How to Stop Food Cravings? 9 Effective Methods

If you struggle with food cravings at night or any time of day, here are nine methods to effectively stop craving unhealthy food to stay on track with your health goals.

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by
Kelsey Kunik, RDN
— Signos
RDN
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 5, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Once a food craving strikes, it can be almost impossible to think of anything else. You're not alone if you often get strong urges to eat specific foods (often the foods you’d rather not go overboard on, like ice cream, potato chips, and other fast food or comfort food). Ninety percent of the population regularly experiences these strong desires for specific foods, making it a hurdle many must work through.1

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a certain type of food, but when food cravings cause you to overeat, eat when you’re not hungry, or eat too much of a food that’s not aligned with your health goals, they can be a burden to your overall health or weight loss or management efforts. In this article, we uncover why you crave certain foods and how to stop cravings to stay on track with your goals.
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Why Are Cravings So Tempting at Night?

While food cravings can strike any time of day, you may notice them most often at night, between dinner and bedtime. Don’t mistake nighttime food cravings with the desire to eat a small nighttime snack. Research shows that a small single-nutrient or mixed-nutrient snack, around 150 calories, is harmless and can even be beneficial for building muscle and heart health.2 But if you find yourself craving high-calorie or high-sugar foods at night, you could be at risk for weight gain, sleep disruption, as well as type two diabetes and heart disease.3

At the end of the day, you may find yourself fighting off food cravings for a few different reasons. Here are some of the most common:

  • You Didn’t Eat Enough Throughout the Day: If you skipped your breakfast, ate a light lunch, or went several hours between meals, your hunger hormones can go into overdrive at the end of the day, sending strong signals out for more energy. You may also feel this intense urge to eat if your meals are unbalanced and lack nutrients like complex carbohydrates, protein, or healthy fats.
  • It’s a Habit: If relaxing at the end of a long day always includes flipping on the TV with a bag of chips in hand, your food cravings may be associated with habitual eating instead of actual hunger.
  • You’re Using Food to Soothe Your Emotions: If you feel stressed, anxious, bored, or lonely at the end of the day, and your food cravings feel out of control, you could use food to soothe these negative emotions. Stress is a common trigger for night eating syndrome and emotional eating, which can go hand in hand.4

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="how-to-stop-stress-eating">13 Proven Tips to Stop Stress Eating and Gain Self-Control</a>.</p>

9 Effective Ways to Manage Food Cravings

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There are plenty of reasons food cravings can strike, but thankfully, there are just as many ways to manage them. Here are some strategies to stop cravings when you’re not hungry and manage them so you can eat confidently and reach your health and wellness goals. 

1. Eat Enough Calories 

Whether you’re intentionally dieting by following a restrictive diet or you’re letting the day get away from you, eating too few calories can lead to intense food cravings, binge eating, and overeating. Ghrelin, a hunger hormone, is released in response to calorie restriction to increase blood sugar, making sustained weight loss difficult with dieting.5 Eating enough calories to sustain your body and avoiding excessively large deficits may help reduce large spikes in ghrelin.6

2. Avoid Restrictive Diets

Both diets restricting calories and cutting out entire food groups can lead to intense food cravings. 

When it comes to cutting out food groups like carbohydrates or eating a low-fat diet, you’ll likely find yourself thinking about that food more often and eating more of it than you otherwise would when you finally get the chance. In several studies, deprivation increased food cravings for the specific restricted food.7 Instead of dieting, focus on eating nutrient-dense balanced meals and snacks as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. 

3. Don’t Let Yourself Get Too Hungry

Going long periods between meals can increase your hunger levels from moderately hungry to ravenous in a short amount of time. This is one reason intermittent fasting may not be the best choice for everyone. If you wait until you’re extremely hungry to eat, you’re more likely to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods that are sure to give you a quick boost of energy. 

Keeping a stash of nutrient-dense, healthy snacks on hand can help you avoid going too long between meals. 

4. Eat Filling, Nutrient-Dense Foods

Eating balanced meals and snacks can help you feel fuller longer, stabilize your blood sugar, and reduce food cravings. Including all three macronutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, and fats, in each meal is important to meeting your nutrient needs and feeling satisfied throughout the day. While all these nutrients are important, protein, fiber, and water help you feel the most full after meals, and prioritizing them can help reduce cravings.6

5. Allow Yourself to Enjoy Your Favorite Foods 

Learning how to stop junk food cravings might be best done by allowing yourself to eat that food with mindfulness, intention, and moderation. While eating a nutrient-dense diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and quality protein promotes a healthy weight and overall health, there’s still room for treats and other foods in moderation. 

