talk, with our health-related goal-directed behaviors, such as making food choices that are congruent with our long-term goals (Biber et al 2017; Mantzios et al 2017; Zessin et al 2015). Furthermore, if you are working on losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, self-compassion can be the type of mindset and self-talk that can likely help to improve your body image as well as avoid disordered eating (Braun et al 2016).

Positive Self-Affirmations, proceed with CAUTION!

Finally, be careful with positive self-talk, as in positive self-affirmation such as “I’m a lovable person’’, “I am successful”, or maybe “I am wonderful and powerful”*. These types of statements are common, which likely stems from recommendations of a lot of the self-help books. Furthermore, it is typically recommended that these statements are repeated many times a day. Interestingly, there is actually little quality research that these types of global positive self statements have any real benefits (Wood et al 2009). From one of the few studies testing these types of statements, the authors state;

“Thus, we propose that positive self-statements have the potential to make one feel worse if they lie outside one’s latitude of acceptance, are self-discrepant and thereby highlight one’s failures to meet one’s standards, and arouse self-verification motives. We further propose that positive self-statements are especially likely to backfire for the very people they are meant to benefit: people with low self-esteem.” (Wood et al 2009, p.861)

The results of Wood et al and other evidence put forth by the authors supports their propositions. Therefore, until there is additional evidence to the contrary, most people should avoid using global positive self-affirmations. The other types of self-talk described above are likely to be effective and unlikely to have negative effects.

WHAT TO DO?

Understand that how we talk to ourselves does matter, often a lot. Often simple changes in the words we use can change our perspective and how we react to a situation. It will likely take a fair amount of practice to get used to talking to yourself this way, but the effort seems well worth it.

You could set a goal to do this along with setting an Implementation Intention to facilitate the use of more productive self-talk in situations you currently struggle with.

use I Don’t versus I Can’t: I don’t eat chips

use Will I versus I will: Will I stick to my diet?

use 3rd Person/distanced self-talk: What does Jeff want to eat?

use Self-Compassion self talk: talk to yourself like you would to a close friend

Here is how Dr Neff recommends you do this;

“Exercise 1: How would you treat a friend?

Please take out a sheet of paper and answer the following questions:

  1. First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
  2. Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
  3. Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
  4. Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.

Why not try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens?

(retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/exercise-1-treat-friend/)

For more examples see the following;

How to Practice Self-Compassion: 8 techniques and Tips

5-Imagery

Sensory imagery, defined as “our ability to mentally simulate the sight, sound, smell, taste and feel of an experience.” (Andrade et al 2012, p.128), is a major part of cravings. Elaborated Intrusion Theory (EIT) is a current model that has clarified this aspect (May et al. 2012). This theory posits that the craving is initially triggered by cues (cognitive, emotional, or physiological) associated with food, which occurs outside of our conscious awareness (the unconscious). When we become aware of the craving we can mentally elaborate it (imagining how good it tastes or smells or how good it could make us feel) and it can become a focal point (intrusive) of our mental thoughts. The result is we will often give into the craving. Therefore, the goal would be to disrupt this process to reduce the intensity and duration of the craving.The key to this is engaging the visuospatial working memory, which basically means we need to actively think about other images as well as the spacing of objects relative to one another.

Before moving onto the strategies, it’s important to highlight there is an acceptance aspect to this*. The goal of these imagery strategies is not to try to purposely suppress the thought about a food (craving). Rather the goal is to focus on different images that compete with the same brain functions as the food craving which can naturally lead to a change in focus (Andrade et al 2012).

*Acceptance of thoughts is a main component of the Functional Decision Making approach which is based on EI theory (Andrade et al 2012). See section; 1: Urge Surfing, Defusion, or Mindful Attention, for more details about the acceptance aspect.

WHAT TO DO?

When eating, try to take a few minutes, and focus on what you are eating, this can produce a better memory/image which can be useful later to be able to vividly recall the meal

Playing video games such as Tetris when you are having a craving (Skorka-Brown et al 2014)

Vividly imagining a place you love to go to or a favorite activity (if it is eating your craved food then don’t’ use that one) (Giacobbi et al  2018; Knauper et al 2011; Schumacher et al 2018)

Body scanning (Hamilton et al 2013), which can be briefly described as “a cognitive relaxation technique that requires individuals to move their focus of attention around different parts of their body. The individual first concentrates on observing their breathing, before moving their awareness to other body regions” (Cropley, M. et al 2007 p.990)

For more guidance on doing this, see the following

10 Minute Body Scan Meditation Script

Beginner’s Body Scan Meditation

When you are having a craving or about to eat, you can think about (visualize) your previous meal (this can work better if there was a good amount of focus on that meal when you were eating which is likely to create a better memory of it, so it’s best to minimize distractions, i.e. watching TV, etc) (Higgs et al 2018). This might work even better if you write it down/track it (i.e., keeping a paper or digital food journal)? (Szypulaa et al 2020).

