By Patrice Wolters licensed psychologist

Cravings! We all get them—that desire for some fudge ice cream, holiday fruitcake, cookies, pizza, potato chips—you name it, you claim it, along with extra pounds that add up over time.

Being at your “feel good weight” is associated with confidence, success in work and relationships, and new adventure. Yet many people have difficulty losing weight and keeping it off because it’s simply not easy to feel hungry.

However, tolerating hunger and cravings is a skill you can cultivate, and I’ll show you how! It’s challenging at first, but you'll feel empowered and
motivated to take on new challenges.

Hunger—a physiological response to the need for food—is easily confused with cravings—a desire for food that can be physical and/or emotional and association-based. Managing cravings can be easier than enduring true

The Power of Postponement

Few realize that hunger and cravings occur in waves that last 20 only minutes or so. Like waves in the ocean, these sensations grow in intensity, peak, and then subside. As you master the techniques in this article, managing cravings becomes easier and easier.

You can begin to resist cravings by tolerating short periods of not giving in to food. Start with 20 minutes and gradually add 10 minutes more until you reach several hours of toleration. A kitchen timer can be a helpful tracking tool. Have a default diversion activity such as weight-lifting, walking, crafts,socializing with friends, or playing computer games—anything you enjoy. Over time, your stomach will shrink and your hunger will diminish in intensity. The key is to slowly build new habits into daily living.

Strategic Eating

Additionally, a healthy diet reduces the intensity of cravings. Your brain
responds to a lack of essential nutrients with hunger, so incorporating
nutritious and high-fiber foods like oatmeal, chia seeds, flax seeds,
vegetables, and fruits into your diet can delay hunger. Proteins decrease your appetite over extended periods of time. Probiotic bacteria in some fermented foods like sauerkraut can diminish certain cravings. Try drinking a hot beverage with meals and also drink plenty of water during the day. Eat slowly to give your brain time to recognize that you’ve eaten enough.

Observe Your Patterns

Observe food patterns and triggers. My patients report a variety of craving triggers, from feeling rejected in personal relationships to feeling undervalued at work. Some struggle with anxiety or stress, while others are just plain bored. Many eat unconsciously while watching TV, and others have difficulty eating certain foods in moderation. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get immediate results. Give yourself credit for starting the journey.

My patient, Barbara, noted she consumed most calories in the evening, and even sometimes got up and ate in the middle of the night. Barbara was 35 years old and 40 pounds overweight. Recently divorced, Barbara ate to comfort herself when she felt lonely in the evening. Keeping track of what she ate at night enabled Barbara to realize that she consumed about 700 extra calories at night—700 calories she didn’t require.

Once aware of her eating habits, Barbara removed temptations such as her habit of carrying goodies in her car. It took several months to gradually tolerate cravings, but she’s now much happier. Barbara also began eating a large, crisp salad with dinner and an apple before bedtime which kept her full well into the night. She began exercising and, within six months, Barbara dropped 25 pounds and had made a huge investment in her health and well-

Distraction/Productive Refocusing

A key tool in your journey toward managing cravings is learning to distract yourself when you feel like eating. Have some easy pre-planned activities to engage you; this can alter the chemicals in your brain that produce hunger signals. Activities chosen vary according to your needs and preferences. Weight lifting is great, and there are many exercises you can do at home. Creative pursuits such as writing or drawing refocus your attention. And certainly you can read; there are so many terrific books in public libraries and available to buy online or download instantly. Tidy up something at home.

Finally, practice standing on one foot at a time. If you’re not challenged
enough, try closing your eyes, which makes balancing much harder. Figure out what gets you moving.If you feel lonely or bored, contact a friend and go for a walk or watch a movie together. Get involved in community group or a take a fitness class. And remember, volunteering is always a good choice! If you’ve been over-doing it, take time to relax and rest; sleep deprivation adversely affects the hormones that control appetite. Beat stress with meditation. Whatever you choose, select activities that don’t just take your mind off cravings, but also help you experience joy, a sense of productivity, and a feeling of rejuvenation.
There’s significant scientific evidence that changing what we think actually helps improve behavior. Memorize the following mental health rhyme to promote change:

“Break steps down into doable parts,

It doesn’t matter how you feel; it’s important that you start.

