If you sometimes experience food cravings or an irresistible desire to eat specific foods, rest assured that you’re not alone. In fact, it’s estimated that over 90% of the world’s population gets food cravings (
These cravings can be hard to ignore, potentially leading you to consume excessive amounts of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, and highly palatable foods like chocolate, cake, ice cream, and pizza. Unfortunately, these excess calories and processed foods can harm your health (
If you worry that you experience more food cravings than others or your cravings often bother you, several reasons can explain why, and there are several ways to combat them.
This article shares 12 effective, evidence-based ways to manage food cravings.
It’s important to fuel your body properly to keep it healthy and functioning at its best.
Without enough calories and nutrients, it’s natural that your body signals you to eat, which can cause strong cravings for certain foods.
While the relationship between calorie intake and food cravings is complex, some research suggests that calorie restriction — at least in the short term — can increase cravings (
On the other hand, long-term calorie restriction may be associated with less overall and specific food cravings (
Regardless, consistently fueling your body with healthy, filling foods and making sure you’re not overly restricting calories may help decrease food cravings.
Picture kicking off a new diet, feeling ready to change your eating patterns and reach new health goals. Unfortunately, just hours or days later, you get stronger and stronger cravings for all the foods you cannot eat.
If this sounds familiar, rest assured that it’s completely normal. Many diets are overly restrictive, and this can lead to increased food cravings. In fact, some studies suggest that people on diets are likely to experience more frequent food cravings than people who aren’t on diets.
For example, a 2012 study including 129 women found that those who were dieting to lose weight experienced significantly more food cravings than women who weren’t dieting. Plus, their food cravings were more intense (
In fact, it’s believed that restrained eating and perceived deprivation play a large role in food cravings.
A 2020 review of 8 studies on food deprivation found that in 7 of the studies, food deprivation increased cravings for foods that were perceived as off-limits (
Therefore, while losing excess body fat may improve your overall health, it’s important to avoid overly restrictive diets to keep food cravings at bay. Instead, focus on developing an eating pattern that properly nourishes your body and lets you enjoy your favorite foods on occasion.
Although hunger is a natural body cue that shouldn’t be feared, letting yourself get too hungry might increase the risk of strong food cravings.
From your body’s point of view, this makes perfect sense.
When you’re feeling ravenously hungry, it’s likely that you haven’t fueled your body for a long time. As a result, your blood sugar levels may be low, and your body will direct you to consume high energy foods to get those levels back up into the normal range (
On the other hand, when your blood sugar levels are stable, you’re less likely to have strong food cravings.
Fortunately, you don’t have to stringently eat every couple of hours to keep your blood sugar levels steady. Rather, simply pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues and feed your body when it needs fuel.
A simple way to keep cravings in check, feel fuller for longer, and stabilize your blood sugar levels is to enjoy foods that promote feelings of fullness. All three macronutrients — fat, carbs, and protein — are important for keeping you feeling full.
That said, protein is the most filling macronutrient. In fact, many studies have demonstrated that eating more of this nutrient helps manage food cravings.
For example, high protein diets have been shown to reduce the activation of areas in the brain associated with food rewards and cravings, reduce nighttime snacking on sugary, high calorie foods, and decrease food cravings (
In other words, pairing protein-rich foods with healthy fats and fiber-rich carbs is essential for promoting fullness.
It’s a great idea to plan ahead and make sure you have access to meals and snacks that are rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats to promote feelings of fullness and decrease cravings.
Simple, balanced ideas include pairing an apple with nut butter or a bit of cheese, or having a hard-boiled egg with some veggies and hummus.
Besides taking up time, effort, and mental energy, being overly preoccupied with calories can cause you to severely restrict your overall energy intake and avoid foods that you enjoy.
While tracking food intake can be helpful for some people on a short-term basis, consistently obsessing about how many calories you consume can harm your relationship with food and cause unnecessary stress.
Counteractively, by overly restricting certain foods or limiting your food intake to suit a certain calorie goal, you can end up feeling strong food cravings and overeating later.
If you’re struggling with obsessive calorie counting, overly restricting food intake, or food cravings, seek help from a qualified healthcare provider like a registered dietitian.
To promote overall health, manage your weight, and feel your very best, it’s important to limit your intake of certain foods, such as those high in added sugar and ultra-processed products like fast food.
However, restricting or completely avoiding certain foods may make you crave them even more, potentially causing you to eat even more of them down the line once the desire gets irresistible (
Fortunately, your favorite foods can be a part of your diet — even if they’re not the healthiest, and even if you’re trying to lose excess body fat. In fact, studies have shown that being more flexible and less rigid in your dietary choices may boost weight loss.