Having flexibility in your diet and allowing yourself to enjoy the foods you love, even if they’re less health-promoting, in a way that feels good could actually help you crave them less. When eating your favorite foods, be sure to eat slowly and practice mindful eating so you feel satisfied with the food and stop eating when you’re full. 

6. Eat to Manage Your Blood Sugar

If you live with diabetes, managing your blood sugar can have the added benefit of managing your food cravings as well. One study found that people with type 2 diabetes who had poorly managed blood sugars had higher carbohydrate cravings than the control group without diabetes.

Working with a dietitian and using a continuous glucose monitor can help you identify when your blood sugar rises too high or falls too low and learn how different foods impact your blood sugar to better manage it. 

7. Manage Stress

Not only can stress can cause high blood sugar, but it can also lead to weight gain and food cravings, especially if you turn to food to help soothe your emotions. Eating high-calorie and high-sugar foods when stressed can help activate reward pathways in the brain, providing short-lived relief from negative emotions. This is one of the reasons you may crave these types of foods when you’re having an extra stressful day.9

Stress-relieving methods like yoga, deep breathing, exercise, reading, or talking to a friend can all help improve your mood and stress levels without turning to unhealthy food. 

8. Get Enough Sleep

Not getting enough shut-eye at night can lead to changes in hormones and appetite and create changes in the brain that affect your food choices. Research has found that food cravings for highly palatable foods (high in calories, sugar, and fat) increased following sleep deprivation, often at a rate that was higher than actual body requirements, leading to weight gain.10 

Practicing good sleep hygiene, like sleeping in a cool, dark room, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, not eating too close to bedtime, and limiting screens before bed, can help you get the recommended 7 hours of sleep per night.11

9. Reduce Refined Carbs

Cutting out carbohydrates is not necessary, but choosing high-quality carbohydrates over highly refined carbs could help reduce your sugar cravings. Refined carbohydrates like white bread, candy, pastries, and soda all work to quickly raise your blood sugar, which creates changes in the brain that make you crave additional high-sugar foods.12

Instead of completely cutting out these foods, which can also lead to more food cravings, eat them sparingly and in smaller portions alongside high-protein foods to help reduce their effect on your blood sugar. 

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice

Learning how to manage food cravings can help you get one step closer to reaching your health and wellness goals and is a non-scale victory you can feel good about! You can learn more about nutrition and healthy eating habits with Signos’ expert advice and on Signos’s blog. And if you’re curious about how Signos can improve your health and if it’s a good fit for you, take this quick quiz to find out!

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="emotional-eating">Emotional Eating: Stop the Cycle and Regain Control</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Hallam, J., Boswell, R. G., DeVito, E. E., & Kober, H. (2016). Gender-related Differences in Food Craving and Obesity. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 89(2), 161–173. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4918881/
  2. Kinsey, A. W., & Ormsbee, M. J. (2015). The health impact of nighttime eating: old and new perspectives. Nutrients, 7(4), 2648–2662. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425165/
  3. Xiao, Q., Garaulet, M., & Scheer, F. A. J. L. (2019). Meal timing and obesity: interactions with macronutrient intake and chronotype. International journal of obesity (2005), 43(9), 1701–1711. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30705391/
  4. Nolan, L. J., & Geliebter, A. (2012). Night eating is associated with emotional and external eating in college students. Eating behaviors, 13(3), 202–206. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3368284/
  5. Mani, B. K., & Zigman, J. M. (2017). Ghrelin as a Survival Hormone. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism: TEM, 28(12), 843–854. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5777178/
  6. Benton, D., & Young, H. A. (2017). Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 12(5), 703–714. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639963/
  7. Meule A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current nutrition reports, 9(3), 251–257. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399671/
  8. Yu, J. H., Shin, M. S., Kim, D. J., Lee, J. R., Yoon, S. Y., Kim, S. G., Koh, E. H., Lee, W. J., Park, J. Y., & Kim, M. S. (2013). Enhanced carbohydrate craving in patients with poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Diabetic medicine : a journal of the British Diabetic Association, 30(9), 1080–1086. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23586900/ 
  9. Chao, A., Grilo, C. M., White, M. A., & Sinha, R. (2015). Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. Journal of health psychology, 20(6), 721–729. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6186388/
  10. Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature communications, 4, 2259. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763921/ 
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). How Much Sleep Do I Need? https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html 
  12. Lennerz, B., & Lennerz, J. K. (2018). Food Addiction, High-Glycemic-Index Carbohydrates, and Obesity. Clinical chemistry, 64(1), 64–71. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5912158/

About the author

Kelsey Kunik is a registered dietitian, health and wellness writer, and nutrition consultant

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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