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3 Craving Triggers That Try To Defeat You

You're under attack from a three-headed monster that takes your simple 'likes' and turns them into full-on raging hankerings. Turn the tables by learning what makes your cravings work!

We all have cravings. Some of us calmly plan our weekly menu around them, while others impulsively reroute our drive home to gratify them. Either way, there's no doubt that the desire for particular foods, flavors, and textures is strong, frequent, and pretty much universal.

Researchers have spent plenty of time studying cravings, but that doesn't mean they can pinpoint exactly why you really, really want something specific at any given moment. Still, they've been able to draw some general guidelines about what contributes to certain cravings, and what you can do to rein them in.

"Wait," you say, "why would I want to fight an urge?" After all, it can feel pretty satisfying to want something, track it down, and gobble it up. If you have ever felt guilty or ashamed after caving to a craving, then you know that creeping feeling that someone or something else was making the decision for you.

In this case, a pervasive craving can be the sign of a larger issue. It could mean that you're being too restrictive with your diet, that you lack important nutrients, or simply that your secret junk food habit is out of control.

"Control" is the operative word here. I'm not telling you to resist all food urges, but rather to work toward dealing with them consciously. It is possible to manage your cravings in a healthy way! The answer could be as simple as getting more sleep, not passing the bakery on the way to work, or drinking more water.

The first step is to know what types of factors feed your cravings to make them so intense. Once you know your opponent, you can face it on a level playing field!

External Triggers

From the moment you wake up until you close your eyes at night, you navigate the world using your senses. You hear, see, touch, taste, and smell your way to work and back home, and all along the way, countless companies are in stiff competition to make sure you encounter their products.

If you live in a city, you may barely notice the advertisements anymore—they're just part of the scenery or background noise. But many millions of dollars have gone into making sure they do their job, whether you realize it or not.

You think you're immune to sensory temptation? I doubt it. How many times has a certain smell led you to leave the grocery store with, let's say, some fried chicken that was nowhere on your shopping list?

Fresh fried chicken one example of an external trigger. Countless more bombard you all the time. If you have specific dietary restrictions—either for health or physique—it's essential that you bring these traps out of the background and into stark focus. Common external triggers include:

Marketing ///

Have you seen an ad or read an article about a certain food? The power of suggestion, and seeing the food presented in a positive light, can lead to a craving.

Proximity ///

Did you see or smell a food you're craving lately? That giant billboard may stand out more, but don't underestimate the power of smell in spurring cravings.

Sound ///

You may not eat with your ears, but you certainly hear the beeping of the microwave, a co-worker crunching on chips, or the sound of someone popping open a drink. If you associate those sounds with foods, expect a craving to follow. When you're surrounded by these sounds, it can feel like everyone except you is enjoying themselves.

Taking Control Of External Triggers

Sure, you could just turn off the radio or television. But to truly cut modern society's external triggers out your life, you'd probably have to either walk around blindfolded and wear earplugs every day, or spend the rest of your life in remote cabin in the mountains. Then again, if you think your fond memories of your favorite sweet treat or salt-laden guilty pleasure wouldn't follow you, you're dreaming!

In the meantime, try a few of these proven techniques to gain the upper hand:

Distract Yourself ///

When you notice a craving setting in, find something else to think about. Take a walk, listen to your favorite playlist, or call a friend. Just set your mind to something else.

Trick Your Brain ///

Try eating the lowest-fat, lowest-calorie variety of the item you crave. If you find yourself wanting sweets like chocolate, opt for nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt instead of chocolate cake.

If you're prone to overdoing it, never bring the coveted food into the house, no matter how low-fat or fat-free it is. Instead, go out for your frozen yogurt and order a single-serving cone or cup.

Grab Some Gum ///

If you want to avoid giving in to a sugar craving completely, try chewing a stick of gum. This has been shown to reduce food cravings.

Reach for Fruit ///

Keep fruit handy for when sugar cravings hit. You'll get fiber and nutrients along with the sweetness you desire.

Give in a Little ///

Eat a bit of what you crave—maybe one small cookie or a fun-size candy bar. Savor it, and try to stick to a 150-calorie threshold. Some people claim they're incapable of the self-control this demands, but they can do it with practice. Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling denied.

Lighten Up ///

Light deprivation leads to depression in some people, and depression can fuel food cravings. If you tend to feel blue in winter, get outside for a walk during the sunniest part of the day. If you suffer from the severest form of wintertime blues, called seasonal affective disorder, SAD, recognize it and take appropriate action.

Emotional Triggers

The three trigger categories I present here fit more on a spectrum of gray than in a black-and-white classification system. Advertisers know this; that's why fast food ads are so carefully crafted to appeal to you on both a sensory/external level and an emotional level. They make you laugh, appeal to your memories, and tell you all the reasons you deserve whatever they're selling, all while presenting it in the most mouthwatering full-color footage possible.

