Cravings happen to the best of us. One minute, you’re happily nibbling your nutrient-laden lunch, and barely two hours later, you’re consumed by the need to have an entire bag of potato chips.
By the time you realize what’s happened, you’re already disposing of the evidence in the trash and dealing with your guilt.
Why do we do it?
We know that most cravings are just figments of our imaginations, but they feel so real that most people tend to give in. It’s not just a matter of willpower, either. Research has shown that cravings can be the result of deficiencies in your diet, but the call of a loaded chili dog with fries on the side will always be stronger than that of a supplement pill or even healthy food, for that matter.
Cutting these unhealthy cravings out of your daily life may take a bit of work, but it can be done. The trick is tracking down your trigger. Find out what’s causing your cravings, and you can manage them more readily.
Trigger #1: Diet
Have you ever noticed how after a couple of days of sticking to your resolution to eat healthier, you suddenly find yourself dying for something deep-fried and dipped in gravy? Ironically, the reason behind this craving is that you are actually successful at reducing your calorie intake. What’s more, the more restrictive the diet, the more violent the cravings.
Is it just because we all want what we can’t have? Well, yes and no.
Part of it is psychological. We’re oddly inclined to focus on something we’ve been told we can’t have. For example, if someone told you that you can’t think of the color red – guess what you’re thinking about now.
But there’s also a physiological side to it. If your diet eliminates an entire category of food, you may be missing out on some nutrients found in these foods, and your body is signaling a very real need. You could also be eating way less calories than your body needs, and this could be detrimental to your diet and your health goals.
Sadly, research has shown that rigid dieting can backfire in the form of binge eating. Making something forbidden only intensifies the focus, leading to a person scarfing down overly generous helpings of the taboo food once they feel they’ve slipped.
How to fight back:
- Don’t substitute. If you’ve been denying yourself something, know that a low-fat, sugar-free version of it isn’t going to work. Neither will a bunch of other things that isn’t even craving related. All that will give you is extra calories you didn’t need in food you didn’t want and couldn’t enjoy.
- Ease up on the restrictions. Learn what foods you can eat, and in what portions. As you learn to control your portions better, you will learn that you don’t have to eat a whole pint of ice cream- you can be fine with just two bites.
Trigger #2: Stress
If you’re familiar with the freshman 15 and the tendency of people in high-pressure jobs to gain weight, then you know that sometimes people stress eat. Some cravings are born out of our body’s reaction to psychological pressure. When stressed, the body releases cortisol, a hormone that triggers a “pleasure seeking” reaction.
In the case of food cravings, your body is seeking rewards in the form of food laced with fat and sugar – and preferably with starch, such as donuts, cake, and cupcakes. These comfort foods basically calm you by taking the edge off the cortisol, explains University of California researcher Norman Pecoraro, PhD.
We reach for these particular items because we’re conditioned to respond to sugar from a very young age. We associate it with good times, friends, family, and safety.
Cynthia Bulik, PhD, another researcher from at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, likens it to classic conditioning. "The food gets coded in your memory center as a solution to an unpleasant experience or emotion," she says, “face that same problem again, and your brain will likely tell you, ‘Get the Cheetos!’ "
How to fight back:
- Seek social support. Seeking social interaction breaks stress. Take a short break and talk about anything but food, and you’ll lose the urgency from your craving.
- Find your focus. When you’re craving comfort, what you’re really craving is a good hug, not the deep-fried corn dog. Take a few minutes to determine what’s stressing you out, and then write down an action plan. This makes your brain think you’re back in control, and lessens your stress level.
- Exercise. Moderate to intense workouts dull the effects of stress on your system. Consistent moderate workouts have been found to be most effective in dulling any craving-related issues.
Trigger #3: PMS
Sorry, ladies. It’s true - the fluctuations your hormones undergo in the week or so before you ovulate do make you crave for crazy bad food in amounts you would normally shun. These cravings are also much harder to manage or ignore than regular cravings.
The reason is simple: your body wants to load up on the nutrients it will need just in case the ovulation leads to a pregnancy. All the hormone and cellular activity also burns more energy, so your instincts make you eat more “just in case”.
Sadly, no extra caloric burn from hormones justifies a 4pm chocolate waffle and whipped cream binge.
How to fight back:
- Cut down on caffeine. Your hormones are already going crazy, you don’t need to throw gas on the fire by raising your cortisol levels. When having PMS, that hormone in particular will just make it that much harder for you to resist sugar, and your moods to swing like a pendulum.
- Give in a little. You won’t combust if you have one cookie a day while you’re dealing with your period. Just make sure to moderate the amount of treats you have and balance it out with healthy meals.
- Pack on the protein. Proteins make you feel like you’re full for longer, and when you’re not hungry, you’re less likely to chow down on something you’ll regret. Choose leaner cuts of chicken, fish, and pork to keep your protein levels high.
Learning to deal with cravings are a part of your journey to a healthier diet. Don’t slap on a quick cure for it and call it quits; exterminating a craving means finding out what causes it and going from there.