You’ve been killing it in the nutrition department, making real progress, and then out of nowhere…
You find yourself staring at an empty box of donuts (weren’t there a dozen?!) wondering how the heck you let this happen.
Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.
Cravings can come out of nowhere, and strike even the most disciplined of people.
So What’s The Deal With Cravings?
I mean, you don’t want to eat garbage, right? So why are those cravings so intense?
Much of the time, cravings are as much about a mental urge as a physical one — that’s because they’re directly related to your brain’s pleasure center.
Here’s what’s going on when your body has a craving:
Your brain produces an urge for something (like those donuts). This is followed by a behavior (finding whatever scratches that craving itch), and then the reward of getting what you want (in this case, eating the food).
And what happens when you eat that food? Your body responds by producing dopamine — the chemical that helps you feel happy.
From there, it can be a vicious cycle. The more you reward your brain with food, the more it craves that happy-food-feeling. And this can lead to stronger, more frequent cravings in your body’s quest for more dopamine.
But don’t worry — those gateway donuts don’t have to doom you to life as a junk-food-craving zombie.
These strategies can help to stop that craving cycle, make rational decisions about when its okay to treat yourself, and keep you on track when those crazy urges hit.
Call a Timeout
Have you ever seen a toddler throw a full-blown tantrum in the toy aisle?
It doesn’t start out as a 4-alarm fire — it works it’s way from a little begging, to some whining, until it finally escalates into a purple-faced three-year-old, thrashing around on the floor like that girl from The Exorcist.
So how do you diffuse the situation?
Throw that kid over your shoulder, whisk them out of the store, and head to the car for a good, old-fashioned time out.
Because as any veteran parent knows, sometimes the only way to get through to that tiny rage monster is to remove them from the situation, completely.
The same thing is at work with your cravings.
You tell yourself that you’re not going to be eating junk. But before you know it, there’s a nagging for ice cream in the back of your mind that builds until it's consuming all your thoughts.
And guess what — the same strategy that works for toddlers can help you take control when those cravings hit.
When you feel that urge to snack, give yourself five minutes to sit with the feeling before you do anything about it. This gives you an opportunity to make a conscious choice, instead of simply reacting to what you’re feeling in the moment.
And while you’re waiting, take the opportunity to ask yourself some important questions about what your feeling:
When was the last time I had a substantial meal?
Am I actually hungry, or am I bored? Or stressed? Or just trying to waste time?
Would I be willing to eat steak right now or is it just this pint of mint chocolate chip that’s calling my name?
And maybe when the time is up, you decide to go ahead and crack open the carton — that’s okay.
Maybe you’ve decided it’s worth the splurge. Maybe you’ve had a terrible day, and you want to indulge. Or maybe it turns out that you really were hungry, after all.
The important thing is that you’ve given yourself a chance to stop, think through your decision, and make the choice that works best for you, instead of mindlessly giving-in to your brain’s urge for a dopamine “hit”.
Create a Diversion
After a week of making great food choices, you really don’t want to eat the leftover pizza.
But you can’t seem to get it off your mind.
And now after your third trip through the kitchen, you find yourself staring into the refrigerator, using all your willpower not to grab a slice.
Instead of staring longingly at the box of leftovers, try finding an activity that takes you completely away from the kitchen to divert your attention.
Now you know that cravings are after as much about a psychological need as a physical one. But research has shown that intense feelings typically only last 15 to 20 minutes (with the exception of feelings related to trauma or grief).
That means if you can divert yourself for that period of time, the craving is likely to fade away unless you’re truly hungry.
And it doesn’t have to be anything complex — maybe it's even as simple as deleting emails or photos from your phone. But by distracting your mind and body with an activity away from the food, you might just run those cravings out of town.
Shore Up Your Defenses During the Day
Cravings can happen at any time throughout the day, but you might find that urge for junk food is really slapping you in the face as you get closer to bedtime.
But you know what I’ve seen in working with clients over the years? The ones who are most likely to go crazy with food at night are the people who restrict what they eat during the day — even if they don’t realize it.
And this doesn’t always mean just people who are skipping meals (although they certainly fall into this category). Skimping on protein, or fiber-rich fruits and vegetables during the day can leave you feeling famished at night, even when you’ve eaten a substantial, balanced dinner.
If you’re finding that you’re consistently fighting the urge to indulge as the day goes on, try looking at your meals throughout the day to see if you’re lacking in some area.
Making small adjustments, like adding a serving or protein or veggies to your meals, might be all it takes to keep that nighttime-craving beast at bay.
Make Yourself Work For It
So what if you decide to go ahead and give into that craving?
First, know that its okay. Just because you’ve made the decision to indulge, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, somehow. In fact, sometimes giving yourself permission to enjoy a treat can give you the mental break you need to keep yourself motivated.
But there’s a difference between strategic indulgence and eating mindless junk.
So what can you do if you’re on the fence about giving into your cravings?
Tell yourself you have to work for it — by making it yourself.
Craving a piece of birthday cake? You’ve gotta pull out that mixer and bake it yourself.
Want a bacon cheeseburger? Get out to the grill and fire it up.
And if its something you need to purchase? Tell yourself you have to go to a store that’s at least 15 minutes away to get your hands on it (there’s that 15-20 minute window we talked about earlier).
Taking this approach forces you to step back and examine how bad you REALLY want it.
If your craving for ice cream is really worth the effort of pulling out the ice cream maker, making a batch, and waiting for it to freeze, you’re probably not going to regret your decision later.
And if it sounds like way too much work? Move on and give yourself a pat on the back — you just beat the craving cycle!
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