The ad game is rigged! But you have knowledge on your side. Here are some of the most common emotional triggers that factor into your cravings:

Stress ///

If you reached for a certain type of food when you felt stress in the past, you were training yourself to crave this food when stressed in the future. Don't think you're out of the woods just because you resist an urge the moment it strikes. Studies suggest that cravings can remain up to 24 hours after the stress-response system is activated.

Memories ///

When you were a child, did your parents give you a certain type of food when you were sick, hurt, or upset? If so, you may experience cravings for these comfort foods as an adult.

Rewards ///

We often don't think of positive emotions when it comes to emotional eating, but celebratory eating and craving certain "reward" foods can also be the result of an emotional trigger.

Guilt or Shame ///

Do you feel like you "failed" a diet? If so, this may trigger cravings for certain forbidden foods that you were trying to restrict. It's a case of guilt eating if before you eat something, you find yourself saying "What's the point? I might as well."

Taking Control Of Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers are complex and difficult to combat, because they're tied deeply into our memories, expectations, and notions of who we are. You can't eliminate them entirely—nor would you want to—but you can bring them out into the open rather than simply capitulating and eating nothing but so-called "comfort foods."

If you suspect that a lingering craving has an emotional component, dig deep and get at the root of it. Have you been too restrictive in your diet recently? If you suspect so, plan your meals differently; include more variety and more foods you enjoy in your diet.

Is there something going on in your life that's making you anxious, angry, or stressed? If that's the case, face the issue head on. By being proactive and trying to make yourself aware of why you may crave a certain food, you model the sort of behavior that will make you a stronger and better person in the long run.

Biological Triggers

When you make the switch from unstructured, uncontrolled eating to a more systematic and goal-based plan, it's normal to find yourself subject to unpredictable and intense cravings. If your craving doesn't seem to be brought on by an external or emotional trigger, it's possible that it was brought on by a biological trigger. These can be some of the most difficult triggers to resist—especially if you're hungry and tired after training.

Some examples of biological triggers include:

Blood Sugar ///

Has it been more than four hours since your last meal? If so, you may experience a craving for something sugary or starchy due to a drop in blood sugar. This can lead to impulsive decision making.

Exhaustion ///

If you didn't get enough sleep last night, that can increase your cravings for something sweet.

Nutritional Deficiencies ///

Do you have an intense craving for ice? If so, this could be a sign of pica, a phenomenon that often happens when people are deficient in iron. If you crave chocolate, that could be a sign that you're low in magnesium.

Dehydration ///

Have you been drinking plenty of water? If not, your body may mistake your thirst signal for a hunger signal.

Simple Carb Overload ///

Eating lots of simple carbohydrates—without the backup of adequate protein or fat—can quickly satisfy hunger and give your body a short-term energy boost. However, sooner than you think, these carbs leave you famished and craving more.

Taking Control Of Biological Triggers

Biological triggers are a case where the trigger is a sign of something else you need to address. It could be as simple as better time management or drinking more water, or it could be something that you need a doctor or nutritionist's help to get control of. In either case, your reward will be a better overall diet.

Sleep! ///

Get at least eight hours of sleep each night. It sounds simple, but not enough people do it, and its connection to cravings and lapses of self-control is real.

Get the Nutrients Your Body Needs ///

If you have iron-deficiency anemia, be sure to eat enough dietary iron, and check with your doctor to determine if you should take an additional iron supplement.

If you are low in magnesium, nosh on magnesium-rich nuts and seeds rather than chocolate. Given that more than half of the population is magnesium-deficient, a supplement might also be in order.

Eat Full Meals ///

If you skip meals, either out of fear that you'll gain weight or hope that you'll lose it faster, you're more likely to overeat at the meals you do eat. You're also far more likely to fall prey to mindless snacking.

Stay Hydrated ///

Sixty-four ounces of water per day is the average amount needed. Drink even more if you are extremely active. Any time you experience a craving, start by drinking some water and waiting 10 minutes. You may find that your craving subsides on its own.

Combine Foods ///

If the idea of stopping at a cookie or a baby candy bar seems impossible, you can still fill yourself up and satisfy a sugar craving, too. Combine the craving food with a healthful one. For example, spread a little Nutella on a banana or mix some almonds with chocolate chips.


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About The Author

Dr. Dolgoff is a pediatrician, child obesity specialist, author, and member of the Pediatric Task Force for the American Board of Obesity Medicine.

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JMBOYLES

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JMBOYLES

Great Article. After falling off the wagon this weekend with my diet and having some major guilt, I felt a huge sigh of relief after reading the first paragraph knowing that it's not only me. This gave me some great advice and tips for when cravings come back.

May 13, 2013 9:02pm | report
jmtrevino23

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jmtrevino23

relevant to my situation. bodybuilding and having cravings is tough! great information.

May 13, 2013 9:37pm | report
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  • ht: 12'11"
  • wt: 155.6 lbs
  • bf: 13.0%
Keaos

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Keaos

Gum is not a good way to control hunger. It is well known that Aspartame increases hunger and since almost all the chewing gum I have seen to this very day has aspartame in it, that really makes no sense to follow from this article.

