6 Scientifically Proven Ways to Better Control Your Cravings

I am in two minds. And so are you.

According to scientists Metcalfe and Mischel, our minds are governed by two operating systems: one is ‘hot’ and the other is ‘cool’.

The hot system is the fast, automatic, reflexive, and impulsive part of the brain that persuades you into thinking procrastination, eating chocolate whenever you get the chance, and flirting with other people’s girlfriends are all good ideas.

The cool system is the slow, deliberative, reflective, and rational part of the brain that makes informed decisions concerning your long-term well being.

The ‘hot’ system is responsible for your cravings and the ‘cool’ system for your willpower.

Naturally, these two systems are in constant conflict with one another.

And because willpower is a finite resource and it seems like cravings can be never-ending, we can have a difficult time controlling our cravings.

In this article you will learn constructive tips on how to help your willpower out and better control your cravings.

gino.mempin via Flickr

Make it difficult to satisfy your cravings

If you wrap your chocolate in tin foil, stash in a plastic box, and put it into your freezer then you won’t really want to go through all that hassle of eating it.

Similarly, if it’s easily accessible (i.e. just sitting there in front of you) you’ll snatch it without giving it a second thought.

That’s why it’s good to mine your home with healthy snacks so that when you do experience cravings, you have a healthy substitute to indulge in.

Practice mindfulness 

“It is awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of the experience moment-by-moment”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003)

The mindfulness approach encourages people to accept their difficult thought and feelings rather than working against them.

Rather than giving in to your cravings, you can surf them (i.e. urge surfing) by bringing awareness to these cravings.

This will help you be more willing to experience these feelings. 

Just watch the cravings-related thoughts as though you’d watch them on a television screen. The mindfulness approach suggests that although you might experience these thoughts – your thoughts are ultimately not you.

So don’t beat yourself up if you experience cravings. Just realise that it is just a feeling, a thought. Simply accept these thoughts and be willing to experience them, without having to act them out.

Everybody experiences cravings but only action validates them.

Watch out for stress

The ‘wanting’ part of your brain attributes what scientists call ‘incentive salience’ to things in our environment. Incentive salience is the motivation that you associate with something rewarding. Your ‘why’ for reaching out for something rewarding.

For instance, you might associate cigarettes with relaxation, chocolate with a sugar rush, or alcohol with feelings of euphoria. Incentive salience is when your ‘wanting’ exceeds your ‘liking’ of the reward.

If you’re stressed, your cravings become magnified. The dopamine system in your brain becomes activated and magnifies this incentive salience to cues. That is, you will feel that things are more rewarding than they usually are.

This is because stress accentuates your ‘hot’ system and attenuates your ‘cool’ system.

That means that whenever your stressed, rational thinking is likely to go out the window and you are more likely to indulge in every whim that your emotional self might desire.

Get rid of external cues

According to the Elaboration Intrusion theory, craving will be elicited by external cues (i.e. visual cues like images of sweets or chocolate).

If these cues are vivid and there’s a lot of them in your immediate environment, it will be incredibly difficult for you to resist.

These cues will also lead to elaboration on the intrusive thoughts that these cues provoke.

Don’t elaborate on your intrusive thoughts

It is a common occurrence to experience intrusive thoughts. Images of chocolate pop into your head. You smell cigarette smoke and you instantaneously think about smoking.

By elaborating on these thoughts and thinking about the silkiness of the chocolate, about how sweet and smooth it would taste – you’re not increasing your chances.

These thoughts will cause cravings. They will bias your choices in what to eat. By prioritising these thoughts, they will overload your cognitive capacity to exact some sort of self-control over yourself. 

The more you elaborate on these thoughts, the more you will overload your cognitive capacity (Working Memory). That is, your short-term memory, attention and perceptual processing will be overloaded by this craving.

Scientists show, however, that if you can overload your cognitive capacity with another cognitively competing task – you will be able to reduce your cravings. So how does this work?

Focus on something else – use competing imagery

By using imagery you can indulge in a “preferential allocation of mental resources” which is a scientist’s way of saying ‘just focus on something else’.

Harvey, Kemps, and Tiggemann (2005) conducted an experiment in which they induce food cravings via a visual imagery task (i.e. “imagine you are eating your favourite food).

Then, the participants took part in a imagination task which was either a) visual (e.g. imagine a rainbow), or b) auditory task (e.g. imagine a telephone ringing). It was found that those that imagined visual cues experience a significant reduction in cravings. 

Kemps and Tiggemann (2007) extended the findings of this experiment to olfactory images. The use of olfactory imagery is as successful as visual imagery in reducing cravings. 

Therefore imagining visual and olfactory things whenever you crave could be a good idea. 

This is effective because cravings are visual and olfactory in nature rather than auditory. Instead of elaborating on your cravings, you would be able to distract yourself and reduce your craving simply by imagining different visuals or scents.

This happens because of diverting attention for your Working Memory to process – it is preoccupied with that, leaving less room for other cognitively competing tasks (i.e. imaging about food)

Closing thoughts

It’s easy to fall prey to our cravings.

After all, we as a species evolved to be impulsive in the sense that we want instant gratification. Our predecessors benefited from this attribute as it aided in them in their survival. 

For 99.5% of our evolutionary history, members of the genus Homo lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Because of their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, our predecessors ate high calorie and calorically dense foods whenever they got the chance to avoid the unpredictable periods of food shortage.

Strongest cravings were developed for nutrients that were essential but incredibly rare in the environment such as sugar, fat, and salt.

This sort of impulsivity was essential for survival and that’s why our need for instant gratification is deeply etched in our emotional, ‘hot’ brain (i.e. the limbic system).

But nowadays this impulsivity is affecting our long-term goals of future well-being, fitness, weight loss, health – you name it.

If you use these tips, hopefully they will help you better deal with your cravings.


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