By Dr. Jeremy Girmann
Nothing can derail a diet like an intense food craving. I get them, you get them, we all get them.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Here are some strategies that I use and commonly recommend to help squelch the cravings:
Use a hunger scale
Often people eat just to eat. They’re stressed, or bored, or both and they end up rummaging through the refrigerator when they aren’t actually hungry. Before you head to the kitchen or to the nearest vending machine, assess your hunger and determine if you’re really just seeking a distraction. Whether you eat according to a particular meal plan or a certain hunger level, eat intentionally.
I tend to snack most often when I’m at home. Food is easily accessible and the cupboards have plenty to offer. At work I find myself eating far less because my mind is distracted with the events of the day. When you feel the desire to eat, engage your brain for 20 minutes and see whether the hunger persists. Often it will subside. Similarly, once you finish a meal, give your body some time to tell your brain that you’re full. While you’re waiting, clear the leftovers from the table. If they’re allowed to remain in front of you, you’ll likely find that they end up in your stomach.
Eat multiple small meals
There is ongoing debate in the worlds of sports nutrition and weight loss medicine regarding the value of less vs. more frequent meals. I prefer to eat multiple small meals throughout the day. While there are several reasons for this, one big reason is that if I don’t eat for many hours, my hunger will build to an insatiable level and I will eat anything and everything in sight. Eating every so often keeps my hunger at bay and allows me to make smarter food selections.
Once a craving begins to set in, engage in some type of physical activity. You can go for a walk, do a few jumping jacks, or perform some wall squats. For whatever reason, I find it particularly helpful to do a few pushups. When you exercise, blood is diverted to the working muscles and away from the GI tract. The brain shifts focus from the feeling of hunger to the activity at hand.
On the topic of physical activity, it is also worth noting that once you do eat a meal, it’s a good idea to go for a light walk after the meal is finished. This can assist the digestive process and even blunt the sharp insulin response to the meal.
Often thirst is mistaken for hunger. I find this to be particularly true during cravings for sweets and I suspect that the brain has established this association due to the fact that many fruits have high water content.
Drinking water can also be helpful when cravings set in because it can initiate feelings of fullness as the stomach’s volume is increased.
Brush your teeth or chew gum
This works like a charm for me. Chewing gum gives your mouth something to do and the minty fresh feeling that comes from chewing gum or brushing your teeth can be a deterrent to snacking or eating more than you should once a meal is finished.
If you’re craving salty foods, try veggies with hummus. Craving sweets? Try some fruit, a chocolate protein shake, or flavored drinks. If the craving involves a specific food, usually you can make a healthier option that will offer more nutrients and be lower in calories. If you do choose to make your own version of a food, usually the more involved preparation will prevent you from eating as much as you otherwise might have if you made your way through a drive-thru.
Don’t deprive yourself
Following a healthy diet doesn’t mean that you can never eat pizza or indulge in some chocolate cake. There is nothing wrong with treating yourself to your favorite food every once in a while. In fact, it can be socially, psychologically, and even metabolically advantageous to do so. Plan for it. If you decide that every Saturday you are going to eat any dinner of your choice, do so and don’t allow yourself to feel guilty about it. This way, you will be able to satisfy whatever your greatest food craving might have been during the week. It gives you something to look forward to and I even find that once Saturday rolls around, many times the original craving has subsided.
Also, reframe your mindset so that instead of thinking that you are depriving yourself of foods that you cannot eat, think of all that you can eat – foods that will make you feel great and function better.
Eat imaginary food
This might sound a bit crazy but it works. The next time that you get a craving, imagine eating that food. Imagine the taste, the smell, the first bite and the last. Then imagine being full and get on with the next thing. Sometimes this allows you to leverage willpower just enough to avoid eating the actual cookie or candy bar. Often trying not to think about a craving actually emboldens it and makes it much worse.
Sleep or take a nap
Multiple studies have shown that with sleep deprivation comes weight gain. Much of this is related to the fact that simply being awake for longer periods of time increases the likelihood that you might find yourself in the kitchen more frequently. (If you eat at night while sleepwalking, we have an entirely different problem…)
It has also been shown that sleep deprivation disrupts the hormonal balance that normally keeps appetite in check.
There are many mechanisms that control feelings of hunger but one simple mechanism is related to the stretch receptors in the stomach. If you fill up with vegetables at the beginning of a meal, the stomach will fill and the stretch receptors will begin to send signals to the brain telling it that you are full. The net result is you will have eaten a large volume of food that was both nutrient-dense and low in calories. This will make you less likely to binge on the bad stuff.