May 14, 2013 1:50am | report
Austanian

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Austanian

The evidence of the aspartame connection to hunger is far from conclusive. However, if you keep a food log and stick to your macros you will lose the weight. The rest is finding what works for you.

May 14, 2013 9:25am | report
ohs0fast

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ohs0fast

The fact that you're uneducated and ignorant seems to be all the more reason to follow advice from others more experienced than yourself. The article says gum helps reduce cravings, not hunger. And there definitely are gums available without aspartame in them if that is an issue.

May 14, 2013 12:46pm | report
sheerahfs

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sheerahfs

I've never actually seen gum with aspartame. I've only seen it with xylitol, it's a plant extract. I could be wrong... maybe I just always pick out the healthy gum...

May 14, 2013 6:03pm | report
NatAlt

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NatAlt

WHY does this article have so many pictures of CHOCOLATE?! *flips desk*

May 14, 2013 2:46am | report
rhonda73

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rhonda73

LMAO...was thinking the same thing!

May 14, 2013 9:32am | report
olicorse

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olicorse

Lol me too!

May 14, 2013 10:37am | report
dogetta

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dogetta

filled with sugar boo!

May 14, 2013 11:53am | report
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ohs0fast

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ohs0fast

yep yep. the pictures are definitely counter-productive to what I'm reading :\

May 14, 2013 12:47pm | report
Middy

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Middy

The irony!

May 14, 2013 8:59pm | report
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m0ckingjay

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m0ckingjay

I thought this. I was actually reading and keeping my eyes away from the pictures haha.

May 15, 2013 10:54am | report
bhopejones

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bhopejones

THAT'S WHAT i'M SAYING!!! WHYYYY

May 15, 2013 1:11pm | report
CoreyDHarris

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CoreyDHarris

Great article. After going from 417 LBS to 197, and now back up, I struggle with cravings all the time. I am also one that when I ***** up, I throw the rest of my diet out the window. Even as a personal trainer, I am still a person and fall victim to this quite a bit. I am going to be sharing this article with my clients.

May 14, 2013 5:50am | report
Benz1010

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Benz1010

Good article can definitely relate to craving and cheating on my diet and then feeling so bad about it.

May 14, 2013 6:26am | report
Djcarlson23

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Djcarlson23

Hey guys... something that has worked for me is eating Iceys. The old school frozen snack we all loved as kids. only about 10g of sugar, fun to eat, and decent on the diet. try it to control those cravings!

May 14, 2013 9:29am | report
hestondrums

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hestondrums

If I find myself wanting something sweet I just heat up some green tea and put a bit of honey in it. Less than a half tablespoon.

Article Rated:
May 14, 2013 9:39am | report
PDeV1

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PDeV1

nice tips ! I always take some cucumbers or gum when I have a hugh carving.

Article Rated:
May 14, 2013 10:04am | report
borskee

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borskee

Great help, but why end it with Nutella statement... Just had to remind me in the very end of my constant craving ..

May 14, 2013 11:02am | report
Astraxialus

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Astraxialus

"The power of suggestion, and seeing the food presented in a positive light, can lead to a craving." Hahaha, this in an article with a picture of ice cream in a waffle cone, a large plate of well-presented food, chocolate, and chocolate cake? The gum is probably the least appealing thing with it's lack of color.

Personally I disagree with the idea of eating some low-fat, low-calorie substitute. That does not work for me at all. It leaves me unsatisfied, which means I want more ... and does not trick me into thinking I got what I was craving. Much better for me is "Delay It." I don't need it immediately. I can plan it into my meals sometime in the coming week, putting it off knowing I'll have it that day. I can even keep delaying it. (For example, I have been craving chocolate fudge for weeks, the real stuff made with a candy thermometer that is so thick and rich a tiny square is all I need. But to get it, I have to go out of my way. Can't do that weeknights, so I put it off to the weekend. Then I get busy enough on the weekend to forget or put it off. Eventually I'll have some, but the process leaves me feeling stronger than the craving because I control when I satisfy it.)

May 14, 2013 11:03am | report
fishnbrah

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fishnbrah

lots of coke zero*

May 14, 2013 11:21am | report
theplazmaworker

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theplazmaworker

hmm. sounds interresting
perhaps this will help me in the future when im trainign wilpower. NOW. back to work

May 14, 2013 12:45pm | report
Fullmecha

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Fullmecha

Saw that piece of cake...
gave in.

May 14, 2013 2:49pm | report
LV2MODEL

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LV2MODEL

I use the gum trick to curve my sweet tooth. I have a terrible sugar addiction, but gum keeps my mouth busy and makes me think I am eating something filled with sugar. For me, its definitely psychological.

May 14, 2013 4:01pm | report
Showing 1 - 25 of 42 Comments

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