How to trick your brain into beating cravings

Finding it hard to resist that chocolate biscuit, tub of ice cream or glass of wine? Here’s how to ‘surf your urges’ and get back in control.

When a craving hits, it can feel almost impossible to override the all-consuming desire.

Often we know that sugar hit or favourite tipple may not be the healthiest choice, but still somehow find ourselves indulging.

But with the right strategies, experts say we can learn to manage our cravings.

What is a craving?

Dietitian, exercise physiologist and diabetes educator Kate Save says cravings are usually a result of the routine or expectations we’ve created for ourselves.

“It’s actually not about the body telling us that our blood sugar levels are low or that we’re lacking in nutrients,” Kate says.

“What most people find is if they routinely eat sweets in the afternoon … or they routinely eat chocolate or ice cream after dinner, then the body’s rewards centre gets used to this and starts preparing itself for the dopamine hit.”

What about alcohol?

Alcohol cravings fall under two types – the physical and the emotional, says Kathryn Elliott, of The Alcohol Mindset Coach.

“The physical cravings show up within the first seven to 10 days if you’re stopping drinking,” Kathryn says.

“And then emotional and psychological cravings can last significantly longer.”

Why some cravings are harder to resist than others

The more addictive your vice is, the harder it is to ignore, Kate says.

“This is where sugar and alcohol are the two worst – apart from cigarettes, obviously – but sugar is as addictive as some illicit drugs.

“The more you do it, the more of this pleasure that you get, and the more dependent you become upon it.”

The danger of always giving in to cravings

Kate says constantly giving in to unhealthy cravings such as lollies or soft drinks can lead to a cycle of tiredness.

“When we do pick up the chocolate biscuits, the issue with that is because it’s high GI (glycaemic index), we’re spiking our blood sugar levels, so we get this rise in our fat storage hormone, insulin,” she says.

“Not only do we store it away as fat, but when that insulin takes the sugar out of the bloodstream, it often results in this quick low.”

Expert-backed tips to manage cravings

Being mindful while eating meals can help you manage your cravings. Kate says one way to do this is chew slowly, because this will leave you feeling more satisfied.

Also, eat a well-planned diet of low GI, high-protein foods, plus lots of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.

When a craving strikes, Kate recommends trying a cup of tea first, or eating a handful of unsalted nuts or almonds to ensure your true hunger is being satisfied.

“Not trying to be perfect would be the main thing, and starting small,” she advises.

Want to resist alcohol cravings?

Kathryn says one of the best ways to manage an alcohol craving is to sit with it and try some deep breathing.

“Because as soon as you try to push it away or resist it, it will come back,” she says.

“Close your eyes and just start to ask yourself some simple questions: How does this urge or craving feel?”

She says “urge surfing” – thinking about your thoughts, emotions, the breath and any bodily sensations – helps take the urgency out of the craving.

Moving your body, perhaps by walking the dog, going for a run or just shaking your body, is also likely to help.

Kathryn says with the right techniques, most cravings can be overcome within 10 to 30 minutes.

Other tips to resist cravings

  • If you’re heading to a social event but trying to ditch the alcohol, choose a booze-free drink in advance.
  • Don’t keep high-temptation foods close by.
  • Drink two to three litres of water a day so you’re not confusing thirst with hunger.
  • Don’t change everything at once.
  • Get more sleep.

Written by Larissa Ham.