No Willpower, No Problem! 9 Ideas to Help You Beat Food Cravings

There’s no sadder form of failure, to me, than giving into food cravings.

Imagine you want to change your diet. Deep down, this feels right for you, right now.

You do your research, and decide that it’s not only healthy, but ideal, to eat this way.

You do the work to get your spouse on board. They’re a little hesitant, but supportive. Up for giving it a try, for you.

All the pieces are in place, and so you begin.

It all goes perfectly, until one day you hit a snag: you get out of work late, your car breaks down, you have an argument with a friend.

And visions of cheeseburgers start dancing in your head.

You’re not going to eat it, are you?

Any sane, rational person just ignores the urge, right? I mean, there are so many good and well-thought-out reasons to stay on the path!

And yet, so many times I hear that this is how it ends. You pull over on the way home from work, eat the cheeseburger, and it’s curtains for your diet change.

Whaaat?!?! You wanted the cheeseburger so badly that you threw away all that good stuff you had going? Just so your mouth could be happy for 10 minutes before you felt disgusting for the next half hour? No!!!!

But alas, I get it. Cravings are powerful things. And if you’re not prepared to deal with them, it’s quite possible they’ll get the best of you. So if you’re in the midst of a transition to a plant-based diet, or just trying to take your diet to the next level, here are nine suggestions to help you when the inevitable temptation arises.

1. Remember that your taste buds will eventually change.

Talk to anyone who has made a plant-based diet (or even just a whole-food diet) last, and they’ll tell you that your taste buds absolutely do change. It takes time, but it’s real.

Eventually, raw vegetables become flavorful. Certain fruits, amazing. It’s hard to imagine if you’re not there now, but it happens.

And on the flip side, all those flavor-packed snacks that are loaded with salt, sugar, and oil — and especially artificially flavored varieties — lose their seductive power.

So if you’re thinking that the choice to eat healthy means fighting this battle for the rest of your life, think again.

2. Have a finish line.

The day you stop having cravings is one finish line, but it’s also one that’s really far off.

So what do you do?

Make up your own finish line: Treat your diet change as a “challenge.” Make it last just 7 or 10 days, or if you’re brave and have some support, go for a full month.

The point is that with a finish line in sight, in moments of temptation you won’t be fighting against I can’t eat this now, and I can never eat this again. Nobody’s going to win that one.

If instead it’s, “I can’t eat this now, but in just four more days I’ll have completed my challenge, and then I can do whatever I want,” you’re way better off.

And when you reach that finish line? Then decide whether you want to extend it another 10 or 30 days. And if, not from a place of craving but in a well-fed, relaxed, and balance state of mind, you decide you’re just not up for more, then that’s cool. You did what you said you would, you gave it a shot, and at least you know what it feels like.

Chalk this up as a win, and I bet you’ll be back in the future when you’re ready.

3. Take the smallest steps you can.

You’ve heard me repeat this advice dozens of times now, but it’s just as important for beating cravings as it is for habit changes overall.

If you change everything, all at once, then of course the cravings will strike. And hard. And when they do, you’ll have nothing to fall back on, because you gave up everything all at once.

And in that moment, your new habit is extremely vulnerable.

But if you take those small steps, you can …

4. Eat something else — even junk — that will keep you on track.

Back when I was a brand new vegetarian, I missed buffalo chicken wings. When I was out with friends watching a basketball game and they all had wings, of course I wanted wings, too.

Instead, I ordered a plate of fries and smothered them in hot sauce.

Terrible for you. Borderline gross. Stomach ache afterward.

But that plate of grease, salt, cayenne and vinegar kept me on track. It satisfied the taste buds that were screaming for fried, tangy, and spicy, in a way that I could live with.

Sometimes, especially during a transition, the choice to do something unhealthy for the moment can keep you on the path that leads to health for years.

Another example: fake meats. Sure, they’re junk food, but if in the early days they keep you from second-guessing your decision to eat this way, then they’re more than worth it.

5. Know your reasons.

Particularly when transitioning to a plant-based diet, motivation is your secret weapon.

If it’s just for health reasons, maybe there’s some passion there. But chances are, you’re also in this for the animals or the environment. And those ethical motivators tend to be far more powerful than the ones that just involve your own personal health.

