How to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

You should never ignore this if you are trying to lose weight.

Hunger, food cravings, food addictions and emotional eating are often cited as top reasons for diet failures and weight gain, yet most weight loss plans give them too little attention.

Most weight loss plans also fail to recognise that more than 50% of cravings and feelings of hunger are driven by psychological and not nutritional reasons.

This extensive guide will show you exactly how to stop food cravings and end emotional eating.

The Psychology of Food Cravings and Emotional Eating Explained

Psychological hunger includes all types of eating that are not motivated by the need to eat for survival. In contrast, normal justified hunger occurs when we have an energy deficiency.

For this process of natural justified hunger to occur we need to be eating less than the amount that is needed to maintain our current body weight.

You can calculate the number of calories needed to maintain your body weight using an easy calculation suggested by Harvard Health.

Simply multiply your weight in pounds by 15 to give you the total calories needed to maintain your current body weight. 

Most people on average consume about 1000 to 1500 calories more than required. It’s then fair to say that these extra calories are consumed for reasons that are psychologically motivated.

Average calories per person

Source: Recoverybrands

What Advertisers know about Food Cravings and Emotional Eating that You Don't

The people who have figured this out and give it the attention it deserve  for reasons that are not beneficial to you, are advertisers.

They know that most food decisions are psychologically motivated and design their adverts based on this.

They know that people can be motivated to eat and eat more with simple cues that include colours, pictures, suggestions, music, smells and your memory and they bombard you with this information all day long to get you to act and consume more of their products.

Advertisers know that

The odds are stacked against you when trying to lose weight and you probably never noticed it.

Every day you are forced to make thousands of little decisions and marketers take advantage of this better than anyone else.

How Time affects Food Cravings and Emotional eating

Advertisers also know that people are busy and need them to assist with food decisions. When busy we are more likely to agree with something that is not to our best interest.

Decision Time Memory

Source: Gutnik, L,A et al 2006

From the above graph, we can see that when time is restricted we resort to heuristic decision making, which basically means we use more of our memory and past experiences to make a quicker decision.

So many of us know that feeling of making a food decision during our limited time lunch break at work.

We often chose the foods most readily available, and advertisers know this, they use jungles, pictures, catch phrases and even celebrities to keep their products in our memories so when we must make that quick decision we end up choosing their products.

Every day we are bombarded with cues in every possible way from billboards, radio, music, tv and the internet that speak directly to our insecurities and psychological motivators to prompt us to eat.

It was estimated that we are exposed to almost 5000 adverts a day.

Over years of cue exposure, we end up in our current state where 50% or more of our food decisions are psychologically motivated and not an essential requirement for our survival.

Some experts show that 72% of our food decisions are influenced by media.

5000 adverts a day

The 3 Types of Psychological Eating: Food Cravings, Emotional Eating and Mindless Eating

Psychological eating can be grouped into these three categories, food cravings, emotional eating and mindless eating. 

Bear with me for this part...

All three of these food related behaviours are mostly controlled by two parts of our brain called the mesolimbic dopamine pathway and the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus connects the brain to the endocrine system through which several hormones act to maintain a balance between satiety and hunger.

This perfect balance of hunger and satiety is rarely achieved, the reality for most people is an imbalance of the two competing states with hunger always winning. 

The mesolimbic dopamine pathway are the areas of the brain that control all types of reward including the rewards from food, sex, alcohol and even certain behaviours.

It is a system of many connected areas in the brain that are activated by the release of dopamine resulting in feelings of reward, success and achievement.

This is the same feeling caused when taking hard drugs like cocaine and heroine.

1. Food Addictions and Food Cravings 

Food addictions and food cravings are created through the above reward system involving the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.

Each time we eat a sugary high carbohydrate foods we are rewarded and this leads to the creation of an addiction and the cravings for more of that pleasurable feeling of reward. 

Food addiction is a real condition that can be diagnosed using the Yale food addiction scale.

Two studies found that just above 5% of the population can be diagnosed as food addicts and women are two times more likely to be food addicts.

Researchers from this study created this list of the most addictive foods.

Most addictive foods

How Does it Work? The Anatomy of a Food Craving 

Humans essentially make decisions via one of two systems. A sub conscious system and a cognitive conscious system.

Eating which is critical to survival is mostly dictated by the first sub conscious system. It’s an automated process with little to no thinking involved and its main purpose is to ensure survival.

