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last updated March 3, 2021

6 steps to identify what’s causing your cravings (and what to do about it)

by Rob Arthur

Cravings are responsible for more derailed efforts to get lean, strong, and healthy than perhaps any other obstacle.

Even when we know we aren’t truly hungry, these strong drives to eat – often for specific foods – can leave us feeling powerless and defeated in their wake.

We’ve not powerless, though.

We’re not predestined for defeat.

We can overcome our cravings with a little bit (or a lot) of leg work.

Before we can address what’s behind our cravings, though, we first need to identify what those factors are.

Below are six steps you can take to figure out what’s causing your cravings, and what to do about it.

1. Cultivate mindfulness

The first step in solving a problem is identifying it.

If you’re not in tune enough with what you’re thinking and feeling to identify cravings, you’ll have a hard time identifying their cause(s).

Cultivating mindfulness allows for taking an objective look at your circumstances, particularly the thoughts, emotions, and behavior patterns.

There are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness, but one of the most effective ways is meditation.

Meditation is somewhat of a loaded term, bringing to mind images of monks sitting cross-legged atop mountains, humming and chanting.

In reality, meditation can be as simple as taking a minute or two each day to sit in silence and practice being alone with your thoughts and emotions.

This skill is sorely underutilized in today’s world full of notification and distraction.

Much like any skill, mindfulness can and must be practiced to become stronger, and meditation is one of the simplest ways to get started.

To be clear, meditation isn’t necessarily something to be used in the exact moment that cravings present themselves.

Rather, it’s a deliberate daily practice intended to build the skill of identifying and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them.

The space created by not reacting mindlessly allows you to respond – or not – to whatever thoughts or emotions you experience.

This is similar to taking self-defense classes regularly in a safe setting so that you can more easily defend yourself in times of actual danger.

Practice mindfulness during less challenging times so that you can turn to it with less effort and thought during more challenging times.

If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, this article might help:

How to stop letting thoughts, emotions, and impulses sabotage your efforts

2. Keep a food journal

This step might not be necessary, especially if you’ve got a strong handle on practicing mindfulness.

However, keeping a food journal may be useful in making some of the steps we’re going to discuss later in this post much easier.

Many of us are already keeping food logs with tools like PaleoTrack, MyFitnessPal, and Cronometer.

These tools are great for getting an idea of how our nutrition stacks up relative to our physiological needs.

Our eating habits, however, aren’t simply driven by physiology.

They’re driven by emotions, thoughts, and situational conditioning.

A food journal can go a long way towards identifying nutrition-unrelated reasons for eating.

If you’re already using one of the tools listed above and would like to continue to do so, that’s totally cool.

Consider also keeping a food journal – written or typed – to record factors like where you are, who you’re with, what you’re thinking, and what you’re feeling before and after eating.

Look for patterns associated with your cravings.

  • Specific foods
  • Places
  • People
  • Times of day
  • Thoughts
  • Feelings

If you identify a pattern, ask yourself what you might do to address it.

If you think you might benefit from avoiding or distancing yourself from certain foods, places, or people for a time, that’s worth considering.

This may not be a long-term solution, though, as life’s too short to let it be dictated by factors such as these.

We’ve discussed this previously, but it’s worth repeating, you can’t avoid temptation forever.

Regardless of what you do with what you learn, keeping a food journal can be a particularly useful first step towards identifying patterns associated with cravings.

Once you’ve identified a pattern, you can explore what steps you might take to address it.

3. Assess your eating habits

As mentioned above, cravings often aren’t driven by any physiological need for nutrition.

This is why we call them “cravings” rather than “hunger”.

However, there are certain eating habits that can contribute to, if not directly cause, cravings.

Shoring up any potentially problematic eating habits may be much easier than addressing other causes of cravings, so they’re a great place to start looking for potential areas for improvement.

Start by asking yourself if you might be lacking one of the following:

  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fat
  • Calories

All of the above are popular targets for restriction intended to improve health and body composition.

If you’re intentionally restricting one of these, you might try easing off a bit, incorporating more of whatever you’re restricting into your diet, and seeing how you feel.

