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,
July 3, 2015
Episode #010

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  • Tip #1: Remember a craving is not an emergency.  Rather than getting swept up in the urgency of “I need it now!” let the craving perch on your shoulder and carry it around for a while.  Like a storm, cravings fizzle and pass.  Welcome it as a temporary visitor rather than fighting it like an enemy.

  • Tip #2:  Lean in.  To resist the craving, use a counterintuitive tool and lean into the craving.  Your body may need acknowledgement and attention, not Fritos.  Breathe.  Calmly notice and describe the craving in undramatic terms.  You may uncover some other need under the craving, or you may not; it’s the tuning in that will tell you. 

  • Tip #3: Delay.  Some cravings are like a firecracker—a quick pop and they dissolve.  But others are a slow burn—they smolder on for hours and days if not fulfilled.  To deal with the firecracker variety, tell yourself you can have those salt and vinegar potato chips in half an hour.  Fast forward to your target time and you may have forgotten about them.  If you still want them, maybe you’ve got the slow burn.  Into the shopping cart they go, but do the following:

  • Tip #4: Ladies, talk it out; gentlemen, keep it to yourself.  A 2008 study found that when women tried to suppress their thoughts about chocolate, they actually ended up eating 50% more than those who were encouraged to think and talk about it.  For men, however, the response was different—those who thought and talked about the chocolate ended up eating more than those who suppressed.

  • Tip #5: Don’t try to substitute.  If I want a cookie but eat a carrot, I’m guaranteed to end up eating a carrot and, a few minutes later, a cookie.  Or four.  I’m willing to bet you’re similar.  If you’re craving something, don’t try to fool yourself.  Your body and taste buds are smart, and they will get mad if you try to trick them.

  • Tip #6: Create a mini ritual for your favorite foods.  Engaging in ritual around food makes it more enjoyable.  Lighting candles, singing “Happy Birthday,” and making a wish really does make the cake taste better.  But it works on a smaller scale, too.  In a 2013 study from the University of Minnesota, something as small as opening a chocolate bar in a specific way made the participants savor the chocolate longer, rate it more highly, and pay more for it.  Do the same and create a ritual around foods you crave to maximize your enjoyment.  You don’t have to do an elaborate donut dance; it could be as simple as always breaking the donut in half before you eat it.

  • Tip #7: Savor it.   When you finally get your hands on that kettle corn, really taste it.  Eat it slowly.  Sit at a table, but not in front of a screen.  Chew, don’t inhale.  Taste each ingredient.  This is called mindful eating and it can be both freeing and frustrating.  The tendency to plow through a meal without tasting it is so common that it feels odd to slow down, but eating mindfully can decrease your cravings, your waistline, and your risk of Type 2 Diabetes.  But not to worry—your food doesn’t have to be fancy, vegan, or organic—you can eat anything mindfully, even your kids’ pizza crusts (not that I know anything about that...)

So when a craving strikes, calm down, tune in, and savor every bite.  With some practice, that tractor beam from the cookie jar may be weaker than you remember.


Drewnowski, A., Krahn, D.D., Demitrack, M.A., Nairn, K., & Gosnell, B.A. (1995). Naloxone, an opiate blocker, reduces the consumption of sweet high-fat foods in obese and lean female binge eaters.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61, 1206-12.

Erskine, J.A.K. (2008).  Resistance can be futile: Investigating behavioural rebound.  Appetite, 50, 415-421.

Hanh, TN., Cheung, LWY. Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. Harper One, New York, 2010.

Monteleone, P., Scognamiglio, P., Monteleone, A.M., Perillo, D., Canastrelli, B., & Maj, M. (2013).  Gastroenteric hormone responses to hedonic eating in healthy humans.  Psychoneuroimmunology, 8, 1435-1441.

Pelchat, M.L. & Schaefer, S.  (2000).  Dietary monotony and food cravings in young and elderly adults.  Physiology & Behavior, 68, 353-359..

Hungry and woman thinking of ice cream images courtesy of Shutterstock.