The Secret to Winning the Cravings Game
From ruining your progress to making you feel like a failure, food cravings aren’t your friend (no matter what they say).
It’s not about eliminating your cravings altogether. That’s wishful thinking.
It’s not about building your willpower, either. Relying solely on self-discipline all-too-often ends with a binge (and then a whimper).
No, the way you conquer your cravings is by outwitting them. How? By understanding why, where, and when they occur and creating a strategic action plan ahead of time.
The first step is to dig to the root of your food cravings.
The cravings cycle works like this:
First comes the urge (the craving), followed by the behavior (finding a food that satisfies that craving). Then, you get the reward (eating the food you wanted). That last part is accompanied by a release of dopamine, giving your brain a “hit” of pleasure1.
From there it can snowball: The more often you reward your brain, the more likely it is to stimulate the craving, and the stronger that craving may become.
Cravings are often brought on by environmental cues such as sight, smell, taste, location, or company. So tracking when and where your cravings occur can you help you figure out what triggers them. From there, you can adjust your environment and habits to disrupt the cycle. A journal is an excellent tool to help you keep track of the triggers for your cravings.
The next step is to change your patterns. Here are 5 suggestions and strategies to help you get off the cravings train for good.
#1) Give your cravings a time-out!
Strategy #1: Give your craving a timeout.
Notice your snack urge, and sit with it for five minutes without taking action.
This isn’t about exercising willpower. It’s about pausing just long enough to let your conscious mind say, ‘Hey, I’m in charge here!’ This gives you the chance to evaluate all your options, and make a rational decision, rather than a reactionary one.
But here’s the really important part: You don’t have to choose between giving in to your cravings and depriving yourself. There’s a space in between the two, and that’s where you can really break the cravings cycle.
#2) Choose an activity that doesn’t involve chewing.
Because cravings are often psychological rather than physical, intense feelings don’t usually last longer than 15 to 20 minutes. If you’re not really hungry, the craving will likely dissipate.
What happens if you step away from the freezer and go for a walk, clean up your phone’s camera roll, or make a new Spotify playlist?By immersing your mind or body in an activity long enough, you may run the urge all the way out of your system.
Remember, you’re looking to activate and occupy your mind and/or body. So, while different activities may work better for different people, watching TV probably won’t help (and in fact, is often a trigger).
#3) Experiment with fasting at least once
Hunger and cravings tend to come in waves, rising and falling throughout the day.
If you have ever tried fasting for a full 24 hours before, you may have been afraid that you would be starving all day long. But, if you have done this before, that’s not usually what happens.
Yes, you get hungry. Yes, you get cravings. But these feelings come and go, and for many folks, this can be both eye-opening and empowering. In a sense, fasting forces them to “lean in” to urges, and accept “it’s okay to be hungry.”
This isn’t about testing your willpower or denying yourself. It’s about giving you a fresh perspective, and reducing the anxiety, discomfort, and urgency you feel the moment hunger or cravings arise.
Strategy #4: Eat the right foods during the day.
Though cravings can happen any time of day, nighttime cravings and overeating are very common.
From my work with clients, I have found that clients who overeat at night are often restricting their intake throughout the day—knowingly or unknowingly.
What you eat during the day matters. Not so much what you eat on any given day, but what you eat most days.
Fiber (especially from low-calorie vegetables) helps fill you up, and protein keeps you full longer between meals. This makes eating a combination of these nutrients, in sensible portions at regular intervals, key for regulating appetite.
Even small adjustments to eating habits, such as adding a daily breakfast with a healthy dose of protein and veggies—along with reasonable amounts of smart carbs and healthy fats—can help curb after-dinner overeating.
The message here is simple: If you have a voracious night-time appetite, look at what you’re eating the rest of the day. You may find if you do a better job of nourishing your body at other meals, you won’t hear that little “feed me!” voice when you’re about to brush your teeth.
Strategy #5: Indulge your cravings—under the following conditions.
Really craving a chocolate bar? Okay, have one. But choose a pricey, high-quality chocolate. Eat it slowly, and savor the experience.
Taking it one step further, want to know if your cravings are something that you truly want? Test yourself with the effort test.
One strategy I have heard before is that one coach allows clients to have any snack they want, but it has to be purchased—right before eating—from a grocery store that’s 15 minutes away.
For most people, they decide it’s not worth the effort. Or, by the time these folks arrive at the grocery store, they sometimes don’t even want the snack because the craving’s gone.
Another similar suggestion is this: You can eat it, but you have to make it.
That’s right: Potato chips need to be sliced from actual potatoes and cooked in the air fryer. Cake needs to be baked in the oven. Ice cream needs to freeze.
Sound ridiculously impractical? Sure, it does, and that’s the point.
It helps answer this question: How hungry are you, really?
One important consideration for both of these strategies: They work a lot better if your kitchen pantry and office desk aren’t full of ready-to-eat temptations. Remember, if a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.
How do you tend to handle food cravings?