5 Ways to Tame Your Food Cravings to Avoid the Inevitable Weight Gain

With Candice A. Myers, PhD, John Apolzan, PhD, and Caroline Apovian, MD

The holidays are gone, but the goodies are likely still lurking in the pantry, calling your name, and threatening to trigger your cravings for sweets, baked goods, and salty snacks.

Without these food cravings, you are quite certain that you wouldn't have put on those extra few pounds recently, or while celebrating your birthday, or during your last vacation. 

Actually, you have a point,1 the experts say.

Avoid the vending machine so you are tempted by its contents.Walk past the vending machine. This is one of the tips experts suggest to help you manage your food cravings and avoid adding a few unwelcome pounds.

Weight Gain for Some: Learning to Manage Your Food Cravings  

Cravings—the intense, frequent desire to eat a specific food or type of food—do account for up to 11% of weight gain,1 says John Apolzan, PhD, assistant professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

With his Pennington colleagues Candice A. Myers, PhD, and Corby K. Martin, PhD, this team reviewed the research on food cravings and body weight, examining the scientific research published from March 2018 and back 18 months, identifying about a dozen credible studies.;their findings were published in Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity.

"So if you are someone who can put on several pounds in a short time, at least 10% of that weight gain is likely due to your eating to satisfy a food craving," Dr. Apolzan tells EndocrineWeb. That may not sound like much but those few extra pounds are more likely attributable to food binges than genetics can currently explain, he says.

Here are the highlights of what they found and suggestions to help you tame your food cravings.

Food Cravings Are Real But Manageable 

"The consensus you can draw from most of the current literature is that food cravings are definitely related to body weight in general," Dr. Myers says.

1. Recognize patterns for food cravings

Cravings develop when your desire to eat a certain food is paired with a stimulus such as watching a favorite TV show, or feeling sad or lonely,1 according to the research analysis.

When you stick to a healthy dietary plan, it can help to reduce the temptation to seek out tempting foods you are trying to avoid, so your cravings really do decrease, or may completely disappear.2

In fact, when you restrict your calories overall—especially when you eliminate sugar and white flour-based products—food cravings are likely to decline even disappear.3  

Research on this topic suggests that when you follow a Mediterranean-style approach to eating, for example, the result is that your appetite is suppressed and the urge to eat trigger foods dissipates, say the experts

2. Remove any temptations

If you cannot stop at one....don't tease yourself. It's simply better to avoid bringing these foods—cookies, chips, crackers—into the house. 

"The key is to change the stimuli since craved foods are often paired with something else," Dr. Apolzan says. For instance, if you watch a certain TV program and crave popcorn, find another show to watch, he says. Or, if you can't bear that, walk on the treadmill while you watch to break the cycle of munching as you enjoy the show.

Similarly, if you walk by a vending machine at work, and are drawn to a candy bar or those cheese crackers, "change your route," he says.

Another way to look at this is to remind yourself that every time you reach for a quick fix of simple carbs, you are left feeling satisfied for a brief moment. This rapid boost of sugar-based calories will quickly pass, leaving you still hungry and craving more. Thus, a problematic cycle becomes harder to manage.

Maybe just start with your coffee. Find a suitable substitute for the sugar or sugar substitute to deliver more flavor. Try adding vanilla flavored unsweetened almond milk to your coffee, or make hazelnut coffee to give you a satisfying cup without the sugar that can trigger more food cravings.

Then, move on to other processed, prepared foods. Swap out the Danish or donut for an egg with pear and a sprinkle of cheese, or oatmeal with warm berries. The less sugar you have, the less you are likely to crave the foods high in it. 

While this may seem obvious, it may be a good time to get you to clean out the pantry and the fridge, especially after the holidays are over. Don’t keep any foods around that may call your name when you come home hungry, or are looking to soothe yourself after a fight with your spouse, child, friend, or coworker.

What’s not there, won’t tempt you.

3. Plan Meals with Protein

The fix for hunger jags is to plan your meals around protein and vegetables to fortify your metabolism; in this way, your appetite will very likely remain steady and you’ll feel satisfied from one meal to the next, so the opportunity for a craving to strike is much, much less. On this, the experts agree.

This concept is reinforced by Robert H. Lustig, MD, professor emeritus in pediatrics and neuroendocrinology at the University of California at San Francisco who believes we should shun sugar, viewing it as an addictive substance.4 The more sugar-laden processed, prepared foods you eat, the more you will want, he says based on years of research.