So connect. Watch the documentaries, read the books. Figure out your reasons.

And if health is it for you? Then at least try to link it to others — does it mean being able to play with your grandkids on the floor when you’re 60? Seeing them get married? These will likely be more powerful than something that’s just for you.

Whatever it is, find out what really drives you, and do whatever it takes to amplify it.

6. Move!

My wife, Erin, recently lost a bunch of weight. And during the process, when she was hungry, the first thing she would do wasn’t eat.

Instead, she’d go for a run. Or a walk. Or to the gym. Or to pilates class.

It wasn’t to burn extra calories (although that’s a nice perk). Rather, it was that she discovered that often when she thought she was hungry, it was really just emotional.

Exercising changed her body chemistry and took her mind off the food she was craving. When she got back home, she was in a better position to make a healthy choice.

Will it work for you? It’s worth a try — and worst case, you get a workout in.

7. Remember: “If it’s in your house, it’s in your mouth.”

Surely you’ve heard the favorite checkout-line fitness magazine piece of advice: Don’t shop for groceries on an empty stomach.

Well, this is Chef AJ‘s corollary that speaks directly to those with food cravings.

Let’s face it, temptation and cravings are going to arise. If chocolate ice cream is sitting in your freezer and you start to thinking about it, there’s no unthinking about it. It sits there all night, taunting you, gnawing at you … all rich and creamy and chocolate and yummy.

But if that same chocolate ice cream is five miles away in the grocery store? Most nights after dinner when the craving strikes, you’re not going to feel like going to get it. You’ll make the (sometimes tough) choice not to have it, and more easily move on.

8. Keep better choices within reach.

On a similar note, keep the healthy stuff nearby.

This means in your house, of course. But it also means in your car, for those days when you get stuck at work and the fast food restaurants are calling your name on the drive home. It doesn’t have to be a full dinner that you keep in the glove box, just something to satisfy you for a few minutes and help you make a good choice.

Or how about a jar of peanut butter in your desk at work? An energy bar in your gym bag?

Be ready for everything you can imagine.

9. Track what you eat.

I’m no fan of tracking your food, long-term, as part of your lifestyle. And for those with eating disorder histories, it might be best to steer clear of this particular tip.

But otherwise, when you’re trying to change a habit, a small reward after each success helps to reinforce the behavior in your brain.

So what are you supposed to do when it’s your entire diet that you’re trying to change? (Certainly, a food reward would defeat the purpose.)

Answer: Write it down, right after you eat. Keep a Google spreadsheet or an Evernote document, and ideally, have others look in on it for extra accountability. Or even better, use an app like Two Grand, where you take pictures of everything you eat and upload them to a social media platform.

This helps you in a few ways. In addition to letting you feel the “win” when you eat the way you want to, it installs an opportunity for important negative feedback: now when you consider indulging the craving, the knowledge that you’ll need to write it down and report it might be all it takes to help you make the choice that you really want to make.

The cravings are going to happen. The question is, will you be ready?

Other than possibly the small steps approach, nothing here is going to prevent the cravings from happening. But all these ideas can all help you deal with them when they show up.

The thing is, you’ve gotta be ready. You have to take what steps you can in advance, so that when temptation strikes, you’re prepared.

And if you’ve already messed up, remember that it’s not about being perfect. You can regroup, restart, and most importantly, review what went wrong before and figure out what you’ll do this time to be ready for that situation.

In this way, you change. Not all at once, and not on the first try … but eventually, you change.

Have faith, don’t give up, and you can’t help but find your way there.