This system is influenced by many homeostatic and environmental factors. As our energy reserves drop, various hormonal changes signal our sub conscious system to start picking up on triggers and cues from the environment.

These food triggers and cues such as the feeling of hunger, thirst, smells and advertising direct our actions towards seeking out food to ensure survival.


If we ignore these triggers or cues for too long, we start getting intrusive thoughts about food. Intrusive thoughts about food are essentially food cravings. This is a thought that you didn’t initiate by yourself. It just shows like an uninvited guest.

If you are hungry and you see a chocolate advert, you will get intrusive thoughts about how that chocolate tastes and feels. Your brain then calculates the feeling of reward you had the last time you ate that chocolate and creates an expectation for that reward.

The intrusive thought then uses your memories of that food to remind you of the exact taste and how happy you were the last time you had it.

Some food cravings are so powerful that you can get the taste of the craved food in your mouth and even smell it.

Make no mistake about it...

If you fail to go out and get the desired food, your brain will start retrieving more memories and thoughts about the food, creating more mental images and strengthening the craving for the desired food.

You start imagining what it feels and smells like and this process continues in a negative cycle with increasing awareness of your desire for the food and your lack of action.

Resistance to these food cravings just make it worse by generating more thoughts. It's like when someone tells you to not think about the colour pink, it becomes impossible to prevent that thought.

Eventually this cruel cycle of desire and imagery mess with our ability to perform any other tasks and we seek out the craved food or we disrupt the process with a distracted thought and will power.

It all sounds overwhelming and scary to know how little control we have when it comes to food cravings and this makes it easy to understand why it is so difficult for people to break poor eating cycles and food addictions.

The list below shows the 6 most common symptoms of food addiction. I am sure you will find them to be quite familiar.

6 symptoms of food addiction

2. Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is the next major reason most of us are unable to stick to a diet. In comparison to food cravings, emotional eating is more about how many of us eat in response to the emotions we experience. 

A natural assumption would be to think of someone eating a tub of ice cream after a break up, but emotional eating can be associated with positive and negative emotions.

A celebratory moment is often the perfect excuse to over indulge and doesn’t carry the same feeling of guilt afterwards.

emotional eating

There are many reasons for emotional eating. The most significant is the feeling of reward and success we get after eating.

When faced with a tough emotion we resort to eating as we know that it will generate a good feeling which counters the negative emotion.

The dopamine released after a pleasurable meal accompanied with the little accomplishment of finishing a meal provides a nice counter effect for the negative emotion being experienced.

Food and eating thus becomes a self-medicating treatment for these negative emotions or an enhancer for positive emotions.

To make things worse...

Eating also provides the perfect distraction, helping us take our minds of the emotion for some time.

The entire process of eating from choice to completion allows us to let our minds escape from the difficult emotional present.

Eating is also a well-known cure for the emotions of boredom and loneliness and junk food pairs perfectly with a movie.

On a physiological level, stress, anger, sadness and other negative emotions cause an increase in cortisol.

It has been well documented that cortisol increases our appetites and generates a cascading effect on other hormones that put us into a viciously hungry state in which we seek out and consume food.

This means that a negative emotion by itself can make you hungry and eat more.

emotional eating

Over time we develop a sense of what makes us feel good. We store this in our memories and when faced with a difficult situation we often resort to that feel-good solution to counter the difficult situation we are currently experiencing.

We then reinforce this through a learning process creating solid practices that become sub-conscious and automated.

and guess what?

There are a few aggravating factors that make you more susceptible to emotional eating. 

A compromised decision making state makes us susceptible to emotional eating.

This happens when we have a lack of sleep. Many studies have found that the fatigue caused from the lack of sleep causes people to resort to eating junk.

Highly stressed and over worked individuals also experience a compromised decision making state. Making decisions at work all day leave very little decision making power for making the correct food choices.This always results in us grabbing the first thing in sight after a long day at work. 

Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Christopher Nolan and even Mark Zuckerberg all publicly acknowledged that they wore the same or similar clothes every day to save their decision-making powers for their more important responsibilities.

Save your decision making powers

Obese people and particularly people with significant visceral fat have hormonal imbalances that make them more susceptible to emotional eating. 

Women are also more prone than men to emotional eating where as men are more prone to alcohol abuse when faced with negative emotions.

Emotional eating is powerfully charged and difficult to overcome. The situations that people have been through and the emotions experienced are often difficult to solve and many will carry them through the entirety of their lives. 