Possibly* one final method is to have a very vivid image of repeatedly eating the food you are craving (Morewedge et al 2010). When studied, if a person imagined eating 30 M&Ms they ended up eating far less M&M’s, compared to controls, when offered them. They still eat some, but it is certainly possible that this could reduce desire enough that we could not have any at that time. This technique is tapping into something called sensory specific satiety, which means we quickly want something less after each bite of it.

*However, there is a major caveat to using this method. It seems you have to vividly imagine eating something about 30 times/pieces. If you can do that it will probably help. However, if you do this much less, say 10-20 times, which is still a lot, it could increase your craving for the food.

6: Implementation Intentions

Implementation intentions (II), also referred to as If-Then statements, is a method of pre-planning a response to a situation that you want to change how to react to it (Adriaanse et al 2011; Gollwitzer & Sheeran 2006). It’s a form of goal setting, but is more detailed regarding the situation (i.e., when I finish my cup of coffee in the morning…) coupled with the specific response that you would prefer to have (I will then go for a 20 minute walk). This can be particularly helpful with getting started with changing a behavior. The idea behind this is giving your brain a specific, and new, way to respond in certain situations to elicit the powerful subconscious mind to facilitate that action. One additional aspect is self-concordance. Self-concordance is defined as “…the extent to which a goal reflects personal interests and values versus something one feels compelled to do by external or internal pressures.” (Koestner et al 2002, p.231). Therefore, your goals/implementation intentions need to be congruent to what YOU value (see previous section, #3) and supports our basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence (Ryan et al 2011; Teixeira et al 2011).

Mental Contrasting*

Mental contrasting (MC) is defined as “people first envision the desired future and then imagine the obstacles that need to be surmounted to reach said future.” (Oettingen et al 2013, p.1). Basically, you want to get real with what challenges you will likely face and acknowledge them upfront.

The goal is to explore what you think would be obstacles to doing the desired behavior. This can actually stimulate the unconscious mind to find solutions as well as increase motivation to do the desired behavior.

*Important, if you currently feel like you have a low level of motivation and confidence to accomplish your goals, then you should probably NOT utilize this technique. On the other hand, if you are feeling motivated and confident (a 7 or higher on a 1 to 10 scale) then this technique will likely have some positive benefits.

WHAT TO DO?

Write out your implementation intentions for a few situations you feel are particularly challenging when it comes to your eating/food cravings. A good way is to set up two columns; on the left, the challenge and on the right the solutions (Armitage et al 2014; Armitage et a 2017; Ayre J, et al 2019).

Here are a few examples to get you started

Challenge

Solution

When I get home from work and I want to eat some potato chips

I will practice urge surfing

When I feel like having a snack after dinner

I will remind myself of my values

When I feel stressed and want to eat sweets

I will play a game (i.e., Tetris, Angry Birds, etc) on my phone

Then add the Mental Contrasting (again only if your motivation and confidence is 7 or higher).

Write out what you think would be the potential barriers to doing the behavior

There is currently an app, WOOP (Wish – Outcome – Obstacle – Plan), that can make this process a bit easier

Go to https://woopmylife.org/app/

7: Expectations/Perceptions

Do you feel that you crave certain foods because you think you need certain nutrients? What about being stressed or having a low mood and the feeling that eating “comfort” food will make you feel better? Do you think of foods as bad or good? These are just a few expectations/perceptions about food that can play a significant role in eating behavior (Cornil 2017). These beliefs can also affect how our body responds to foods. For example, one study found that labeling the same milkshake as either a 620-calorie “indulgent” shake or a 140-calorie “sensible” shake caused a significant difference in the change in response of an appetite hormone ghrelin (Crum et al 2011). The belief that it was an “indulgent” shake caused a dramatic decline in ghrelin (which could be a good thing, as higher levels tend to increase hunger) and with the “sensible” shake there was very little change. Far different physical responses even though they were the same shakes. What is particularly interesting, and challenging, about our beliefs about food, is we are often not aware of these beliefs when we make decisions about what foods we are going to eat. These beliefs are running in the background (subconscious). We can’t get away from having beliefs about food, in fact we need to have them to be able to make decisions, this is referred to as the heuristics, or rule-of-thumb, aspect of decision making (Provencher et al 2016). But we can have expectations/perceptions about food that are likely helpful.

