combat cravings

10 Ways to Combat Cravings & Emotional Eating

January 9, 2017

Food cravings and emotional eating can be quite challenging when attempting to lose weight. Acting on food cravings and using food to cope with various emotions can lead to overeating and make weight loss or weight loss maintenance difficult.

Combat Cravings &  Emotional Eating

Create a healthy personal food environment. When you are emotionally distressed or have a food craving, you’re much more likely to eat processed foods high in sugar and fat if they are easily available to you. In the presence of these foods, it will be quite hard to resist the urge. Make sure you have healthy, enjoyable foods easily accessible and visible to you wherever you are (home, work, your car, etc.).


Use mindfulness vs. distraction. Creating a healthy food environment is helpful, but you’re still likely to feel emotional and/or have food cravings as you are out and about. We live in an environment where processed foods are readily available and easily accessible. In those instances, you might be tempted to distract yourself from temptations to eat food. Distracting yourself from cravings may make them worse.

To demonstrate this, take a break from reading this article, close your eyes and for one full minute, whatever you do, do not think about chocolate cake. How’d that go for you? Typically when we tell ourselves not to think about something, we think about it more. Instead, practice mindfulness. This entails gently noticing, observing, and getting curious about the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that show up within you. It might be helpful to narrate the experience you’re having. For instance, you might say to yourself, “I notice my mind is creating thoughts to convince me to eat potato chips right now even though I’m not physically hungry. Interesting!”


Work on accepting what you’re feeling, increase your willingness to experience the discomfort that might come along with that and reflect on your values. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it is coming to a place of understanding that we don’t have a lot of control over our internal experiences.

What shows up in the form of emotions, cravings, thoughts, and feelings are not something we can just switch on and off like a light switch. If it were, we might choose to be happy all the time. Part of acceptance is understanding that as a human being, you’re going to have the whole range of emotions and some of them will be uncomfortable. As you work on accepting the food cravings and urges to eat, you might work on increasing your willingness to sit with the discomfort in service of your values.

For instance, you might say something to yourself like, “This urge is really uncomfortable and it’s very present in this moment. I don’t like it and at the same time, I’m going to sit with these urges as I carry on through my day because I know acting on these urges will make me feel worse later. I really want to maintain my weight loss thus far, so I’m going to choose not to act on this urge.”


Practice urge delaying. This is a tactic that is often used in substance abuse recovery and can be quite effective. When you have urges to eat in response to emotions or food cravings, you might find yourself giving in when the urge reaches its peak.

Nearly all urges will come down in intensity with time. Time your urges. When you first notice it, rate the intensity on a scale of 0-10. Then time yourself and check in to see where the urge intensity is in 10-15 minutes. If the urge is at the same intensity, wait another 10-15 minutes to see where your urge is then. You can repeat this and with time, you should find that your urges subside with intensity. You may not even want to eat the food you were originally craving or desiring.


Treat yourself in a planned way outside of the home with someone. Let’s say you tried all of the above strategies, and you still have a really strong desire to eat the food you’ve been craving. If that’s the case, make a special plan that includes eating that food outside of the home.

For instance, if you’re craving ice cream, instead of getting a pint of Ben & Jerry’s at the grocery store, go to the local ice cream shop and invite a friend to come with you. This way you’re eating a smaller amount than you otherwise would have if you had a larger quantity at home, and you’re making it an enjoyable experience with a loved one.


Eliminate stressors in your life. Emotional distress is often a catalyst for overeating or giving into food cravings. Check in with yourself and/or get professional help in understanding if there are any changes you can make in your life to consistently reduce distress in your life.

For instance, if you experience stress taking on too many things because you have a hard time saying no to people, you might benefit in working with someone to help you strengthen your boundaries, practice saying no, increase your ability to be assertive, and make more of a commitment to self-care.


Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals not only makes you hungry later and can set you up for overeating, but it also can cause irritability and difficulty concentrating. You may be more easily distracted and more emotionally charged if under distress which is the perfect storm for overeating.


Eat balanced meals. If your meals are highly carb-based, consider balancing them with healthy fats and lean protein. Eating balanced meals helps to keep your blood sugar stable. This will keep you from being irritable, hungry, and craving sugar. You may know about nutrition, but working with a registered dietitian can be valuable in getting you to think about food and your body in ways that you might not have before.


Make sure you are getting adequate sleep. Getting less than adequate sleep can result in overeating, food cravings, and emotional eating. Work with a professional if you’re struggling with insomnia. Remember, insomnia doesn’t mean you’re staying up all night long. The broader definition of insomnia is having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up not feeling well rested.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is a highly effective treatment. Make sure you work with someone specifically trained in CBT-I. If you suspect you might have sleep apnea, make sure you talk to your doctor about this so that you can get a sleep evaluation and proper treatment.


Last, but not least, practice self-compassion. What does it do to beat yourself up or get frustrated that you’re having urges or cravings to eat certain types of food? First of all, if it were in your control, you probably wouldn’t choose to have those urges or cravings. Remember, you don’t have a lot of control over your internal experiences (refer to #3 above).

We also live in an environment with highly rewarding processed foods all around us, so it’s incredibly difficult to resist temptation. Recognize what you’re up against and be kind to yourself. Imagine what you might say to a young child or a beloved friend or family member who was struggling with the same exact thing you are struggling with. Would you speak to them the same way you speak to yourself? Would you use the same words and tone of voice? Practice saying to yourself what you might stay to them and in a tone and manner in which you’d speak to them.

Managing emotional eating and food cravings is not an easy task. Remember that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.

Sapna Doshi

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Sapna Doshi specializes in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Drexel University. She completed internship at Duke University Medical Center and trained at the Duke Center for Metabolic and Weight Loss Surgery. Dr. Doshi provides pre-surgical psychological evaluations for weight loss surgery at Mind Body Health.