How to Handle Food Cravings
There is no one proven way to handle food cravings, says Marcia Pelchat, biological psychologist, of Monell Chemical Senses Center. Everyone is different. What works for one person may not work for another. The point is to try the different methods, experiment and modify them to suit your particular needs and personality. The worst thing to do is to just give up and let your cravings run wild because they can seriously undermine your weight management efforts.
Authors Per Ola and Emily D'Aulaire ("Control Your Food Cravings") interviewed several weight loss experts to come up with a list of strategies to keep food cravings under control.
- Know your triggers. Recognize which situations (monthly period, vacation time, stressful meetings, etc.) trigger your cravings. Then, you can successfully plan what to do about it in advance. Knowing that I only crave for chocolate a few days before my period, I prepare for it by not having chocolates at home (too dangerous - I would promptly eat every single one). However, to keep sane, I make sure I have an acceptable substitute - chocolate skim milk.
- Separate food from other activities. When you constantly combine eating with activities like watching TV or driving, the activity itself becomes a trigger for a craving in the future. Why do people still crave for popcorn when they go to the movies after a full dinner? It certainly isn't because they're hungry. They are so used to eating popcorn while watching a movie that just entering a movie house triggers the craving.
- Exercise regularly. Scientists believe that "feel good" chemicals that are released during exercise are similar to the chemicals released when we eat the craved for food.
- Substitute lower calorie alternatives. This doesn't work for everyone but if it works for you, it can really help cut out excess calories. An example would be low fat yogurt instead of regular ice cream.
- Develop a taste for spicy food. Not spicy-hot, but spicy-flavorful. It's easy to start craving all kinds of food if you insist on eating bland 'diet' food all the time.
- Try riding out the craving. Many experts say that a craving is like a wave with a crest (the peak of the craving when it is at its strongest) and a trough (when the craving subsides). They say to wait for twenty minutes before sticking your head into the refrigerator. This is sound advice because, oftentimes, the craving will go away.
- Don't go to extremes. Even if you have the discipline of a monk, chances are you will lose all semblance of self-control if you make it a habit to skip meals. Some people are so sensitive to even a slight drop in their blood sugar levels, that they have to eat four to six small meals throughout the day rather than three big ones to keep themselves from becoming a 'cravings monster'.
- Give in - sometimes. All the experts interviewed agreed that the worst thing to do is practice absolute denial because it sets you up for 'abstinence violation'. In other words, it's the "all-or-nothing" attitude. I used to be guilty of this. I would deprive myself so much of "forbidden" foods that a small slip would set me off on a binge. The experts suggest that if a food craving is so strong that it is almost overpowering, give in but just a little bit. There are times when nothing but Oreo cookies will satisfy the craving I have for chocolate. To control the damage, I buy a small pack of six cookies instead of buying a big pack that would surely end up in my stomach.
Psychologist Stephen Gullo, author of "Thin Tastes Better" says that mastering food cravings is a skill that anyone can learn. He has developed seven mental strategies that might help you keep cravings at bay.
- A craving is just a feeling, not a command. Gullo says that cravings will usually fade in four to twelve minutes, 20 minutes at most. He says that you can usually stop a craving in its tracks if you divert your eyes and stop the thought.
- Think of cravings as part of your normal day-to-day experience. Gullo calls a craving a "food flash" because it hits like a flash, usually from seeing or smelling food, and it dissipates just as quickly when properly handled.
- Planning is stronger than willpower. He says never to buy foods that you have a history of overeating (this works for me). If you have it at home, you'll eat it for sure. And even if you don't, it's definitely a form of self-torture. He says not to let hunger reach a critical peak because when people are hungry they eat impulsively and excessively. Eat something before going to a restaurant or party and before shopping at the grocery.
- Try to avoid being a "food surveyor". Gullo explains that this is someone who reads a menu or scopes out a buffet table as if planning a strategic assault. He says that most of us are "visual eaters". The sight of food or even the sight of the words "chocolate mousse" is enough to set off a craving. I know someone who would insist on reading out each item on the dessert menu although he was trying to avoid desserts to lose weight. He would, wistfully, say things like "Wow, they have tiramisu" or "Oh, look, they have crème brulee". You didn't need to be a psychic to guess what would happen next.
- Don't become a negative self-hypnotist. Avoid phrases like "I must have it" or "A little bit doesn't make a difference". You end up convincing yourself that you can't live without that slice of cake.
- Make a "conversational commitment". Gullo claims this is his best trick to avoid overeating at a party or restaurant. He gives two examples. The first is to turn to the person you are talking to and subtly mention that the desserts looks delicious but you never touch them anymore. He says that your pride and a natural desire to avoid looking foolish will keep you out of trouble. The second is to tell "food pushers" (over-eager hosts who keep pushing food your way) that you are allergic to the food. He says you aren't lying because if you eat high-calorie food, you will break out in fat!
- Mentally rehearse before going to a food-filled situation. Gullo says to visualize the calories and what they will do to you. Ask yourself questions like "Do I like it enough to wear it on my hips?". He says that a rehearsal takes away the "flash" effect of food. He claims the food will not tempt you in the same way and you'll find you can resist it much more easily in the future.
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