The ability to control appetitive urges—such as cravings for unhealthy foods—is an essential skill for health and well-being. Food craving can be defined as the subjective sense of wanting a certain food. Craving can consume you and produce a unique motivation toward the craved food.
Like stress and mood, cravings can be considered an emotional experience (Gross, 2015). Emotion regulation generally results from emotional conflict. That is, two incompatible emotional inclinations operate at the same time. For example, one can be afraid of something, but still want to dive in anyway. Emotion regulation serves to deal with such conflicts.
Knowledge of emotion regulation may provide a useful tool to reduce cravings for unhealthy foods (Giuliani & Berkman, 2015). The following describe various ways that one can regulate cravings.
1. Situation selection.
Situation selection refers to avoiding certain places or activities to limit one’s exposure to temptations. Proximity to cake, for example, can increase the strength of desire for a piece of cake for a dieter. Intervention at this step is used to decrease exposure to situations that will trigger cravings and intake.
Individuals might avoid purchasing craved foods to prevent themselves from having a lapse during a moment of vulnerability. Most diets are broken at night. They are better off to avoid dining at places where their craved food is found (e.g., fast food restaurants). People who want to stop drinking or smoking may want to avoid places where these activities occur.
2. Situation modification.
This strategy can take many forms, including eating a substitute food (e.g., ordering a side salad instead of French fries) or keeping tempting foods out of sight. Use smaller dishes. Smaller portions lead us to eat less, even if we can refill the plate.
Attention is a way of giving priority to information. In this strategy, people seek to direct their attention away from stimuli that give rise to unwanted desire. By diverting attention elsewhere, one may prevent full processing of the emotional aspects of a tempting stimulus and reduce the emotional impact.
4. Cognitive reframing.
People can use strategies that modify how they view or value tempting stimuli. Reappraising desire for a craved food or thinking about the food in a different way can effectively decrease food craving. Focusing on the negative consequences of consuming the food (e.g., weight gain) or the beneficial consequences of not consuming the food (e.g., weight loss) function as powerful ways of decreasing food cravings through cognitive change.
5. Response modulation.
As a last resort, people have the option to simply persevere, to sit in front of their craved food and try not to eat it. With craving as with emotion, the effectiveness of this strategy is mixed. Under high stress, individuals suddenly show increased accessibility to suppressed material. The busier people are, the more likely that they will behave impulsively.
In sum, effective desire regulation can take place at various points from exposure to desire. Attention allocation to reappraisal can prevent a desire from becoming overly dominant. The framework suggests that emotion regulation strategies are likely to be more successful and less effortful when they are applied earlier rather than later in the emotion generation process.
Giuliani NR, Berkman ET. (2015), Craving is an Affective State and Its Regulation Can Be Understood in Terms of the Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation. Psychol Inq. 26(1):48-53.
GrossJ.J.(2015). Emotion regulation: current status and future prospects. Psychological Inquiry, 26(1), 1–26.