Food cravings are often the cause in losing the battle of weight loss or in trying to eat foods to stay healthy. Whether it’s out of habit, emotional eating from stress or boredom, or using food as a reward, these cravings are often hard to deny and willpower alone doesn’t tame them. 91% of women in a Tufts University study reported having food cravings that they needed more than willpower to deal with. When we eat our comfort foods, the brain releases its chemicals like dopamine that make us feel better. We then associate those foods with the ability to make us feel good and reach for them as a solution when we feel stressed, angry, depressed and so on. Becoming aware of our food cravings and looking for the reasons behind the cravings is often the first step in understanding them and being able to develop other alternatives to eating unhealthy foods. Psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD advises tuning in to how you are feeling before you dig in to your favorite comfort food. Once you find a pattern of the types of emotions that trigger your cravings, you can find other solutions to deal with those emotions.
Understanding Your Food Cravings
Eating to feel better to deal with emotional issues is more about the emotions themselves and not really about the food. Patricia Farrell, PhD, a New York psychologist, suggests starting by making a list of your stressors and making a plan for how to deal with them other than eating. This allows you to start becoming aware of problems you encounter that usually trigger your emotional eating and lets you make a conscious choice on how you will deal with these problems. That puts you back in control and gives you the foundation to start making choices that will help you stay healthy. Once you have your list and find yourself confronting one of your stressors, take a pause before doing anything to give yourself the time and opportunity to make a choice. Since your cravings are usually satisfied by impulse, taking this pause to identify why you are having the craving to eat gives you the chance to delay indulging and picking another strategy to deal with whatever emotion you are having. Let’s take a look now at some other reasons we have food cravings and some ways to deal with that hunger in a way that allows us to stay in a healthy place.
Distract Your Cravings
Before reaching for your favorite comfort food stop and remember that studies have shown food cravings can actually pass rather quickly if not indulged. One study reported that the intensity of cravings was lessened for participants who played Tetris for 3 minutes before giving in to their cravings versus those that just tried waiting it out. Finding some activity to distract and occupy your mind can give you the time to let those cravings pass without giving in to them. In 2013 a study was done in the UK that reported a reduction in craving chocolate by taking a walk for 15 minutes. According to Patricia Farrell, PhD, even taking 10 minutes to walk in place can reduce the stress triggering your craving and distract you to let the urge pass. Stress releases cortisol in the body and according to Norman Pecoraro, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, we look for ways to cope with this reaction often by eating foods with unhealthy sugars and fats. This conditions the brain to associate dealing with stress with eating certain foods. Finding other solutions to deal with stress will help break these memory connections and give the brain other alternatives to turn to rather than eating. Listening to music you enjoy, calling a friend, taking a walk, going for a bike ride, interacting on social media, or playing a video game are all alternatives that can distract you long enough to let the cravings pass. Linda Spangle, RN, a weight loss coach in Broomfield, CO, and author of 100 Days of Weight Loss, prescribes finding an activity that fits the emotion by identifying what emotion you are feeling and what is causing that emotion. That helps you in choosing an activity that addresses the specific problem instead of randomly picking one that may or may not deal with the emotional issue.
Even if you are not a breakfast eater, start eating something in the morning. This can help fight off cravings later in the day. A study in the Nutrition Journal, reported girls who were overweight that started eating 350 calories in the morning that contained a minimum of 13 grams of protein were less likely to have food cravings throughout the day than those who didn’t eat in the morning. Adding protein foods to your breakfast releases dopamine that may help in reducing cravings.
Sleep Your Cravings Away
Your food cravings can intensify if you are not getting adequate amounts of sleep. Not getting enough sleep time can cause a reduction in the hormone leptin which helps us identify when we are satisfied and cause an increase in ghrelin which stimulates the appetite. A study at the University of Chicago found that these hormone changes increased cravings for starchy foods by 45%. The best solution for this problem is to get enough sleep, but if that just isn’t possible right away for whatever reason, reach for a cup of coffee before reaching for those sugary and fatty foods. The caffeine is not a good long-term solution and won’t take the place of sleep, but it can help give you a boost in energy with less calories to get through the day until you can take a sleep break.
Indulge Just a Bit
Eating just a little of your favorite comfort food is sometimes better than depriving yourself until you can’t stand it anymore and overindulge. A study at Cornell University in 2013 found that having a snack portion of a comfort food satisfied participants as well as a larger portion did with 76.8% less calories being consumed. Try taking just a few small bites of the food you are craving and don’t feel guilty about it. Thoroughly enjoy those bites and then wait 10 to 15 minutes to let the craving pass and identify that it has been satisfied. You can also work on changing the association your brain makes between being satisfied and the unhealthy food by adding in a healthier food at the same time. Adding in a healthy food gets you the nutrition you need which can help satisfy hunger and reduce the craving for the unhealthy food choice. If your addiction is sugar, add in some fruit or a healthy sweet tasting snack. If you lean towards salty, crunchy snacks look for healthy alternatives in that direction. Another way to deal with allowing yourself a bit of indulgence is to put a small amount of the food you crave in a dish and eat it slowly. Put the rest up where you won’t be tempted to get another serving and enjoy the treat you’ve dished out for yourself. It may be that you need to also change your thinking about food cravings. If you have the mindset that certain foods are bad or not allowed and that you are denying yourself, you will have a harder time with those food cravings. Giving yourself permission to have a little bit of those foods you crave takes away the perception that you are being denied and allows you to come from a place of empowerment instead.
Choose Healthy Substitutions
Looking for healthier food choices to substitute for unhealthy comfort foods may not be the ultimate solution for dealing with the underlying conditions behind your food cravings, but it can help get you through the day and allow you to stay healthy at the same time. When I’m feeling stressed and too rushed to stop for a good healthy meal, I find this algae and sprouts snack bar to be a big help. With a healthy balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and micronutrients from whole-food sources, with no chemical additives or dairy, it provides an ideal mixture of complex and simple carbohydrates for sustained energy and has the great taste to ward off other food cravings. I also find using this whey protein-based shake powder helps ward of food cravings as it satisfies hunger with 22 grams of protein and the nutrition from AFA bluegreen algae. Tieraona Low Dog, MD, author of Life Is Your Best Medicine, suggests using a gymnema tincture, made from a vine from India, or one with bitters to help reduce sugar cravings.
You can learn to overcome or at least reduce your food cravings without overtaxing your willpower. Try out some of these natural solutions and get yourself back on track with healthy eating without adding more stress to your life.