There are some common expectations/perceptions about food. Here are some examples. First is chocolate. Chocolate is an interesting example as it is one of the most craved foods in the U.S., particularly for women, and particularly at the onset of the menstrual cycle (Hormes et al 2017). The reasons can stem from the “forbidden food” aspect as well as changes in hormones with the menstrual cycle. However, at this time there is no good evidence that this craving is biologically (i.e., change in hormones during menstruation) driven (Hormes et al 2011).  Another interesting thing about chocolate cravings is it is not a universal state for women. Most women in other countries do not have frequent chocolate cravings in general, nor an increase around their menstrual cycle, which speaks to it probably not being driven by hormones and, more importantly, that it is driven by cultural norms and the belief that chocolate is craved, and possibly needed during this time (Hormes et al 2017). The good news; this learned belief can be changed.

Another common belief is the “need” for “comfort” foods. This also refers to “emotional eating”, which can be triggered from both positive or negative emotions as well as “stress eating” (Evers et al 2018). A variety of moods, such as being sad, anxious, prideful, happy, as well as feeling stressed, have all been associated with an increase in the desire to eat comfort food/craving. This may result in eating more comfort foods and eating more overall which contributes to weight gain. However, and maybe surprisingly, there is still little definitive evidence that certain foods will actually improve our moods or that emotional eating leads to eating more overall (Evers et al 2018; Finch et al 2019; Spence 2017; Wagner et al 2014). There are a lot of nuances to this subject which are outside of the scope at this particular time. For now, what seems to be the key takeaways are;

We often think our emotions drive our eating but it is more likely just the reason (justification/rationalization) we use for not sticking to our eating plan. This reason is often a confabulation which means we make it up because it sounds good or it easily comes to mind as a reason (this is done in an unconscious manner, typically people are not lying) (Adriaanse et al 2016; Adriaanse et al 2018). Although it feels like it is the reason it is typically not the reason why we deviate from our eating goals/plan.

Often eating any food, healthy or unhealthy, will lead to the same change in emotions. Furthermore, it seems it is often just a matter of time which will facilitate a change or improvement in mood (Wagner et al 2014; Finch et al 2019).

For a small percentage of people emotions do drive eating more comfort food and eating more overall, which is mostly people who are purposefully trying to restrain their diet (i.e., dieting) as well as those dealing with loneliness and boredom (Moynihan et al 2015; Troisi et al 2017).

Overall, a lot of the “emotional” eating is an attempt to escape aversive feelings with food which is often due to not having other methods to be able to deal with these feelings in a more productive manner (Fernandes et al 2018; Frayn et al 2018). Ironically, eating doesn’t have a lasting positive effect and usually leads to more negative emotions such as guilt and shame. Furthermore, a couple of terms that might be better than emotional eating to describe the situation are “concerned eaters” or “cue-reactive eaters” (not particularly catchy) which reflects a low perceived level of self control and high motivation to eat (Bongers et al 2016). Learning other emotional regulation and coping skills, such as acceptance, self-compassion, re-framing, urge surfing, and using implementation intentions are likely to be very helpful.

The next significant food expectation comes from the “health halo” effect. This is the belief that if a food is healthy it can lead to a variety of incorrect assumptions of the foods calorie content which can frequently lead to eating more or thinking we ate less than we actually did (Chernev 2010; Provencher et al 2016). This is much more likely to happen when dieting (restrained eaters) as well as having a good/bad view of foods. Here are some common results of a “health halo”;

  • Something that is labeled low-fat can lead to eating about 30 percentage more
  • Adding something considered healthy (a salad, veggies or fruit) to a meal with foods that are considered less healthy, results in the perception the meal actually has less calories, referred to as the negative calorie illusion.
  • If it is “organic” or “all natural” it can lead to eating more of a food
  • “It was just a snack”, particularly if it is considered healthy, often results in not counting that food as part of daily intake

This health halo perception can also result in seeing healthy foods in a negative way (more of a Horn effect), such as (Provencher et al 2016; Werle, C. et al 2013);

  • “Unhealthy” means tasty and “healthy” means not tasty.
  • “Healthy” foods are less filling than “unhealthy” foods

Overall, consider that a lot of what we think food does is based on belief and anticipation and not about what the food is made up of. To be clear, there are many properties of foods that do influence our bodies directly. However, these are often not what we think they are. In fact, we often make up reasons (confabulate) why we think we “need” a food or took some type of action (Adriaanse et al 2016; Gantman et al 2017). The point here is we often imbue foods with magical short-term powers, that are positive (will make me feel better) or negative (will make me feel bad), which are typically self-fulfilling prophecies coming from our minds (placebo or nocebo effects, respectively), and not from what a food is likely to do to us in the short-term based on its nutrients or effects on our biology (Cornil 2017; McCrickerd et al 2016).

