Declare Independence From Food Cravings With Strategies And Expert Tips

27 Jun

 

You’re entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of cheesecake—as long as you’re the one in charge of the food, and not the other way around. If you find yourself constantly surrendering to every delicious morsel that comes your way, it’s time to stage a revolution.

Unfortunately, cravings are hard to crack. Research has shown that everything from hormones, fluctuations in blood sugar levels, nutritional deficiencies, and emotional and psychological reasons can make you yearn for food, whether you’re hungry or not. But whatever the cause of your cravings, there are ways you can fight back. Make these strategies your first line of defense in every battle against chocolate, buttered popcorn, and any other tasty temptation.

 

Banish Blah Meals

A humdrum diet of unseasoned chicken breast and brown rice is a breeding ground for cravings—not because healthy foods are unsatisfying, but because your meal planning lacks variety (and your taste buds are snoring). A study published in the journal Physiological Behavior found that a nutritionally adequate but otherwise boring and restrictive diet leads to a large increase in the frequency of food cravings. Following a week of normal eating, the study participants were fed a monotonous diet consisting only of a nutritionally complete, vanilla-flavored liquid that was calorically equivalent to each participant’s normal diet. During the four days of the bland eating plan, participants experienced greater food cravings—especially for sweets and entrees, with 76 percent of cravings falling into those two categories.

No matter how delicious, the same three meals in rotation will get old really quickly. Plus, when you feel like a food is a punishment or unpleasant, you may be more susceptible to cravings because you’ll want to reward yourself for enduring it, says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and manager of wellness programs and strategies for the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Make your healthy meals pop by sprinkling chicken with tasty herbs like rosemary and tarragon, trying exotic fruits and veggies like lychee and bok choy, and experimenting with new recipes. A little creativity in the kitchen will make your foods tastier and your diet seem less loathsome.

 

Take Food Off the Pedestal

Are daydreams of doughnuts your guilty pleasure? Unfortunately, our tendency to think about certain foods as off-limits only increases their appeal. This is especially true for dieters with long “do not eat” lists; studies consistently show that dieters report higher levels of food cravings than people on unrestricted diets. What’s more, even unappetizing foods can prompt cravings if they’re highly constrained. That was another surprising outcome of the Physiological Behavior study: Participants reported craving the bland vanilla drink even after they were allowed to return to normal eating—and despite disliking it.

The study’s lead author concluded in an article published in the Journal of Nutrition that the fact that even unpalatable foods could be desired and overeaten revealed that it may be the way in which foods are consumed, and not the taste, appearance, and smell, that gets us addicted. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the food is,” says Thayer. “As soon as you find out you can’t have it—you want it.” Placing fewer foods on the high-calorie restricted list and allowing yourself small tastes of your favorites could help keep cravings at bay.

 

Take Food Off the Pedestal

Are daydreams of doughnuts your guilty pleasure? Unfortunately, our tendency to think about certain foods as off-limits only increases their appeal. This is especially true for dieters with long “do not eat” lists; studies consistently show that dieters report higher levels of food cravings than people on unrestricted diets. What’s more, even unappetizing foods can prompt cravings if they’re highly constrained. That was another surprising outcome of the Physiological Behavior study: Participants reported craving the bland vanilla drink even after they were allowed to return to normal eating—and despite disliking it.

The study’s lead author concluded in an article published in the Journal of Nutrition that the fact that even unpalatable foods could be desired and overeaten revealed that it may be the way in which foods are consumed, and not the taste, appearance, and smell, that gets us addicted. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the food is,” says Thayer. “As soon as you find out you can’t have it—you want it.” Placing fewer foods on the high-calorie restricted list and allowing yourself small tastes of your favorites could help keep cravings at bay.

 

Confront Your Cravings

The next time you feel a hankering for something chocolate, don’t ignore the impulse altogether. Paying attention to the sensation could help you fight off cravings in the future, according to the findings of a recent study published in the journal Appetite. The research showed that participants who were taught to accept their cravings by acknowledging thoughts of food without judgment and without acting on those impulses reported significantly lower cravings overall. Among other exercises, study participants were instructed to perform a “body scan,” a technique where attention is brought to each area of the body, starting with the toes and moving up to the top of the head. The body scan was meant to increase awareness and acceptance of bodily sensations including hunger, satiety, and craving. Researchers concluded that by taking a step back and observing a food craving, participants were able to recognize cravings’ fleeting nature and learn that they eventually fade.

One of the best ways to become of aware of cravings is to keep a food journal, suggests Thayer. “I encourage people to be very conscious of what they’re craving, as well as what’s driving that behavior. Do you feel physical hunger? Was there an experience that triggered the craving? If you keep track of all these things, you can identify patterns in your eating,” she says. Once you realize that your impulse is due to low energy or hunger, you can satisfy your body with a cup of coffee or a bowl of high-fiber cereal rather than reaching for a doughnut. You can also use a journal to monitor timing of meals and snacks—it’s best to eat every 4 hours to keep hunger (and snack attacks) at bay.

 

Say So Long to Stress

When the going gets tough, even the tough get snacking. A study published in the journal Nutrition Bulletin found a strong correlation between the secretion of cortisol, a hormone released during stress, and changes in food choice and increased caloric intake. Study participants ate 350 calories more on average and consumed greater amounts of saturated fatty acids and carbohydrates during stressful situations than they did during the baseline period.

Why do we carbo-load in times of distress? Foods with high energy density can temporarily boost levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood. So after a bad day at the office or a big fight with a loved one, we reach for something sugary and carb-heavy to cope, according to a paper published in the journal Physiology and Behavior. “There could have been a time when you were feeling low or stressed—you ate something sweet, experienced that boost of serotonin, and then it became a conditioned response: Feel sad, eat sweets,” says Thayer.

Unfortunately, it’s a calorically expensive pattern to get into. While a simple carbohydrate such as sugar does boost serotonin, the feeling is fleeting, and you’ll have to reach into the candy bowl more times than you’d like to maintain it, says Thayer. One sweet snack turns into another to keep your energy up. A better way to fight sugar cravings long-term is to consume complex carbohydrates like whole grains rather than blood-sugar spiking white varieties, she says. And to stave off cravings in the moment, take a brisk walk or head to the gym for a full-blown workout if time permits. Studies show that people report a higher tendency to eat in order to distract themselves from stress; sidetrack yourself with a sweat session to curb cravings and get fit in the process.

 

Take a Lap

Studies show that chocolate is the most commonly (and intensely) craved food item. (It’s so prevalent that one Journal of Proteome Research study even links the type of bacteria living in the human digestive system to a desire for the sweet stuff.) While antioxidant-rich dark chocolate is a perfectly good snack in moderation, a relentless cocoa craving makes sticking to a single serving nearly impossible. But you can fight back. A study published in the journal Appetite found that a brisk 15-minute walk significantly reduces chocolates urges in regular chocolate eaters during and for at least 10 minutes following the completion of exercise. “Taking a walk provides distraction from your craving and reminds you of your long-term fitness goals,” says Thayer. “There’s also the mental component. If you’ve done something good for yourself—like taking a walk for exercise—it precipitates doing even more good for yourself. You’re less likely to eat the chocolate after the walk because it would undo the healthy practice you just performed.”

Can’t take a lap? Clench a muscle. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that firming muscles—whether in your hand, finger, calf, or biceps—can improve self-control, including overcoming the call of tempting foods when a craving hits.

 

 

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