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Comments

  1. Helpful Tips:)

  2. This reminds me of when I first went vegetarian in college. I was an environmental science student and was taking a few classes that drove the point home even though I didn’t sign up for them for that reason, it just happened that way. I decided I wanted to go veg and dairy free (hadn’t given up eggs) but I knew people might say things to discourage me, especially my boyfriend’s family who were dairy farmers so I just didn’t tell anyone. I lived with a couple of roommates who all ate at separate times and who did not care what I ate so it was pretty easy. I started collecting recipes and just thought the more meals I eat meatless the easier it will be to announce to everyone that I was vegetarian. I started in the summer and before long I was having all my meals completely vegetarian. And yes, in the beginning and for many years afterwards I ate the fake meats, partly because they were so familiar. I have to think hard as now as I remember what I ate back then as I don’t eat fake meats anymore but this was before I knew what hummus was for instance. I eat hummus now like it is it’s own food group and a dietary requirement! Once I had been eating veg for several months I was comfortable enough to tell people, I had become a vegetarian and gone non-dairy as well. The dairy farmers took it personally but they are long gone and I am now married to a non-dairy vegetarian as well and we are raising our son as a vegetarian too. So my advice is try new recipes and products at the store and build up a repertoire of recipes and menus so you are less likely to be at a loss for what to eat or for what to choose at restaurants. It gets easier to know what you can eat and also to be comfortable enough to speak up in the face of others who have all sorts of negative things to say. And you will learn about which indulgences meet your standards for veg – there are many and it’s OK to indulge every now and then.
    It’s kind of funny because how many meat eaters put much of any effort into planning their meals but they are all too often ready to pounce on how unhealthy they think your food is because it is missing the ________. They think because they eat the SAD that they must be healthy, right? That really is so very sad because how many of them are on handfuls of medications and overweight, in pain, etc. on a daily basis? My family acts like these physical and health complaints are inevitable and ‘I am just not old enough to know about it yet but I will’ they say. (I am 38). I try to encourage them to question that and consider how a change in food can drastically alter their health and how they feel. Anyway, thanks for prompting me to think on this topic… good to remember how long I have been non-dairy veg (about 16 years!) and gluten free for close to 4.

    • Elsje Massyn says:

      Delia and Matt

      First of all Matt your blog is super encouraging. I read your message and it was as if you wrote it to me specifically in a personal way. I have been, and sometimes still go through the cravings and the temptations, but with strategy (and you mentioned some good ones) – one can avoid the pitfalls and traps of eating the wrong things when one wisely try and keep the good stuff around like in the car, at work or in ones handbag so the other temptations don’t overtake us. And yes I have also done the basket of fries thing when joining others at a restaurant and they have fish and other seafood. The fries does the trick.

      Delia – your message was fantastic – hope you will think of starting your own blog for Vegetarians. I enjoyed your story very much!!

  3. This is a very encouraging article, I am going berserk with anti candida and thyroid diet restrictions right now so this couldn’t have dropped into my inbox at a better time! After years of being vegetarian I still sometimes get really weird cravings for something that is like meat but isn’t meat! Just the thought of actual meat seems disgusting to me now, I could never eat it for real! I realized after a while that I get that craving when 1. I am missing nutrients somewhere, and 2. I am just not eating enough. As someone with a history of eating disorders I get way too hung up on how much I eat, what I weigh etc, and I find if I am too strict I revert to damaging behaviors very quickly. So I have embarked on a mission to find a truly healthy, sustainable way of eating that I can feel okay about. Your articles have given me a lot of inspiration and I think I’m on the right track now at last! I find it best to keep in mind that I can change what I do at any time if necessary. Sometimes I feel like splurging out on a special occasion or whatever and I do because life is too short not to! And mostly I focus on getting all my nutrition, if I do that I rarely crave anything unhealthy. If I am dreaming about cake, I figure it’s high time I ate some dang cake so I make a beautiful homemade cruelty free ingredients cake (I get everything from local organic free range farms!) And I am perfectly satisfied. I would like to healthify my diet even more and have been gradually whittling it down in month long increments with breaks inbetween. This has been much, much more effective than trying to change everything overnight. So I am living proof 🙂 finally I think we are all so different, I tried various low carb vegetarian, high carb vegan, raw oriented, you name it I tried it diets over the past few years and have come to realize that I feel best when I eat what I really crave. It’s easy to get confused about what you really crave, which is why I think it’s useful to have a detox, or really a reset, every now and again to get in touch with your inner food compass once more. Don’t tell yourself “I shouldn’t have that because…” – for example, I was madly craving salty foods recently and avoiding salt with great difficulty. I caved in the end and grabbed salted caramel, which is just what I don’t need right now. I looked up “is salt bad for you” and found it is essential to adrenal, heart and kidney function and that people who eat a low salt diet have 25% more likelihood of dying early! This was an independent study by respected scientists, and I have to say, eating more salt has made me feel full sooner, feel less dizzy, more hydrated, less headaches…and easily stay off the salted caramel! So if your instinct says eat something, maybe find out about it, at least what is in it and what you might be missing. Body never lies. In short it’s all about compromising between what your objectives are and what makes you feel good. And if you have that balance you have everything.