It has been known for some time that protein-rich foods are typically more satiating than their carbohydrate-rich counterparts. The reasons for this were largely unknown until 2012 when a study was published which shed some light on one of the major mechanisms involved. It was discovered that digested proteins modulate mu-opioid receptors (MORs) on nerves found in the walls of blood vessels that drain the GI tract. When the peptides stimulate these receptors, a sort of circuit is triggered which travels to the brain and back to the gut, ultimately stimulating the intestinal production of glucose which suppresses the desire to eat.
Avoid triggers and hot spots Ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? In the 1890s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was studying salivation in dogs in response to being fed. In one of his studies he would ring a bell whenever food was presented to the dogs. Naturally the dogs would salivate in anticipation of eating the food. He also noted, however, that after some time the dogs would begin to salivate each time the bell was rung even in the absence of food. In his seminal studies, Pavlov was able to demonstrate the learning procedure which later became known as classical conditioning.
Identify your triggers
Do you crave cookies every time you go to grandma’s house because she always has some waiting for you? (Let’s try another example. I’m not hoping to convince you to stop visiting grandma.)
Do you think about pretzels every time you walk down a certain hallway at work because you routinely stop at a nearby vending machine? Try taking a different route.
Don’t shop on an empty stomach
We’ve been warned before and yet many of us still do it. The grocery store is the ultimate hot spot for triggering various cravings. The beautifully packaged foods and the sweet smells wafting from the bakery trigger many of us to buy more and ultimately eat more.
On the topic of smells, the food court at shopping malls can also pose particular danger to our diets. Interestingly, the power of aromas is so great that many food vendors heavily leverage it. Several vendors, for example, will intentionally place their storefronts far from the food court so that the smell of their food will be unchallenged by other food vendors as shoppers stroll by, therefore successfully triggering a craving for their particular product.
Light a scented candle
While certain aromas do trigger cravings and greatly intensify hunger, the nose can become desensitized to smells over time. Immersing yourself in a particular scent by working near a scented candle or by using essential oils might decrease how significantly you are influenced by the smell of food. In fact, Christmas Dinner Syndrome has been used to describe the common situation in which the person who has been cooking doesn’t eat as much as their guests because they’ve smelled dinner all day.
Know that your taste and preferences will change
It can be helpful to know that cravings for certain foods will not always be so intense. When you begin to eat a healthier diet, your taste and preferences will change over time. As bizarre as it might sound, I find that when my diet is optimized, my cravings for cookies and potato chips shift to apples and whole wheat bread. You begin to appreciate more subtle flavors.
Tap your forehead
Researchers at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City found that tapping your forehead for 30 seconds can minimize the intensity of a craving and blur the image of the food you crave. Don’t tap too hard…
Use a blue plate
Research has found that the color blue can be a natural appetite suppressant. Since blue is almost never found in natural foods, our bodies have no appetite response to the color. Red, orange, and yellow, on the other hand, have been shown to increase your appetite and make you eat more.
Be your own motivational speaker
As lame as it sounds to suggest adopting a “can-do” attitude, it’s critically important. The alternative? People surrender to the idea that they do not have the willpower or self-discipline to overcome cravings so they cave. Once they give in to the craving, they become overwhelmed with a sense of “told you so”. The mindset and behavior represent a self-fulfilling prophecy and the vicious cycle persists. Tell yourself with certainty that you can overcome the craving and believe it; really believe it.
Also, ask yourself whether giving in to the craving is really worth the results of indulging. Consider this perspective: I ate junk yesterday. Am I still benefitting from it today? Unless you treated yourself to a supreme pizza with some super pungent garlic and onions, the taste of the food is probably long gone. You may also be less energized today because the junk food that you ate yesterday didn’t serve as appropriate fuel. I always say that except in the case of a rare DeLorean, you can’t expect the system to function optimally if the fuel that you provide is junk.
Pleasure is temporary. Recognize that the enjoyment is short-lived. Many give in to temporary pleasure when what they really crave is long-term satisfaction. This is the type of fulfillment that someone might feel when they lose weight or cure their diabetes by successfully making lifestyle changes and adhering to a healthier diet.
Lastly, recognize that we experience real-time change. You are not going to lose weight or get healthier only at some special time in the future. It is happening right now with each decision you make and every food that you eat. Remind yourself of this when you choose to eat or not eat a certain food.