Trust you can do way more than you think.

One step, two steps, three and repeat©”

Have a Major Goal

Having a major goal promotes overall self-discipline. My client, Mary, was an extreme procrastinator; photos of her cluttered office looked like a Goodwill. Mary made a To-Do list of long-neglected tasks. She first decided to stop spending so much time with her boyfriend, Michael, who always expected her to accommodate his last-minute plans; this made Mary feel disrespected and demeaned. She instead focused her “Michael energy” productively by doing a task on her list. If Michael called with spur-of-the-moment plans, Mary said “No” and selected another task to tackle.

Mary then took a five-week break from Michael to jump-start her new
direction. She set up a support system with a friend and a ‘willpower points’ system. Whenever Mary completed a task, she got five points that earned a sticker which she put on a board. When she earned 12 stickers, she traded the board in for a personal prize. Prizes included tickets to an event, an investment in her travel fund, having her house professionally cleaned, a stylish accessory, or a new outfit.

As Mary developed willpower, she quit procrastinating about dropping an extra 15 pounds. Learning to say “No” helped her resist cravings; one was her habit of eating a pint of chocolate fudge ice-cream several nights a week. Instead, Mary purchased tiny cartons of ice cream and savored each bite. Gradually, she developed a taste for low-calorie dressing and a bowl of greens, and within six months, she lost her extra weight.

Think of cravings as an opportunity to begin new projects and initiate new phases of life. As you accomplish goals, you’ll develop self-discipline and motivation to resist food cravings. It won’t feel like deprivation, but like a means to renew yourself and recreate your life.

Positive Thinking

Remember, you can manage your feelings. Don’t dwell on negative thoughts—instead dwell in a land of positive thoughts, and let negative thoughts float downstream. Literally picture the new-and-improved you that awaits!

Recognize that hunger isn’t a “crisis”; tolerating some hunger fosters
discipline that transfers to other areas of your life. Follow this mental map: Hunger is a sign that my diet is working; it‘s a sign my fat cells are shrinking and it’s quite easy to handle. Every day is full of new possibilities, and there are many starting points throughout the day. If
you get off to a bad start, simply start over. Talk to your inner child and say something empowering like, “I won’t give up on you until you get what you want.” Keep a personal journal to remind yourself of how far you’ve come. When I tolerate cravings, I think to myself,

“There are people starving all over the world, so I surely can manage some minor cravings.” Comparing yourself this way is called upward comparison. People comparing themselves to runway models engage in downward comparison and feel worse. It’s crucial to develop a positive attitude. Resilient people are optimistic despite uncomfortable feelings. Become resilient by focusing on uplifting ideas and making an effort.

You can use these affirmations or your own to build resilience:

I tell myself, “I can do three times more than I give myself credit for.”

I also know that “small steps taken daily add up!”

I use this rhyme to maintain a positive attitude:

“I am happy, healthy, and I’m healing;

I’m gorgeous and just so appealing;

I’ve got a winning hand that I’m dealing;

Yes, I am happy and healthy, and I’m healing©”

Trust that learning to tolerate discomfort enables you to take your life to a higher level. Empower yourself by taking small, manageable steps in a long-term journey of self-improvement. Why wait?—the perfect time is now.

All mental health rhymes are copyrighted by Patrice Wolters at the Library of Congress.

Author's Bio: 

Patrice Wolters, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with over 22 years of experience. She specializes in relationship therapy, child and adolescent therapy and in the early identification and treatment of mood disorders in teenagers and young adults. She has helped many couples revitalize their marriages, improve family functioning and create healthy environments for children and teens. Dr. Wolters is particularly interested in helping parents cultivate resiliency, responsibility and healthy relationships in their children and teens. Her trademark "Go from a Maze to Amazing" represents her model of therapy, which is based in the emerging area of positive psychology. For more information about her approach to change and to read various articles she has written, go to