This is great news, demonstrating that your favorite treats can fit into a healthy dietary pattern. For example, flexibility can mean enjoying a dessert when out to dinner, having a piece or two of chocolate after lunch, or making your favorite pasta dish for dinner.
Your blood sugar can fluctuate when it has been a while since you last ate. This can lead to food cravings, especially for carb-rich foods, so it makes perfect sense if you desire things like crackers, french fries, chocolate, or bread when you’re feeling hungry.
In a 2013 study including 210 people with and without type 2 diabetes, having unmanaged blood sugar levels was associated with carb cravings. Plus, these cravings declined with improved blood sugar management (
That’s no surprise. When your blood sugar gets low, for example, if you’ve intentionally or unintentionally gone an extended time without eating, your body activates areas in your brain that promote cravings for high calorie foods (
If you’ve noticed that you typically get cravings during a certain time of day, it may mean that you’re not optimally managing your blood sugar levels or fueling your body.
If you find yourself thinking of or reaching for certain foods during times of stress, you’re not alone. Many studies have linked stress to increased food cravings.
For example, a 2015 study in 619 people found that chronic stress significantly and directly affected food cravings (
If you feel stressed, try out some of these stress-relieving tips to see if they help you relax and leave some of your cravings behind. Also, don’t be afraid to seek help or counsel from a health care professional.
Interestingly, you’re more likely to experience food cravings after a night with too little shut-eye.
A 2019 study including 256 children and teens associated poor sleep with more frequent food cravings and worse diet quality (
Another 2019 study including 24 women associated sleep deprivation with increased hunger and food cravings (
A lack of sleep affects certain areas of your brain, including the frontal cortex and amygdala, which can significantly increase your desire for highly palatable and calorie-rich foods (
To counteract sleep-deprivation-associated food cravings and promote overall health, aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night (
Check out this article for some practical tips to help you doze off.
Some research suggests that eating less highly refined carbs may combat your food cravings.
This could be because a diet rich in highly refined carbs, which significantly affects your blood sugar levels, may trigger brain responses that drive cravings for highly palatable foods (
A small 2019 study found that adults who followed a 4-week low carb diet comprising 14% carbs, 58% fat, and 28% protein had significantly fewer food cravings than before they started the diet (
Not to worry, though — this doesn’t mean you have to follow a low carb diet, or any special diet for that matter, to manage your food cravings.
Instead, simply focus on eating less ultra-processed carb items that are high in added sugar, such as cakes and candy. Replace them with high fiber, nutrient-dense carbs like sweet potatoes, oats, and butternut squash for filling, wholesome alternatives.
Oftentimes, eating highly palatable foods like sweetened baked goods, ice cream, pizza, and doughnuts may drive food cravings.
Similarly, a 2018 review found that eating less of the foods you often crave may reduce cravings for those foods (
Studies also suggest that the more highly palatable foods you eat, the fewer reward responses your brain experiences. This can create stronger cravings, leading you to eat even more highly palatable foods to compensate (
For these reasons, cutting back on highly palatable foods like ice cream, fast food, boxed mac and cheese, cookies, or candy — whichever foods you often crave — may be a long-term way to reduce craving frequency.
It probably comes as no surprise that maintaining a healthy body weight is important for your overall health. Yet, what you might not realize is that it may also reduce food cravings.
In fact, research has linked a higher body weight to a greater frequency of food cravings.
In the previously mentioned 2014 study in 646 people, participants with a higher BMI — an indication of body weight in relation to height — had more food cravings than people with BMIs considered normal (
Additionally, in a 2019 study in 100 people, those with overweight reported more frequent cravings for highly palatable foods than people of weights considered to be normal (
Plus, maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce your risk of certain chronic diseases, improve your body image, benefit your mental health, and more, to keep you feeling your very best (
Rest assured that food cravings are normal and experienced by almost everyone.
Unfortunately, frequent cravings may lead to overeating — oftentimes involving nutrient-poor foods — and harm your health.
Trying out some of the evidence-based tips listed above, including getting enough sleep, avoiding restrictive diets, eating nutrient-dense foods, and reducing your stress levels, may help you manage food cravings.
If you’re experiencing frequent food cravings that you cannot overcome, work with a registered dietitian to discover why. Together, you can come up with an appropriate plan to manage food cravings in a healthy, sustainable manner.