Getting Cravings Under Control

September 23, 2014 in Psychology of Food, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

The other day I was getting my hair done and my hairdresser was talking about putting on weight and not being able to take it off. She mentioned that by the time the afternoon rolls around she finds herself at a fast food establishment faced with the decision of whether it’ll be a salty or sweet snack. She doesn’t regard this as a planned meal, and if she “grazes” and selects different things at different times, including healthy snacks, it is not so much craving as hunger or habit or comfort.  It is when specific things, without conscious planning, repeatedly find their way to your mouth and stomach that you must suspect a craving and that a new habit is taking root.

Some professionals might call this a problem with cravings; I think it is complex, and many factors besides something close to addiction are part of it, but what I do believe is that there are things we can do that make the problem worse and things we can do to get the behavior under control.

The following are a few issues to consider if you’re having a problem with cravings, or any type of unplanned eating:

  • Eating a meager meal and discovering that you are very hungry before the next mealtime can be one of the big set ups for ending up with your hand in the cookie jar; or the office snacks and donut box; or like my friend, the local fast food establishment. There are a few things that can be done to help solve the problem. Try to discover which method works for you. One way is to continue to eat the small meals, but recognize that you will be hungry before the next main meal. Plan for a snack. Eating a tiny breakfast or skipping breakfast is a fairly common behavior leading to unplanned eating, but having a healthy snack is an easy resolution. Another way of managing the aftermath of a too small meal is to add to the meal itself – add bulky veggies, fruit and maybe a little larger protein serving.
  • Including protein in your meals helps to keep you safe from cravings. Milk, low fat cheese, eggs, nuts, peanut butter, or a small amount of meat can help stimulate the release of dopamine, which can make you feel good and have self confidence, thus helping to protect you from cravings and unplanned eating.
  • If you’re craving candy, cookies, chips, and desserts, one way to manage it is to allow yourself a small snack-sized portion, which leads to feeling as satisfied as receiving larger servings. Brian Wansink Ph.D. Cornell researcher has shown that the small snacks are as satisfying as larger servings. Wansink’s Mindless Eating gives us many hints of how to manage craving and unplanned eating beginning with identifying situations that don’t work for us. Learning how to manage mindless eating, aka craving/unplanned eating can provide with a net result of fewer calories and not feeling deprived.
  • In addition, you may want to plan to eat a cookie, for example, with a piece of fruit or some nuts. Count out the serving of the splurge food and eat slowly. Nuts are one of the items that work for me.  I know that nuts are healthy but relatively high in calories; but if I count them out and remove myself from near the nut container, I discover that I have all kinds of control against unplanned eating. The protein and fat (good fat) in the nuts really hangs in there and gets me past feelings of not being in control. The idea is to fill up on the healthy food, and a small amount of the indulgence food.
  • The way we think about indulging ourselves can help us to feel in control. Feeling guilty, according to a study published in Appetite, by researcher Roeline G. Kuijer, can lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of control. The feeling of celebration with a forbidden food, on the other hand, actually led to better weight control. This is related to my often writing about not forbidding very many foods. Once we define a food as forbidden, sinful, off limits, it seems to gain power over us.  Your perception matters.  Off-limit foods are very seductive. Allowing yourself a little something every day, can help take the power away from your cravings.
  • Environmental control is one of the easiest ways to pump up your self-control. If the pantry, fridge or freezer is not stocked, you don’t have to enter into that battle every single time you open the door.
  • Willpower is another set up for many people. It does not get stronger with exercise. If you give in, to your craving/eating urge, you feel like a failure. Try distraction instead; a 2013 study in the UK found that a 15-minute walk, or even playing a 3-minute game reduced the strength of the craving. Distract yourself – you may be surprised that you’ve saved yourself quite a few calories.

Cravings, unplanned eating, and feelings related to certain foods are all related to us as individuals. Because of that we can help ourselves best by discovering what does and does not work for us as individuals. To find this out, we can keep a log with dates and times and write down what and where we ate, whether it was planned or not, and how we felt. The log may help us be better able to redesign our eating experiences for that time of the day and discover which habits we want to remodel. The first step is discovering where the surplus calories are getting into our daily intake.