How can I resist a food craving?

Food cravings are notoriously difficult to resist. A waft of doughnuts frying, a glimpse of salty chips or the rustle of a crisp packet can lead even the strongest willed of us to quickly break our healthy eating resolve.

Cravings are linked to memory. When we eat a food we like, we create a positive memory. When we associate a food with happy memories, it affects how good we think it tastes and how good it makes us feel, according to Professor Carey Morewedge of Boston University. The more we eat of that food, the more we reinforce this memory. When these positive memories are formed they intrude on our consciousness as a craving. A smell, feeling or place can recall the memory and bring on a craving.

Cravings are closely linked to reward centres in the brain. Carb-loaded foods such as sugary drinks and chips trigger a pathway of signals to these reward centres, while fatty foods such as cheese take a different route. Mix carbs and fat together, in an ice cream or chocolate for instance, and those reward centres are reinforced, according to research from Yale University. So your brain rewards you for satisfying cravings for these foods.

What makes a craving stronger?

Our emotions and lifestyle can make cravings harder to resist. Here are some factors that have been shown to weaken resolve.

  1. Stress: Snacking on crisps, chocolate and biscuits has been associated with higher stress.
  2. Higher levels of boredom and anxiety.
  3. Daytime sleeping has been linked to cravings, while poor or unusual sleep patterns have been associated with a higher body mass index (BMI).
  4. Restrictive diets have been shown to increase cravings.

5 ways to stop cravings

There are a number of theories about how to help yourself resist a food craving, or even prevent the craving.

  1. Drink more water. A study found that drinking 500ml of water before a meal helped people to lose weight.

  2. Imagine eating a food many times, as this has been shown to reduce your consumption of that food, according to research from Professor Morewedge. Worth a go!

  3. Get moving. Chocolate cravings were reduced when people did some quick exercise.

  4. “Make sure you've eaten enough at mealtimes to stop you reaching for sugary treats in the afternoon or evening”, says senior therapist Sally Baker.

  5. “If you're feeling stressed, anxious or even just bored, you could do something other than eat to get yourself out of that negative mood”, says Sally Baker. “Taking a walk in a park works for many people, meeting up to chat with friends or even a bath can be much more satisfying than turning to a snack and more likely to make you feel better.”

How and why does repeatedly thinking about a food help us resist a craving? Professor Carey Morewedge explains his theory to Dr Chris van Tulleken.

Who snacks the most?

Source: Nielsen Global Snacking Report 2014