Food Cravings – How do we handle them?

While more research is needed to truly understand food cravings (if you didn’t already know, food & nutrition research is more complicated than most people think!), it’s important to note that we all have cravings and we all give in to them sometimes (hint – this makes you human – and an awesome human at that!). In an ideal world, our food environment and advertising wouldn’t take advantage of our natural tendencies. In the meantime, try these tips (use what you like, leave what you don’t).

1 – Understand that food cravings are natural, we all have them, and they’re not a character flaw!

If you need to, go ahead and reread this article and know that cravings are so common. They’re ingrained in our biology.

2 – Eat a variety of nutritious foods. 

Keep nutritious snacks and meals on-hand and ready for when the cravings hit. It’s also helpful to eat filling meals that balance your blood sugar during the day, leading to less cravings because you aren’t desperate for that next hit of energy. 

3 – Try to reduce your exposure to food cues in the first place. 

(NOTE: These are not your fault and it’s so difficult to go against the reality of our current food environment.) 

If you find that certain activities you do are 

strongly linked with food cravings (such as sitting in front of a screen means “popcorn time” or walking past the convenience store means “soda pop time,”) try going the extra step and doing something different whenever you can. That may mean swapping soda for herbal tea or soda water with lemon, perhaps less TV or screen time or taking a different route home to avoid passing the drive-through or your favourite cafe or bakery. 

Identify if you crave a food because you’re doing something you associate with eating (e.g., relaxing in front of the television, preparing to watch a movie, commuting). You can try making a quick note on your smartphone or jotting down in your journal when you experience them. Then, instead of these activities, try doing something else. Maybe head out for a walk, relax with your favourite hobby, or call a friend or family member.[11]

4 – Are you truly hungry?

Physical hunger has a feeling of emptiness in your stomach, fatigue, and/or lightheadedness. If you’re not sure whether you’re hungry or just have a craving, try to delay acting on it right away. For example, drink a glass of water and wait 10 to15 minutes. If that craving

hasn’t gone away, try a nutritious snack or meal. If that doesn’t work either and it’s an insatiable craving, try another distraction.[11]

If it doesn’t go away, you may very well be hungry.

5 – If you’re experiencing a food craving and are not truly hungry.

When experiencing a food craving, try to identify where it came from. Was there a food cue (advertisement, smell, memory, or are you looking at something right now that makes you want to enjoy it)? Are you stressed or bored? Are there uncomfortable emotions surfacing? Sometimes food can be a distraction from the things we want to avoid or from experiencing discomfort when we finally have a moment to ourselves.

If you’re responding to a food cue, try to remove that cue. Stop paying attention to it by changing the channel, moving the food out of sight, or otherwise distracting yourself from it.[11]

6 – Enjoy the craved food slowly and mindfully.

Start with a small amount of the craved food. 

Mindfulness includes paying attention to whatever arises in the present moment with an open, curious non-judgmental attitude. It is a state of “enhanced receptive awareness and 

attention to present reality.”[7] 

Mindful eating is therefore eating slower and paying more attention to your food. Do this by chewing well and savouring the smells, tastes, colours and textures. Your body feels satiated when your stomach feels physically full and your digestive hormones send a signal to your brain that you’re no longer hungry. By eating slower, you’re allowing these signals to work before you get a chance to eat too much.[11]

Studies show that being mindful of thought and emotions can help reduce cravings. One clinical study showed that participants ate fewer cookies when they did a mindfulness activity, as compared to those who did not do the activity. Doing a brief mindfulness exercise can even change your level of hunger to reduce the influence of the attractiveness of less-nutritious foods.[7]

7 – Make nutritious foods more appealing.

A few studies show that it may be possible to change the foods we crave. In a process called “cognitive reappraisal,” some people have been able to reduce their cravings for less-nutritious foods and increase them for more nutritious foods by focusing on the long-term health consequences of frequently eating that food.[12,13,14] 

In one recent study, 58 college students were asked to look at a picture of a food and think about whether it will increase their risk for heart disease or whether it will provide vitamins and minerals to keep them strong. This cognitive reappraisal exercise affected how frequently and how strongly those foods were craved (e.g., cravings for nutritious foods became stronger and more frequent than they were before the experiment). Just one week later, some participants reported that they ate less of the less nutritious foods.[12]

While it can be difficult (but possible!) for adults to change the foods we already prefer to eat, it may be easier to influence how children develop food preferences. If you have children, you can expose them to nutritious foods as often as possible.[10]

(But don’t let that discourage you – children are quite adaptable & with repeated, low pressure, exposure to different foods are often able to slowly become more open to new/different foods.)

