Wouldn’t it great if, when your “evil” hand reaches for that candy bar in a moment of craving, your “good” hand slaps it away? I wish that were the case when I was going through a move and had to feed my anxiety a bag of peanut M&Ms almost daily. The result was that, along with all of my worldly belongings, I packed an extra 10 pounds.
Cravings are hard to manage and can torpedo your weight loss goals because they typically involve excess sugars, salts and unhealthy fats among other addictive things. Also, they tend to sneak up on you in a moment of vulnerability and insane rationalization (“My body must be telling me it needs this Oreo.”). Cravings aren’t necessarily brought on by hunger. Many are based on habits, hormones, and happy memories. But there are also ways to control those cravings without depriving yourself…which, according to experts, only leads to more cravings. Here are some tips:
Untrain your brain:. Those “guilty pleasures” aka hyperpalatable foods that are sweet, salty or rich in fat actually stimulate appetite hormones to make you want more and disrupt brain signals that tell you when you’re full.
- It takes willpower, but you can reverse this by substituting tasty and healthy snacks like fruits, nuts, yogurt, plain popcorn, or even a bit of dark chocolate; things that offer similar satisfying tastes and will fill you up, not out.
- Other cravings are tied to habits like snacks linked to certain activities. In this case, you need to break up that relationship by either substituting a healthier snack or a changing your routine.
- Food is also comfort, so naturally we crave something when feeling anxious, tired, or stressed out. Shut down the craving with mood-lifting, dopamine-inducing activities like meditation, exercise, plenty of sleep, and even a good laugh.
Change the channel: Is there any food in the world today that doesn’t include gobs of cheese or bacon? Not according to the food shows and commercials that bombard our living rooms, emails, and Instagram pages. They can have you grabbing your keys and heading for the nearest mac & cheese mecca or not moving at all and dialing DoorDash. Weight loss doesn’t have a chance against these promo pros…or does it?
- Remind yourself before salivating that it’s never as good or as plentiful as it looks. Did you ever see sandwich commercials with the filling stacked so high you couldn’t possibly get your mouth around it and when you finally get it in your hands, there are pathetic layers of cheese and processed meat…but plenty of iceberg lettuce. Go for something lighter with a few similar ingredients that you enjoy.
- You don’t have to go cold turkey on this; just change channels or delete food messages a bit more often. There are plenty of wonderful foods shows that provide recipe instruction, culture & customs, and places of interest. Maybe cut back on the ones designed to stimulate your darker cravings.
- Most importantly, recognize that this type of over-stimulation may be subconsciously – and adversely - affecting your choices when you eat out or order in. A diet high in fats, sugars, and processed foods will take a toll on your health now or later.
Crave Responsibly. Giving into cravings every once in a while is not so awful if it gets us through the moment. However, when it becomes the norm or an actual addiction, it can lead to far worse things than weight gain. There are a few simple guidelines to follow to keep cravings at an acceptable level.
- The first, ironically, is to eat enough. Skipping meals, adhering to overly restrictive diets. or letting yourself become famished can result in your body sourcing its energy from the wrong places, like muscle, because its glycogen stores are empty.
- Substitute nutrient-rich foods that contain healthy fats and proteins. (i.e. Sub avocado or hummus for mayo on a wrap or chicken for beef in your chili or taco.)
- Get the timing down. If you know you will be going for 4 hours or more between meals, plan a healthy snack in between that will keep your energy up and prevent binging before lunch or dinner. In fact, it is recommended to eat six times a day: three meals and three snacks that are appropriate in portion and content to the time and activity throughout the course of the day.
Mood Food. An emotionally healthy approach to eating is as important as a physical one, especially when your goal is to lose weight. Try getting to the root of what you are feeling when the crave wave hits and substitute a healthy food or activity.
- Are you tired and need a sugar or caffeine rush? Try an apple or orange instead or a natural granola bar sweetened with fruit.
- Are you upset or depressed and need fatty comfort food? Yogurt with berries and a touch of granola for crunch can be satisfying. No wait! Nut butter. That’s the ticket… OR you can skip the snack and call or text your funniest friend for a mood lift.
- Are you bored and using snacks to “entertain” your brain? Mix together some nuts and dried fruit with a toss of pepitas. You’ll get the sweet, the salty and the exotic, all bursting with vitamins and minerals. Don’t add M&Ms to that mix. Trust me.
Tasteless Tips: In addition to adjusting your diet and habits, you can eliminate or reduce cravings with these essential, albeit flavorless, elements: water, exercise and sleep.
- Everyone knows the importance of drinking water, but did you know that dehydration can make you crave salty and sweet snacks? Since the liver uses water to release stored glucose, dehydration inhibits access to that energy and causes cravings. So keep the H2O handy at all times if you want to curb your urges for high-sodium and sugary snacks.
- When it comes to sleep, research shows that less than seven hours per night can boost the release of the hunger-controlling hormone ghrelin and decrease the amount of leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone, leading to cravings of sugar and fats. Interestingly enough, other studies link sleep deprivation to the release of certain endocannabinoids in the body which enhance the sense of smell and trigger the appetite…yes, the munchies.
- Exercise of any intensity has countless positive effects on the body. When it comes to cravings, studies show that exercise increases activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex enabling us to control our food cravings and resist those hyperpalatable (mostly junk) foods. Exercise also creates endorphins that lift your mood and guide you to more healthy endeavors. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat after exercise. You need to replenish the energy you spent. Just choose your calories wisely. You’ll be amazed how some of those cravings will just slip away along with some extra pounds.