What’s really behind that maniacal 3 p.m. brownie scoffing, almost against your will, when you know you absolutely shouldn’t? You’re not alone. More than 50% of people report experiencing cravings on a regular basis. But they’re the enemy of your health and weight-loss goals and can quickly derail your best laid plans. You’re struggling with how to stop these cravings and take control of your nutrition.
Cravings are fueled by powerful feel-good brain chemicals released when you eat certain types of foods, creating a high that your brain seeks out again and again. It’s now thought that one of the main culprits, sugar, can actually have a more intense feeling of reward than cocaine.
Yes, cravings can be that powerful. Sheer willpower isn’t the answer. But you can get control. You need clear strategies to stop this formidable beast in its tracks. Here are six things you can do right now to stop cravings.
First, Question it
Are you really hungry? Or is it stress? When you’re stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which signals your brain to seek out rewards. That’s when you turn to comfort foods like sugar, carbs and fat. There’s a clear reason for this; these foods blunt the effects of cortisol.
You blame yourself and curse your lack of willpower, but instinctively you’re just trying to feel better. So don’t beat yourself up. You just need a more healthy solution. Tune into your body and learn to recognize where the cravings are really coming from.
Studies have found that cravings are not necessarily associated with real hunger, but with negative moods. You might be bored, anxious, lonely, angry, or conflicted. What’s causing these moods? What are your personal triggers? Once you’ve identified them it’s easier to see the situation logically and take action. When you notice patterns – times when cravings usually take hold – and work out what’s causing them, you’re in a better position to prepare in advance to beat them. It puts you back in control.
Even better than beating cravings, stop them from happening in the first place. Here’s four proven prevention strategies:
Eat Nutrient-Rich Meals
Lack of key nutrients can cause cravings. If stress is not a factor, cravings may simply be the result of being genuinely hungry. Eating regular, healthy and satiating meals with enough fat, protein and good carbs may stop them in their tracks. So make sure you eat regular well-balanced meals. Eating a filling, high-quality breakfast is a great start.
In a bid to lower calorie intake, avoid depriving yourself to the point of extreme hunger. This is counterintuitive because it usually leads to binge eating the very foods you are trying to avoid. If you do feel a bit peckish between meals, reach for something healthy like fruits, nuts, vegetables or seeds.
Get Enough Sleep
Lack of sleep has also been shown to cause cravings. Your appetite is largely affected by hormones that fluctuate throughout the day. Research has shown that sleep deprivation disrupts these fluctuations and can lead to strong cravings. So make sure you get adequate shut-eye and your cravings might become a thing of the past.
Don’t Give Yourself Access to Junk Foods
If there’s no cake in the house, you can’t eat it.
Have Alternatives Ready
If there’s nothing healthy easily available, you’re much more likely to give in to cravings. Precut vegetable sticks such as celery, carrot, zucchini and bell pepper, ready to dip into hummus. Have plenty of fruit on hand – slices of apple spread with peanut butter or cottage cheese, or berries mixed with plain yoghurt are great alternatives. Apples are an excellent choice because they contain the soluble fiber pectin which prevents spikes in blood sugar. This helps you avoid the blood sugar crash that leaves you craving more junk food.
Feed Your Soul
Remember, if negative feelings are the underlying cause of your cravings, giving in to them will only make you feel better temporarily. Comfort foods won’t fill the hole or get to the root of the problem. The only real solution is to deal with the emotional problem and find healthier ways of addressing it.
If you’ve identified that negative emotions resulting in stress are the culprit causing your cravings, do what you can to remove the stress from your life. Of course, this is easier said than done, but stress has a huge impact on your overall health, so seek out ways to minimize it. Get professional help if you need it.
Make time to indulge in your creativity and what makes you happy, whether it be music, painting, dancing, photography or something else. Make your emotional and spiritual needs a priority. When you’re filled up emotionally, cravings are less likely to hit.
Deal With It
Already in the throes of a monster craving? Here are 5 things you can do now (before stuffing your face with that cupcake).
Work it out
Make a deal with yourself: you’ll make the decision of whether or not to eat the cupcake when you get back from the gym or an outdoor workout. Grab your resistance bands and head to the park for some heavy-duty weight training. You’re just putting off the decision for an hour or so.
When you’re working out you’re distracted, not to mention physically removed from the junk food. If you’re thinking about food while training you’re not working hard enough!
At the same time, you’re releasing endorphins. They’ll give you the same mental high you were looking for with the cupcake. It’s practically guaranteed you’ll arrive home from your workout feeling positive and strong, with the craving banished.
It’s not always possible to drop everything and sprint to the gym, especially on work days. The next best thing to sweating it out is finding a distraction to shift your mind into another gear. It’s stuck on the craving, but it can be moved. One fun study showed that playing Tetris helped reduce food cravings. If you can get the craving out of your head for a few minutes, it usually breaks its hold on you.
Any activity that engages your mind will do the trick – write an email, stop by a co-worker’s desk for a gossip, wash the dishes, do a quick crossword or make a call. If the craving is just a result of boredom it will likely pass with a change of mental tack or scenery.
Drink a Big Glass of Water
Sometimes we mistake hunger for thirst and desire food when we are dehydrated. So grab a big glass of H2O. Infused with flavors like mint, lemon, cucumber or basil, a glass of water can make you feel full and satisfy your food urge without calories. But avoid artificially sweetened drinks – some research suggests these make food cravings worse.
Drink Green Tea
Green tea contains the phytonutrient EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) which increases the hormone CCK (cholecystokinin), which is responsible for creating the feeling of satiation. If you’re feeling full any mood-related cravings will automatically be lessened. EGCG has the added benefit of stimulating your metabolism to burn energy, including fat!
Eat the Healthy Alternatives You Have Pre-Prepared
They’re already prepared and waiting for you in the fridge. Reach for those precut vegetable sticks and hummus, apple slices or a handful or satiating macadamias. They might not stop the insane craving for the cupcake immediately, but at the very least eating them slowly and mindfully with distract you. It’s likely that by the time you finish eating the craving will be under control.
Athletes are often taught a trick where they visualize themselves winning in the lead up to an event. You can do something similar: imagine yourself being the person you want to be – strong and committed, completely capable of resisting. How would the perfect version of you handle the craving? Make yourself the hero of your story, take advantage of the strategies you’ve learned, and you might just find you do have the willpower to resist.
Cravings can be a huge challenge for even the most health-committed of us because they’re governed by powerful brain hormones. Plus, we’re all susceptible to the stresses and ups and downs of life on which cravings thrive. Your best bet is to prepare in advance to tackle them. This way you’re much more likely to succeed. When a craving hits, examine how you’re really feeling – whether it’s true hunger or an emotional response. Slap on your runners and get outside for a run or workout if at all possible.
Put into the practice the prevention and distraction strategies you’ve learned and you will get the upper hand. You are in control – cravings need not stop you achieving all your health and fitness goals.