8 – Take care of your mental health.

Remember that our emotional state—including stress—are linked to food cravings. Your mental health is important. Maybe read that last line again…your mental health shapes your physical health as well, you can’t fully enjoy one without the other. 

Try to reduce stress in ways that work for you: meditation, physical activity, socializing with people you care about, getting enough sleep, etc.[4,9] . Also recognize that some stress is helpful – when we are working on something or dealing with an issue that we care deeply about, the stress (called eustress) relates more to caring about that than the challenge itself. 

9 – After you indulged in your food craving. 

Don’t beat yourself up! We both know that this is so common. Indulging does not make you a bad person, food is not moral. Indulging makes you a human with a deep biological need for physical and emotional wellbeing who is surrounded by food cues and easy access. Spiralling into shame or despair over food choices can increase stress in your body – no one needs that! Eating what we crave can be done mindfully, releasing the pressure to “get past” the experience and allowing us to fully enjoy our food. 

If you need to, reread strategies 1-8 again.

10 – If you suspect you may be deficient in nutrients or have an underlying condition, be sure to see your licensed healthcare professional.

Remember, that even though right now there is more evidence of the conditioning hypothesis leading to food cravings, that’s not a 100 percent guarantee! Food cravings may be a sign of nutritional needs, so reach out to an excellent practitioner who can help you.


1 – Kahathuduwa, C. N., Binks, M., Martin, C. K., & Dawson, J. A. (2017). Extended calorie restriction suppresses overall and specific food cravings: a systematic review and a meta-analysis. Obesity reviews: an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 18(10), 1122–1135.



2 – Examine’s Nutrition Examination Research Digest. (2017, October). Can dieting actually suppress food craving? Issue 36. Retrieved from

3 – van den Akker, K., Schyns, G., & Jansen, A. (2018). Learned Overeating: Applying Principles of Pavlovian Conditioning to Explain and Treat Overeating. Current addiction reports, 5(2), 223–231.



4 – Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, June 24). Why people become overweight. Retrieved from

5 – Blechert, J., Klackl, J., Miedl, S. F., & Wilhelm, F. H. (2016). To eat or not to eat: Effects of food availability on reward system activity during food picture viewing. Appetite, 99, 254-261. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.01.006


6 – Lee, Y. H., Kim, M., Lee, M., Shin, D., Ha, D. S., Park, J. S., Kim, Y. B., & Choi, H. J. (2019). Food Craving, Seeking, and Consumption Behaviors: Conceptual Phases and Assessment Methods Used in Animal and Human Studies. Journal of obesity & metabolic syndrome, 28(3), 148–157.



7 – Fisher, N, Lattimore, P., & Malinowski, P. (2015). Attention with a mindful attitude attenuates subjective appetitive reactions and food intake following food-cue exposure. Appetite, 99, 10-16. ISSN 0195-6663.



8 – Monteiro, C., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J., Levy, R., Louzada, M., & Jaime, P. (2018). The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 5-17. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000234

9 – Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). How stress can make us overeat. Retrieved from

10 – Harvard Health Publishing. (2017, June 5). Controlling what — and how much — we eat. Retrieved from–and-how-much–we-eat

11 – Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). 5 ways to outwit your appetite. Retrieved from

12 – Reader, S. W., Lopez, R. B., & Denny, B. T. (2018). Cognitive reappraisal of low-calorie food predicts real-world craving and consumption of high- and low-calorie foods in daily life. Appetite

131, 44-52.



13 – Giuliani, N. R., Calcott, R. D., & Berkman, E. T. (2013). Piece of cake. Cognitive reappraisal of food craving. Appetite, 64, 56-61.


14 – Siep, N., Roefs, A., Roebroeck, A., Havermans, R., Bonte, M., & Jansen, A. (2012). Fighting food temptations: the modulating effects of short-term cognitive reappraisal, suppression and up-regulation on mesocorticolimbic activity related to appetitive motivation. Neuroimage, 60(1), 213-20. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.12.067