How to Handle Food Cravings

Chocolate calling you from the cupboard? Tractor beam emanating from the cookie jar? Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen shows how to prevent and deal with food cravings.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #10

A craving is defined as “a powerful desire.”  Our cravings drive us, whether for love, money, power, fame, or simply those sea salt caramels. 

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Cravings for things like cabbage or baby carrots are rare (and if you have them, I salute you).  Instead, cravings are usually for foods high in fat, sugar, or carbs (hello, chocolate covered pretzels!) which, when ingested, trigger the release of natural opioids and give us a sense of pleasure—a kind of mini-high.  Indeed, areas of the brain associated with drug craving light up when people crave a specific food.  Furthermore, blocking opiate receptors in the brain cuts cravings for fat and sugar.

Hormones play a role in cravings, too.  Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, naturally goes up and down before and after a meal.  But evolutionarily, ghrelin is still living on the plains from our hunting and gathering days—it plays a role in our natural preference for sugar, as well as our likelihood of giving in to cravings for comfort foods. 

Ghrelin may also keep us from stopping at just one serving of Chubby Hubby: A 2013 study found that ghrelin levels followed a typical rise-and-fall pattern after eating a relatively boring meal, but rocketed off the charts after eating yummy deliciousness (specifically, cake with rum syrup, custard, and Nutella) even after the study participants were full.  This suggests that ghrelin drives what researchers call “hedonic food consumption,” which is what’s happening when your chocolate croissant feels suspiciously like pastry-wrapped crack.  In a hormonal double whammy, eating for pleasure also went along with decreased levels of the hormone that influences satiety.  This might have been helpful in past millennia, but is not helpful when you work across the street from Krispy Kreme.

See also: Can You Be Addicted to Food?

Eating to satisfy a craving is different than a binge.  Cravings can set off a binge, but they don’t have to.  A binge feels out of control and is often driven by stress, worry, shame, or boredom.  It is often, but not always, associated with using food to fill an emotional void or managing seemingly unmanageable emotions. 

Cravings, by contrast, aren’t necessarily driven by emotion, but they can get mixed up with them.  Craving for a specific food often goes hand-in-hand with other feelings, and knowing what you’re dealing with is the first step to prevention.  To that end, here are 4 wolves in the sheep's clothing of cravings:

Craving Culprit #1: Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is also called stress eating.  Both cravings and emotional eating reflect a strong desire, but with a craving, the object of desire is the specific food—you want something very particular, and a different food isn’t going to do the trick.  By contrast, the point of emotional eating is simply the act of eating, whether to burn nervous energy, soothe yourself, or stuff a feeling of emptiness.  A specific food might be preferred, but any food will do, as Oprah’s famous incident with frozen hot dog buns and syrup attests.

Craving Culprit #2: Boredom

If you’re a creature of habit, eating the same foods day in and day out might be a comfort.  But for those who do better with variety, restricting yourself to foods that are familiar or convenient lights a fire under cravings.  A study in the journal Physiology and Behavior found that “dietary monotony,” even when it meets all nutritional needs, triggers cravings.  This often happens to dieters; folks on a diet often eat the same few things because the foods are “permissible” or they already know the caloric content.  This can lead to boredom, which can trigger a craving.

Craving Culprit #3: Deprivation

By the same token, dieters often forbid “bad” foods.  However, disallowing certain foods works like thought suppression, which is to say it doesn’t.  For example, try not to think about a pink elephant floating above your head.  Don’t worry—I can’t do it, either.  Now, try not to think about steak frites.  Because you have to remember what you’re not supposed to think about—or what you’re not supposed to eat—it’s always on your mind. 

If you feel deprived when you try to group foods as “healthy” versus “unhealthy” or  “good” versus “bad,” you may be setting yourself up for cravings.  Eat what you like in sensible amounts, before the sense of deprivation builds up.

The big asterisk to this statement is that for some, the abstinence model really does work best.  If you cannot eat just one Oreo without triggering a Cookie Monster free-for-all, and you’re comfortable with never having them in the house, simply don’t buy them.  Your life will be easier for it.

Craving Culprit #4: Plain Old Hunger

If it’s been more than a few hours since you’ve eaten, it might not be a craving, per se, but simple hunger.  The difference: hunger is satisfied by many foods, while a craving is squelched by one particular food.  So if everything in the deli case looks good, you’re probably just hungry.  Also, a craving eventually passes, but hunger just gets worse.  So nourish yourself.  And if you’re hungry for something specific, enjoy. 

Now, what do you do when the siren song of garlic breadsticks is leading you to certain doom?  Here are 7 tips to navigate the waters:


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.