How to Stop Food Cravings

Food cravings are, without a doubt, the biggest obstacle in recovery from emotional eating. Even when you know what is triggering the desire to eat, the craving can remain. As I mentioned in my previous post, the first step towards stopping is to insert a pause between impulse and action – to not immediately act on the urge. Every moment you pause is a moment of recovery.

But how do you use this pause to dissolve the craving so the pause turns into a stop? That is the subject of today’s post. (You’ll find a more detailed discussion of how to stop food cravings in my book Normal Eating for Normal Weight.)

Gentle Acceptance

Here’s what doesn’t work: Sit all tensed up, yell at yourself for again wanting to eat when not hungry, and try to force yourself to not want to. That’s like telling yourself to not think about an elephant. Try it. Are you thinking about an elephant? Of course!

What does work is gentle acceptance and mindfulness. When you want to eat when you’re not hungry, it means that something is bothering you – that something is causing you discomfort, and you don’t know how to fix it. It does not mean that you’re hopeless, that you’ll never get this, that you can’t do it, and that you should give up on Normal Eating. When you talk to yourself in a disparaging way, you just increase your desire to eat. For one thing, self-abuse makes you feel bad, and eating is what emotional eaters do when they feel bad. For another, trying to force yourself to not think about something or not do something just makes you want to do it more.

What’s Bothering You?

The first thing to do is calm yourself down. Often just sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing is a very effective way to do this. Some people use other ways to calm themselves down – draw a picture, play soothing music – whatever works for you. Note that if you say mean things to yourself, you will not be able to calm down. You’ll just feel more agitated. Treat yourself as you would a child who is freaking out – your inner child. First you calm her down, then you ask her what’s wrong.

When you’re feeling less anxious and tense, you can think more clearly about what is setting off your desire to eat when not hungry. Think about what you’re doing in that moment (or what you had been doing when the urge arose), what’s going on in your life. Don’t just sit and think, however. That’s usually not very effective. It’s better to think actively – for example, write in a journal, post in the Normal Eating forum, or call a friend. Thinking through writing or speaking improves your ability to stay focused on the issue, and you’ll often realize things you wouldn’t otherwise.

What’s bothering you doesn’t have to be a major emotional conflict requiring therapy (though sometimes it is). Perhaps you tend to eat in the evening after dinner because you don’t know how else to relax, or because your partner isn’t paying attention to you, or because you feel guilty relaxing and not being constantly productive. Perhaps you just had an argument with someone, and don’t know what to do with your anger, or you feel guilty for being angry. Perhaps you have something to do that you don’t want to do, and you’re using eating as a means of procrastination. Perhaps your desire to eat comes from wanting a break from what you’re doing, and you don’t feel entitled to take one unless you’re “doing” something. Or perhaps you’re anxious about your ability to do well at something – for example, making a huge Thanksgiving feast for a large gathering of relatives!

Often when you realize what’s behind the desire to eat, and accept that this underlying problem is making you feel bad, that alone is enough to quell the desire to eat. This is because a frequent reason for non-hunger eating is to avoid feeling bad or even acknowledging that you feel bad about something. But pretending that you never feel any unhappiness or discomfort doesn’t make it so – the feelings just come out some other way. When you stop running from your feelings and let them surface, often the urge to eat will go away because the reason for eating has gone away – you’re facing your feelings and sitting with them.

Other times, as you sit with your feelings and try to understand them, actions you can take will occur to you – things you can do to address the problem that are more effective than eating. For example, you might ask for help with an overwhelming project, assert your desire to not do something unpleasant or that you don’t have time for, accept that you feel angry sometimes and that’s okay, realize that you don’t have to do everything perfectly to enjoy Thanksgiving with your family.

Over time, you will get better at calming yourself down, getting to the heart of the problem, and finding new ways to cope. As your ability to sit with discomfort increases, the frequency of your food cravings will diminish, your pauses will turn into stops, and you will become a Normal Eater.

Most importantly, be kind and gentle with yourself. Non-hunger eating urges are just signs of distress. You wouldn’t berate a loved one for showing signs of distress, and neither should you berate yourself for showing signs of distress. If you yell at a child to stop crying, it makes her cry more, not less.

Don’t expect to get instantly better, then berate yourself when you don’t. Long-term change is incremental, not something that happens all of a sudden. If people could stop emotional eating by a simple decision, this wouldn’t be such a widespread problem. In order to stop you must first be able to pause, so start by learning to pause and use that pause well.

Something to Try…

The next time you have an urge to eat when not hungry, take these steps:

  1. Say to yourself, “I notice that I have a desire to eat, though I’m not hungry. Something must be bothering me. I need to pause and take care of myself.” Accept the desire to eat; don’t try to force it to go away. See it as a signal that something needs attention.
  2. Spend a minimum of 5-10 minutes doing something calming and soothing that focuses your attention outside yourself. Focus on your body (for example, your breathing), what you see, what you hear, or what you feel on your skin. Get your attention out of your head, and into the present moment.
  3. When you feel less agitated, spend 5-10 minutes writing or speaking about what’s going on in your life at this moment, and how you feel about these things. Often in thinking about the situation, you will gain insights that suggest actions you can take to improve the situation.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

This article was first published in the November 2006 newsletter.

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3 Responses to How to Stop Food Cravings

  1. avatar Louise says:

    I texted my sister one day from work for advice – I wanted to eat but I wasn’t hungry. I felt in need of comfort, but I wasn’t sure what the problem was. Her response was so funny and yet so helpful that I made a list inspired by it to keep in my food journal for whenever similar feelings come up. She asked:
    “Is your pigtail too tight?”
    And, when I was done giggling at the unexpectedness of this question, I checked in with myself and found that I was cold, sitting in a draught, and that the sun was in my eyes, giving me a headache. So I closed the window, pulled the blind down just enough to keep the sun out of my eyes, and promptly made my checklist for future reference. I’ve found it invaluable. While it includes questions near the bottom of the list such as “Are you feeling unloved/unappreciated…” (etc), I find that sometimes the need to comfort oneself can be caused by even the simplest, most remediable discomforts.

  2. Great story, thanks for sharing it.

    – Sheryl

  3. avatar Nabila pacheco says:

    Thank you SO much for this article! You can’t imagine what effect it has had on me! For a long time now, ive searched and searched for ways of stopping my craving. Everyday i spent my entire afternoom reading articles that say the same thing over again with not much help. But i finally found what i needed, so thank you so so much for that

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