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Understanding and Managing Food Cravings

Before reading this blog, spend a few minutes thinking about your most recent food cravings.  Here are some questions that could help you remember and focus on those cravings:

  • What were you craving?
  • What conditions seemed to promote or create that craving?  For example, did you smell something very appealing?  Did you see something on TV or in a magazine that prompted it?  Was it quite a while ago when you had your last meal – before this craving hit you?
  • How strong was the craving?  Rate it on a scale from 0= none to 100= felt compelled to get this food immediately, even if it meant stopping everything else in my life to get it right now, regardless of cost or difficulty.

Cravings often occur for very specific types of foods like chocolate or pizza.

Chocolate Brownies

You probably noticed that you didn’t just crave any random type of food.  Few people report craving carrots or lettuce, for example.  Often, cravings occur for highly tasty and desirable foods – many of them quite high in fat.

Cravings are often triggered by environmental or internal factors.

You may have also noticed that cravings increase based on cues from the environment: smells and pictures.  They also increase when we have not eaten in a while or feel hungry for other reasons.

Best Way to Think about Cravings…


The most useful way to consider cravings is to realize that the simple equation above tells most of the story.  Cravings occur when we have a desire for food (hunger) combined with a label for that desire for food.  So, let’s say you haven’t eaten all day and you walk past a pizza restaurant with great smells wafting out of the open windows.  That would do it for most of us!  We’d want pizza at that moment, and might want it quite a bit.  That could produce a craving rating of 80 on the 100 point scale introduced earlier.  So, your craving for pizza came from hunger + a label for that hunger (“I want pizza.”).

Now, we know that our bodies couldn’t actually have a specific craving for pizza without these circumstances.  After all, we have bodies essentially the same as those of our ancestors from 100,000- 200,000 years ago.  They didn’t make pizza back then!  They also didn’t make chocolate then or cheesecake or other things that you sometimes might crave. These foods simply didn’t exist for more than 199,000 + years out of the 200,000 years that these bodies have existed.

We also know from research done by psychologist Dr. Stanley Schacter  and his colleages (e.g., Schacter & Singer, 1962; Schacter & Wheeler, 1962) that if you inject a subject with adrenalin (an activation drug) and put them in a room with a depressed person – the subject will get depressed; put the subject in a room with a comedian and the subject will get giddy.

Overweight and formerly overweight people have billions of excess fat cells and related hormones.  This kind of activation is always there. Under certain circumstances, that activation can focus on a certain type of food.

How to Manage Cravings Effectively

You can manage cravings quite easily and effectively using this definition and understanding of food cravings.  After all, now you know that you do not HAVE to eat the thing you crave.  You just stuck a label on your hunger because you saw or smelled or thought about something.  Your body could not possible have to eat that specific thing – which did not exist when our bodies were created centuries ago.  You can take steps to decrease your desire to food in many ways when cravings hit.

Here are a few ideas that have worked well for weight controllers:

Call a friend for support and distraction.

Call a friend for support and distraction from cravings.

1. Eat something safe. When cravings hit: eat anything and the activation will decrease, as will the craving.  For example, when craving a chocolate scone at Starbucks, buy a bagel instead.  Note what happens as you eat the bagel.  Your craving will decrease a lot and you will have just saved yourself from eating a high fat food.

2. Distract yourself.  Distract yourself in some notable way – and the craving will also decrease (e.g., call a friend; take a brief walk).

3. Think about it in terms of your goals. If you are a serious weight controller, for example, remind yourself that eating a problematic food just is not worth it.  Cravings are just a sign of a desire for food coupled with thinking about a certain type of food (a label for the hunger).  In addition, eating a problem food because of a craving will only reinforce the mistaken belief that the only way to solve or reduce that craving is to eat the problem food.  That makes a challenging situation even more challenging.

Dr. Daniel Kirschenbaum is President and Clinical Director of Wellspring Camps and Academies, scientifically-based alternatives to traditional fat camps.

Wellspring Camps


Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379–399.

Schachter, S. and Wheeler, L. (1962). Epinephrine, chlorpromazine, and amusement. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 65, 121-128.

1 Response to Understanding and Managing Food Cravings

I think cravings are a sign of your body lacking something. For example sometimes I have a yearning for ice cream. I have never been a big ice cream eater. So, I often interprete this as a sign I need more calcium/dairy in my diet. Craving pizza? Maybe the diet is too low in sodium or healthy fat.
If I truely want something, I found it is better to satify it, in moderation of course, than to dive into a pool of it.