"What helps with my patients is having them eat protein at each meal, so having eggs or Greek yogurt at breakfast, not cereal or a bagel," says Caroline Apovian, MD, FACP, FACN, professor of medicine and pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine in Massachusetts.

The goal is to make sure your meals include chicken, fish, or beans at lunch and dinner along with a hearty salad and/or a big serving of vegetables to fill you up and keep your blood sugar even and your appetite needs met.

4. Swap out the Sugar, Create Distractions

Be prepared for the moment that hunger strikes:

  • Always have a piece of fruit and some nuts on hand.
  • Pack some hummus and carrots, red pepper, or celery, for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
  • Keep a tin of roasted almonds in your desk drawer at the office
  • Have a bag of peanuts and dried mango in the car, and in your handbag or backpack.
  • Keeping a low sugar, protein bar at the ready so if you miss a meal, you can keep your blood sugar even, and avoid being blindsided with an insatiable hunger. 

If this regimen doesn’t help, Dr. Apovian suggests continuing with this strategy but adding a small taste of something sweet, such as a small piece of dark chocolate after your meal, daily for a week, then try having it only every other day, then just on Sunday.

See if that helps, Dr. Apovian tells EndocrineWeb, Sometimes just a little may be enough to keep you from a full-on food craving, or you may find that the less you have it, the less you will feel the need for it, she says.

Dr. Apolzan takes a different tact than Dr. Apovian's little-bit-every-day plan. He says, "it's necessary to deny yourself sometimes.” Take a walk, drink some water, grab a carrot, call a friend—distract yourself until the craving passes.3

5.  Strive for a Healthy Weight  

When you are committed to managing your weight, you are likely to have fewer food cravings. It could be that you are feeding your body the foods that it needs to function well, so you are satisfied.

This is critical, according to Dr. Apovian, since the studies about the value of exercise helping to foster weight loss are mixed but will help to keep the lost weight off,5 regardless of the reasons for the weight gain.

In one study, walking for five minutes out of every hour before lunch reduced food cravings more than sitting nonstop.6 Other studies have also found a benefit to increasing your activity to head-off a food craving or act as a timely distraction.

Obesity drugs may help food cravings decline, too. Those who used a meal replacement system and took phentermine had fewer cravings after 12 weeks than those who just used the meal replacement system.7

Bariatric surgery may leave you with fewer food cravings, but the jury is still out. While some studies have found it helps, having the surgery may have only a temporary effect7 but the benefits of weight loss and reversal of diabetes remain the primary reason for considering a gastric bypass.8

When These Strategies Aren’t Enough….

The research findings on cravings are often mixed, and ''this review really doesn't come to many objective conclusions except to say that more research is needed," says Dr. Apovian, "and I agree with this."

She tells her patients that cravings are complicated with hormonal and psychological factors at play. Comfort food is real. Getting comfort from food is a well-known, highly personal reality for many people. Sometimes, the best-laid plans are just not enough.

Seek Out the Comfort of Others

While sometimes effective, limiting your food intake may not be enough for you to avoid food cravings, says Dr. Apovian, who is also director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center.  

"This may be hormonal. If you lose weight, your body will produce hormones that make you hungry and you can develop food cravings from this mechanism. And, If you use food as a soothing agent for depression your cravings may stem from this mechanism," Dr. Apovian tells EndocrineWeb.

She believes this food relationship is influenced by the brain's energy regulation system that tracks body weight as well as the emotional reward process. 

When you lose weight, the energy regulation system is activated, which may increase the craving for high-calorie foods, in some folks, she says. When you are feeling depressed or disappointed, the reward system is activated, urging you to seek out a way to soothe yourself.

Consider joining a support group. This is a solution that works for many individuals when all the other suggestions do not do the trick. Attend a meeting sponsored by Overeaters Anonymous or become a member of Weight Watchers.

Being surrounded by and having the understanding of many like-minded individuals who are facing similar challenges is often a very effective way to help you turn the corner on these food cravings. 


The Pennington researchers have no disclosures. Dr. Apovian has received research funding from Lilly, Amylin, Aspire Bariatrics, GI Dynamics, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, Orexigen, MetaProteomics, and the Dr. Robert C. and Veronic Atkins Foundation, MYOS Corporation. She is on the speakers' bureau for the medication Contrave.

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