WHAT TO DO?

Refer to the previous aspects about Flexible thinking, as a lot of expectations about food fall into the dichotomous thinking heuristic, such as Good/Bad, or Healthy/Unhealthy, or Clean/Unclean, which is typically not helpful

Consider that what we think about food is largely learned and therefore we can learn to see it differently

Think of a desired food/craving in terms of WANT not need

Read labels and don’t assume something has more or less calories because you think it is health or unhealthy

You can reframe what your expectations are about food

Consider not giving food more power than it deserves

You can dispute your own beliefs, ask yourself what is the evidence that you need a certain food

Finally , consider the urge surfing and acceptance view, you recognize that you will have thoughts about a food but that does not mean you have to act on it (See section  1: Urge Surfing, Defusion, Mindful Attention for more details)

External/Environmental Aspects

8: Surroundings/Stimulus Control

Our surroundings, what we see, hear, and smell, as well as the social context (where we are, what friends and family are doing), play a significant role in determining our behavior, which we are typically completely unaware of (Mlodinow 2012; Woods 2019). This definitely includes what we eat and other health related behaviors (Bilman et al 2015; Hollands et al 2019). What foods we have in our homes, at work, in our car, what our friends and family eat and where we go out to eat can have a big impact on our food choices and amounts eaten (Higgs et al 2016). Therefore, if we can change our surroundings, such as what foods we have easy access to, it is much easier to change what we eat. In this case, if we have strong cravings for certain foods, it’s best not to have them in the house. There are some potential constraints on how much of this we can change or have control over. For example, at many places of employment, there are vending machines, frequent potlucks, birthdays, and other celebrations. Overall, foods, and more so snack type foods, are frequently and easily accessible. There is often, but not always, little we can do to change this situation at work. Conversely, we often have a significant amount of control over what foods we have in our home.

Related to this information is the section, Goal/Value Priming. The current strategy was more about avoiding triggers for things you are trying to avoid or minimize. In the Goal/Value Priming section the focus is on finding ways to trigger (prime) your long-term goals and values.

WHAT TO DO?

Don’t bring certain foods in the house

Don’t have “snacks” at your desk at work

If foods are in the house you would like to avoid or eat less, make them hard to find or see, for example put cookies on the top shelve in a opaque container

At work, find a way, if possible, to avoid walking by the foods you want to avoid eating (i.e., bring a smaller cooler to work to keep your food in so you don’t need to go into the break room where there is a vending machine or free snacks)

Pre-order when going out to eat

Order groceries online, do this when you are not hungry

Implementation Intentions – if you know you cannot avoid foods that you have a challenge with, you can have a plan to deal with the situation, which can include setting Implementation Intentions as well as plan on how to handle this in a more productive manner (see Implementation Intentions section for more details)

9: Sleep

Short sleep duration, less than 7 hours of sleep, is likely to cause changes in hunger hormones, such as ghrelin, as well as increased activation of certain regions of the brain which can increase food cravings (NIH; Walker 2018).

Based on the current evidence, getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night is highly recommended. This can likely have a positive impact on reducing the frequency and intensity of cravings as well as having a myriad of positive effects on overall well being (NIH; Walker 2018).

WHAT TO DO?

Do your best to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night

Follow good sleep hygiene habits

See the sleep chapter for more details

10: Exercise

Exercising, of course, as it is almost a panacea, is likely to help reduce cravings (Leow et al 2018; Roberts et al 2012). It seems relatively short duration exercise is enough to confer the benefits. For example, doing 5 minutes of isometric exercise or going for a 15 minute brisk walk can help reduce cravings (Ledochowski et al 2015; Oh et al 2013; Taylor et al 2009; Ussher et al 2009). Exercise is likely to reduce cravings acutely after exercise, up to about 30 minutes. Therefore, if possible, exercise can be used when cravings are more frequent. Furthermore, after some time of mental work (for work or for personal interest), doing some exercise, such as at lunch time, and/or right after work, could be particularly helpful (Neumeier et al 2016). It is also likely that frequent exercise, regardless of when, due to its global effects on our physiology and psychology, can have a positive effect on eating behavior which could translate into having less frequent/intense cravings on an ongoing basis (Beaulieu et al 2018; Dorling et al. 2018; Leow et al 2018) . Because exercise has so many potential benefits, including having a positive effect on eating behavior, finding a way to get some daily exercise, interspersed throughout the day, or one or two specific times, seems to be well worth the time and effort.

