How to manage cravings

Chocolate, carbs, junk food, alcohol or sugar. Your body can experience cravings for a variety of different foods or drinks. Some food cravings can feel uncontrollable until you’ve had that certain food. But the good news is, it’s possible to curb cravings.

Imagine curbing cravings – or not

2010 study put forward the theory that imagining eating a particular food led to someone eating less of that food. Participants imagined eating three M&Ms. They were then found to eat fewer M&Ms directly afterwards, than those who did not imagine eating.

But occupational therapist Carolyn Fitzgibbon,  says unfortunately, this is not true in practice. In fact, imagining may do the opposite.

To understand this, Fitzgibbon says we need to examine exactly what a craving is, and more importantly, why we have that craving.

The causes

“Cravings are your brain’s way of telling you you would normally be engaging in a habit,” says Fitzgibbon, who helps people struggling with severe cravings and addictions. “You may have an energy slump at 3pm. After obliging for a few afternoons, it becomes habit to reach for a chocolate biscuit at that time.”

Our brains are extremely good at compressing information to leave space for the more important thinking and decision-making processes. When it recognises a series of steps in a sequence, it’s able to automate them so you don’t need to think through those individual steps ― it becomes a habit.

“The more you do that habit, the more it becomes ingrained and you have a stronger impulse to engage in it. Particularly if the habit brings a pleasurable reward with it, like the dopamine hit from eating a chocolate biscuit at 3pm.”

The problem Fitzgibbon sees with imagining indulging in a craving is that it reinforces those neural pathways created by the the brain and the craving actually becomes stronger the more you think about it.

But all is not lost if you do have cravings for particular foods or drinks ― you can create new neural pathways in the brain.

Changing the patterns

The key to changing habits and curbing cravings is in exploring what the craving is about and the reasons behind it. When you identify why you are experiencing the urge, you can think of another way to fulfil that need.

“Look at if it’s purely a habit, or is there another need which craves to be fulfilled? Such as reward. Or a drop in energy, or perhaps you’re really just thirsty. Ask yourself, instead of eating that chocolate biscuit, is there another thing I can do?”

Fitzgibbon suggests a number of questions you can ask yourself to explore the reasons behind your craving, and offers some alternatives.

  • Does this feel like a reward? If so, do something else which you may enjoy.
  • Am I craving this food or drink because I need calming or soothing? Instead do something else which fulfils these requirements such as listening to music, placing something heavy on your lap, or doing yoga stretches.
  • Do I need energy or help to focus? If yes, go for a short walk or grab a handful of crunchy nuts to snack on.
  • Is it because I feel like I’m not coping and I’m trying to reduce anxiety or need grounding? Spin in a circle, put on loud music, or try some complicated physical movements like rock-climbing or more intense exercise.
  • Do I want to change my mood? Literally smell the flowers or other scents, or sing instead.

The most powerful thing, however, in overcoming any sort of urge, is remembering that cravings come and go.

Urge surfing

“The urges feel intense while they are building up, then you go down the other side and they fade away. The intense feelings of cravings are simply there because the brain has made an association.”

Furthermore, for every second you don’t engage in a habit or give in to a craving, you are creating a new neural pathway.

“You are experiencing the craving because you are not doing it. The urges are good because you’re not giving in. So really, when you get those cravings for things you shouldn’t have, you can think: well done brain!”

While overcoming cravings is not as simple as imagining eating that food, you can use your imagination to find new, healthier ways to fulfil that need.