    Apologies for this dissertation!! I hope it is useful to somebody 🙂

  4. What a timely article! I will take several of these ideas to heart and implement them in my transition from vegetarian to vegan. Thank you for your time and efforts to assist those of us seeking healthy lifestyles in this fast-food world.

  5. If you have craving for a special kind of Food and you really WANT it is possibly exactly what you need NOW. Even if it is ‘junk’.
    It doesn’t have to become an addiction anyway.
    It is all in your head.
    Go for it, love it or leave it
    Thank god for that FANTASTIC Burger you are able to have, enjoy it to the most with NO bad feelings and it will be the most healthy food you can have at this moment, probably the most healthy you ever had.
    Then go ahead and eat your veggies if they still feel healthy to you 🙂
    My diet consists of plants an some eggs and cheese every now and then, but if tomorrow I feel the need for a steak I WILL have it for sure with no regrets.
    In my opinion that is the only way to eat healthy.

  6. Good tips. I especially find useful #3. I used to get into these phases where I wanted to completely overhaul my diet. I’d rid the house of all the food I didn’t want to eat and go buy a bunch of stuff I did … Well that never lasted. It was too much at one time. A much better solution is to take smaller steps, cut out one thing at a time, conquer that, then move on to the next thing. You have to be patient, but it’s effective.

  7. I love your blog. Thank you for your posts and for inspiring me to continue on my whole food plant based journey. I’m a newbie 5 weeks in! Eek so much to learn! I appreciate all of your hard work, just wanted to let you know. Oh and congrats to your wife on her weight loss…I’m going to start incorporating a short workout when I get a craving. Awesome tips!

  8. Overall decent recommendation for someone who has tense food cravings. Numbers 4 and 7 are a little delicate though. It’s a little odd to replace one type of junk food with another when you’re hungry. It just doesn’t seem to be the healthiest choice. Eating greasy fries every time you’re hungry isn’t going to help for that. Now if your major goal was to become a vegetarian, maybe it has logic to choose chips over chicken wings, but otherwise I don’t know… Number 7 is also not so easily doable, especially if you live with your family. Of course when you don’t have anything bad to eat at your disposal, you won’t do it even if you wanted to (unless you go nuts about it and run to the nearest store). But if everybody else at home doesn’t have a problem with keeping all sorts of things in the fridge and in the cupboard, then you’re the one who has to comply, you just have to be strong mentally and try not to think of the junk food you used to devour all the time. Keep thinking of point number 1 which is very accurate – your taste buds will change for the better, and stuff that once seduced you won’t hold that much of a sway over you. That may be some encouragement. And you always have to have will. Without the power of will, you’re going to slip sooner rather than later. That’s why many people choose one day from the whole week on which they eat whatever food they please (many call it cheating day), the rest 6 days they’re pretty picky about food. That’s a good strategy to achieve your goals, and prevent yourself from going back to constant junk food frenzy. That’s just my opinion on the subject, and of course I don’t impose it. Stay healthy! 🙂

  9. Thanks for this, I’m sure I will still struggle but there’s some new ideas here I haven’t tried yet.

  10. Your webinar and your blog are excellent. I have been struggling with being a serious vegan for six weeks – listening to you and Doug all summer (on my runs) has been great support, as has The PlantPower Way cookbook. I have always blamed folks around me when I relapse into my old ways but this past six weeks has shown me that I often sabotage my own diet goals. This particular webinar really made me think about my ‘cravings’! Your webinar and your blog, together, cover the topic very nicely! Thank you.

  11. Great post! Thank you for your helpful tips. I love NMA 🙂

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  1. […] Hey everyone! I want to share this wonderful post from Matt Frazier from “No Meat Athlete”. http://www.nomeatathlete.com. […]

  2. […] No Meat Athlete has a great post this week on dealing with cravings and diet weaknesses. […]

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