We may never be able to get rid of some emotions but we certainly can break their associations with food.

We can unlearn and decondition ourselves from any food related behaviours with the 7 methods explained in this article.

3. Conditioned Mindless Eating 

mindless eating number of people

Mindless or conditioned eating is the third group of psychological eating. Most of our eating patterns and behaviours have been learned over the years through conditioning.

Conditioning is a concept developed by the Russian scientist Pavlov and his famous experiments with dogs.

He showed that his dogs digestive response of salivating could be generated by a neutral stimulus such as a bell. He did this by associating the sound of a bell with food.

Food made his dogs salivate so in his experiments he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. Eventually the dogs would salivate when he rang the bell even if he did not feed them.

Let me explain...

Conditioning is a process in which a learned condition prompts a specific response. The subject can get complex but in its simplest form we are conditioned through our learned experiences to react in specific ways.

Most of our food likes and dislikes have been learned through years of conditioning.

Like food cravings and emotional eating, conditioned mindless eating is a dream come true for advertisers.

The best adverts create memories and associations that will automatically get you to go out and buy their products. We see it every day in so many places.

Most people would agree that an ice cream truck siren immediately brings up happy childhood memories and the subsequent craving for ice cream.

So what can we do about it...

There is a process called deconditioning that can be used to unlearn most conditions.

Alternatively, conditioning can be used in a positive manner to prompt us to make mindless decision that are to our benefit.

We can condition ourselves to eat properly, to exercise, in fact we can condition ourselves to do anything we desire. These processes are discussed below.

7 Strategies to Stop Food  Cravings, Emotional Eating and Conditioned Eating Right Now

Its impossible to avoid advertisers avoid the many factors that drive our emotions and food cravings, so we must learn how to deal with them without food.

Try these 7 strategies to will help you stop all forms of psychological eating.

1. The Cold Turkey Method to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

92% of successful ex-smokers used the cold turkey method

With the cold turkey approach, we just stop reinforcing a behaviour. Whenever we are exposed to a food cravings or emotion that makes us eat, we do our best not to respond in the unwanted manner.

Over time this refusal to respond to that food craving or emotion desensitises it and we overcome the problem.

A 2013 poll showed that 92% of successful ex-smokers attribute their success to the cold turkey method.

The cold turkey approach is the most effective tool for stopping unwanted behaviours, however going cold turkey is not easy, especially when the unwanted behaviours put up a good fight for survival.

With continued resistance to a craving, the craving gets more intense until we experience a last-ditch effort by our bodies where it throws everything it has towards getting us to give in to a craving.

This is just like toddlers when they scream and kick their hearts out in a last- ditch effort to get their way. The cold turkey approach often fails at this point and you should be aware of this.

The cold turkey approach is also susceptible to resurgence where the unwanted food cravings may reappear many weeks after you have thought that you have overcome it. These food cravings play dead and when you least expect it they sneak up on you.

Always have strategies ready for weeks after attempting to break a bad habit. The official time frame for a complete withdrawal is 30 days but many experts believe strong food cravings and addictions are with us for life so never let your guard down.

Always remember that giving in to a food craving during a resurgence is a guaranteed way to give it strength and begin a new cycle.

The cold turkey approach is extremely effective but difficult and it comes with a significant amount of discomfort. It requires a lot of motivation and is only successful for a small percentage of people due to these requirements.

2. The Delayed Response Method to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

Deconditioning strategies

When exposed to a cue that creates food cravings or an emotion that drives you to eat, you must use a secondary requirement to delay your response to that cue.

This secondary requirement may involve only responding to the cue after a specified time or after you complete a requirement such as only eating a chocolate if you are seated in the kitchen, or only eating after 10 minutes of waiting.

Gradually increase your response time frames or add in more requirements until the power of the cue diminishes.

When we train ourselves to only respond after the added requirement, the unwanted behaviour will tend to extinguish itself when faced with only the primary cue.

This means that if we train ourselves to only eat chocolates while seated in our kitchen, our ability to resist a chocolate outside the kitchen will increase dramatically.

You would have effectively deconditioned your response to the cue that prompted you to eat chocolates.

According to a study deconditioning strategies can help reduce your weight by 7.5%. Shockingly the control group in this same study that were not taught the deconditioning strategy put on 6.5% of weight.