While some folks may get away with or even see great results from restricting one or more of these things, many of us won’t do well with such an approach at all, for physiological or psychological reasons.

You might also take a look at your water, vitamin, mineral, and fiber consumption, as too little of these might be contributing factors as well.

This is another place where a tool like PaleoTrack, MyFitnessPal, or Cronometer can come in handy.

A few other things that also might be contributing to cravings are:

  • Caffeine (the right amount can be great, but too much might be problematic)
  • Fasting (particularly not getting enough protein within a couple of hours of waking)
  • Hyper-palatable, easy to eat foods (even “healthy” foods like salted nuts, dried fruit, smoothies, and treats or desserts made with alternative ingredients)

Some of us have no problem with lots of caffeine, fasting, or snacks, treats, and desserts, but you might not be one of those folks.

Finally, there are some folks who think cravings may be rooted in specific nutrient deficiencies.

I don’t think this is too unreasonable, but I’m not familiar with any strong data to support the idea.

You might find that focusing on nailing the basics consistently is sufficient for taking care of cravings before looking into any specific nutrients you might be lacking.

There’s a good chance you’ll be covering your nutritional bases by eating an adequate variety of minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods.

Here’s an article that might help you get started:

Six steps to get started dialing in your diet

4. Assess your thoughts and emotions

This step in particular is dependent on cultivating mindfulness, as described in step 1.

When you get hit with a craving, take a deep breath, create some space – as little as a few seconds – and explore what you’re thinking and feeling.

Some of the usual suspects associated with cravings include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Disappointment
  • Anxiety
  • Unworthiness
  • Entitlement (“I deserve this”)

None of these are due a snack or treat deficiency.

Ask yourself why you’re experiencing whatever thought patterns or emotions you’ve identified.

Ask yourself what you might do about it.

Fortunately, cultivating mindfulness will help with managing stress, as will reassessing your commitments and priorities.

Addressing fatigue is also often relatively straightforward.

Train sensibly, prioritize recovery, and get some rest.

The eating habits described in step 3 may also help.

The other feelings and thought patterns, however, may not be so easily reconciled.

They may require putting in a little bit more work.

What’s at the root of these thoughts and feelings?

How are your circumstances not in alignment with your values and expectations?

What can you do or work towards to correct the underlying friction or tension in your life?

If there’s nothing you can do, then how can you manage these thoughts and feelings without food?

Working through these thoughts and emotions will be a *really* uncomfortable process.

It’s absolutely necessary, though, that you find a way to deal with them without food.

5. Take action

If you think one or more of the factors above may be causing or contributing to your cravings, get to work.

You don’t have to undertake a complete overhaul if you don’t want to.

If all you can or want to do today is take one small step, that’s infinitely better than doing nothing.

After every step that you take, assess how it’s affecting your cravings.

You might find that these steps carry over into other areas of how you look, feel, and perform.

If the step you’ve chosen appears to be a step forward, keep it up.

If not, consider another step or strategy.

Even if your efforts don’t address the problem, you’re ruling out possibilities, coming closer to a solution.

Just keep taking steps.

There’s a good chance this won’t be quick or easy.

There’s a good chance you won’t get this figured out right off the bat.

There’s a good chance you’ll continue to have cravings, and probably indulge them, for at least a while as you get this sorted out.

That’s fine.

This is about progress, not perfection.

Just don’t give up.

You are worth the effort.

6. Seek help

Finally, if you’ve been trying the steps above and are feeling stuck, or just want a little help guiding you through the process, reach out.

Working with a trustworthy, knowledgeable coach to help you sort this out might be a great option.

If you suspect you’re struggling with a more complex health issue, you might look into working with a physician trained in functional medicine.

If you think that you might be dealing with more serious emotional or mental health issues that are affecting your life beyond cravings, you might seek out therapy or counseling.

Whatever path you choose, understand that cravings are not a fact of life.

You are worthy and capable of overcoming them.

You are worthy and capable of a life free from feeling enslaved by food.

You are worthy and capable of looking and feeling awesome, all the time, for no reason other than that you’re you and you freaking rock.

Put in the work.

Accept discomfort.

Accept imperfection.

Keep working.

Keep moving forward.

You’re worth it.

You’ve got this.


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