WHAT TO DO?

There are many options, the key is finding which ones you will be consistent with. Often relatively short boots of exercise, particularly when intensity is moderate to high, will elicit the benefits. The following are just a few ideas that are relatively simple and convenient.

Go for a 15 minute brisk walk or bike ride

Do a full body resistance training workout, the following are couple of examples

10 Full-Body Strength Exercises Every Beginner Needs to Know

7 Best Full Body Resistance Training Exercises for Women [and men]

Do Isometric Exercises (IE) for 5-10 minutes (Ussher et al 2009). IE is contracting a muscle/muscles but there is no movement at the joint, for example, flex your bicep muscle and maintain that position. You can do this with all your muscles, holding each contraction for about 5-10 seconds with a brief rest, and repeating this sequence for about a minute then moving to another muscle

For more examples of exercise see the following

Isometrics: The Secret to Gaining Strength — Without Moving a Muscle

11: Medications and Supplements

Currently there are five medications used/approved for weight management (more specifically, to help treat obesity), Contrave (which is a combination of naltrexone and bupropion), the combination of phentermine and lorcaserin, and most recently semaglutide, which are 5 of the 6 current medications approved that have the potential to decrease frequency and intensity of cravings (Bludell et al 2017; Christou et al 2015; Rebello et al 2016). It is important to be aware that these medications are not a panacea. When they are studied, they are used ALONG with an intense behavioral modification program (BMP), which typically entails weekly to monthly group or individual sessions for about a year (Wadden et al 2011). Furthermore, the difference of weight loss from BMP alone and BMP plus medication is about 4%, (7% versus 11% of weight loss, for a 200lb person this would mean losing 14 lbs versus 22 lbs, respectively), over about a year. Again, it can help but they are not a silver bullet.

When it comes to supplements, at this point I could only find one supplement that could help with food cravings, which is ashwagandha. There have been a couple of RCTs that have shown some direct or indirect benefits for food cravings (Choudhary et al 2017; Lopresti et al 2019). The dosages used in the studies were 300mg, twice a day and 240mg once a day. Collectively, the research is pointing to 300 to 500mg a day (Patel 2020).

WHAT TO DO?

If you are interested in using medications, as part of your total plan, talk to your doctor about it.

If you have any medical conditions or are taking any medications, please consult your doctor and/or a pharmacist to see if this supplement is appropriate for you.

Will Eating Something Less Often, Or Not At All, Make Cravings Worse?

One final thing to point out, it seems that dieting (calorie restriction) often results in a reduction of cravings (Kahathuduwa et al 2017). This is likely due to a decrease in the frequency of eating certain foods which reduces the frequency the behavior is reinforced (Apolzan et al 2017). Therefore, eating something less frequently, but not less at a certain time (i.e., smaller portions), will likely reduce cravings. Furthermore, I think your mindset about eating less or avoiding something is vitally important. Specifically, if you approach it from a “Want to” or “Choose to” versus “Have to” mentality can help. This more intrinsically driven mindset is often more helpful with sticking with goals than extrinsically “imposed” goals. Connecting this goal to your values can also help. Collectively, with these factors in mind, and if applied, it is very unlikely that avoiding, or eliminating, certain foods will lead to an overwhelming desire to eat a food and a subsequent binging on that food. Sometimes choosing not to eat something is a good choice.

Conclusion

Overall, cravings will happen, and accepting this fact is likely one major mental aspect of improving the ability to manage them. As explained above there are a number of strategies that can reduce the frequency and intensity of cravings. It is unlikely that just one of them will work. Rather, a combination of methods, particularly a couple of the internal (cognitive) methods along with the external (modifying environmental triggers) methods will likely due the “trick”. However, it is probably best to start with one or two of the strategies and go from there. If having more skills to eat in a more supportive manner as well as losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, and all the benefits that come from this, are important to you, then cultivating these habits are very likely worth the time and effort (Dalton et al 2017).

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