3. Alternate Conditioning to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

15 minute walk and cravings

A 15-minute walk can significantly reduce cravings.

Alternate conditioning involves using an alternate response when exposed to a cue.

When we feel a strong craving for chocolate we could drink a glass of water or go for a walk around the block.

It is an easy strategy to use if planned correctly.The trick is to have your alternate activities planned well in advance.

Alternative conditioning works so well, that it is a commonly used technique for drug addicts and can be transferred to almost any craving or bad habit. With practice the alternate response will replace the craved response.

For even better results you try eating something healthy before you eat the craved food. Any meal high in protein or a smoothie can be an alternate that you use to stop a craving.

4. Using the Law of Diminishing Returns to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

Cue exposure therapy and cravings

Even the tastiest food becomes boring if we have too much of it in close succession. Use this law of diminishing returns to weaken your commonly experienced cues through repeated exposure.

This can be done in two ways.

Firstly, we can decrease our liking of an unhealthy food by eating so much of it that we can’t stand it anymore. This is best done on a cheat day for minimal impact on your waistline.

Secondly we can use cue exposure therapy, where we excessively expose ourselves to the cues that prompt food cravings and emotional eating. This diminishes the power of that cue to exert an effect on us.

For example, if a song makes you sad, try listening to it on repeat for an hour. Its ability to make you sad will eventually diminish. The same can be applied to food cues. If a cue makes you desire an unhealthy food, then try exposing yourself to that cue in abundance until its effect diminishes.

Cue exposure therapy studies have shown a decrease in cravings by 26%.

Another method that employs the same theory is using an over abundant imagination to decrease cravings.

If you get a craving just imagine yourself eating abundant amounts of the craved food. Imagine force feeding yourself with the craved food and the power of the craving will diminish. It takes some practice to get it right but it works.

5. Never Eat when Hungry to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

never eat when hungry

When you master this practice, it will be your most powerful transformation. It will completely reset your mental relationship with food and give you the ultimate power over every food decision that you make

The core reason behind incorrect food choices is hunger and its over whelming ability to get you to eat anything as fast as possible.

By eating at specific times and not in response to hunger, we can decrease the powerful effect that hunger has on our food choices. When you get hungry, wait for the hunger signals to subside before eating.

Success with this strategy requires planning to make sure you eat enough food at the right times so that you never get to a state of hunger.

You must know the signs of preceding hunger such as stomach pangs and increasing thoughts of food.

Try to eat before these signals become too strong or wait for them to subside before eating to master this practice.

6. Disrupting Mental Imagery to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

Disrupting mental imagery and cravings

Playing a video game like tetris can decrease the strength of a craving by up to 14%.

Disrupting food cravings and emotions with an alternate thought is a useful method to overcoming those irresistible urges to consume unhealthy foods.

Any task that involves rapid eye movement can assist with disrupting food cravings and emotional eating.

A game of Tetris, Mine craft or even looking at a 3d picture can disrupt the same areas of the brain that are responsible for creating and driving cravings and addictions.

Keep a few of these games or pictures loaded on your cell phone and get into them when you feel those irresistible urges. 

Interestingly, there is evidence that certain smells also can disrupt the mental processes that are responsible for cravings and hunger. Researchers say that vanilla and menthol smells can disrupt cravings and decrease your appetite.

7. Decrease your Daily Food Decisions to Stop Food Cravings and End Emotional Eating

decision making and cravings

By now you should be well informed on how everything is stacked against you, forcing you to eat more of the wrong foods.

Cues that trigger food cravings and emotional eating are everywhere and we have to make hundreds of conscious and sub conscious decisions every day when it comes to food. 

To tip the scales in your favour you must decrease the number of food decisions that you make daily.

This is done by making sure that you are well stocked with all the right foods and that you pre-cook or pre-buy as many meals and snacks as possible.

By eliminating all foods decisions you leave no room for cravings to make any food choices for you. 

Furthermore, decision making power is limited, so in addition to eliminating food decisions you should also eliminate as many small decisions as possible like deciding what to wear in the mornings, shopping without a list and unscheduled work days.

The goal is to save your decision making power for those difficult unexpected food decisions that we so often run into on a daily basis.

Now Make it Happen...

Add these strategies to any diet plan to boost your chances of weight loss success. 

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  • XXX23 on

    strategy 2 works really well

  • Sarah on

    Thanks, will definitely try this out, when I see doughnuts

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