Curb your food cravings

Wouldn’t it be nice if we craved celery instead of chocolate or potato chips? Alas, the foods we’ve “got-to-have” are usually high in fat, calories, sugar or salt — not the best choices for our health.

Experts have lots of theories as to why we crave certain foods, but few definite answers. Sometimes a craving could simply be habit — like enjoying something sweet following a meal. We might also be responding to a stimulus like aromas wafting from a bakeshop or ads on TV. Fatigue and stress can be the culprit — as can a change in hormones or even a change in the seasons. Some explanations even justify our unhealthy desires saying we’re short on a certain vitamin or nutrient or our blood sugar is low.

If you get cravings, you’re not alone. According to an article in Psychology Today, over half of all men and 90 per cent of women get cravings for a particular food a few times a month — and most people give in. In essence, our brains end become hard-wired to associate certain foods with satisfaction. It can be a tricky pattern to break.

Regardless of what causes them, cravings can derail our weight loss goals or healthy lifestyle. Here are some ways to deal with those food cravings.

Use lifestyle strategies to prevent them

It’s no surprise that many experts feel we can curb cravings by tackling the factors that create them. For instance:

Beat boredom. Many people eat when they aren’t really hungry. Instead of looking for a food fix, experts advise to find a distraction like taking a walk, calling a friend or making time for a favourite hobby. Even brushing your teeth or chewing gum can deter your craving.

Get your Zzzzzs. Overtired? Your body may crave food or drink for a kick-start. Getting enough sleep at night or taking a nap is a calorie-free way to fight fatigue.

Stay hydrated. Sometimes we can mistake thirst for hunger. If you’re unsure what you’re feeling, some sources suggest having a glass of water first. Need a little flavour? Try an unsweetened beverage like herbal tea or put a splash of lemon or some mint leaves in your water.

Eat a balanced diet. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is still the go-to strategy for getting all the nutrients we need. Cravings aren’t a reliable way to pinpoint vitamin deficiencies, especially when those cravings are for “empty calorie” foods that don’t offer any nutritional benefit. (If you think you’re short on a particular nutrient, don’t guess — talk to a healthcare professional.)

Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals — especially breakfast — can lead to trouble later on. We’re more likely to get the variety we need at a meal rather than unplanned snacks, plus eating regularly throughout the day can keep the blood sugar on an even keel.

Empty your cupboards. Ever feel like a bad food is “calling you”? Having junk food around the house or in your desk at work can be too much of a temptation. If you’ve don’t have easy access — like having to go to the store to get a specific food — chances are you’ll think twice about indulging.

Plan ahead. So what should you have in your cupboards instead? Keep healthy choices at hand. For instance, if you crave sweets, stock up on some fresh fruit and plain yoghurt. Looking for crunch? Keep some sliced vegetables and a healthy dip in your fridge, and pack some to take with you to work.

Also, pay attention to your snacks. It’s no coincidence that the foods we often crave are snack foods and convenience foods. Add healthy snacks to your meal planning to deter impulse buys.

Focus on your goals. Sometimes all we need is a little reminder of why it’s important to eat well. Not all strategies work for everyone, but some ideas include keeping a food diary, using a weight loss app on your mobile device or even repeating a mantra.

In addition, there are many unconventional therapies that could help to curb ongoing cravings, such as aromatherapy, acupressure (such as forehead tapping) and even hypnosis.

Indulge without the guilt

If you have uncontrollable cravings, experts often recommend giving up a food altogether for a period of time to let these lifestyle strategies take hold before introducing it again. However, most people can (and should!) indulge now and then. If we deprive ourselves too long, we may want the foods more and go overboard when we have them.

Here are some healthy ways to compromise:

Mind your numbers. If you’re looking to lose weight or maintain your weight, it stands to reason that indulgences should be balanced out in the diet. For example, skip the sugar in your coffee throughout the day and enjoy a bit of candy. Cut back on salty processed foods and enjoy a few pretzel sticks. Balance a modest portion of dessert with healthy meals.

Exercise portion control. Experts say we should keep our portions reasonable, but if you’re still not convinced consider this: research shows we derive the most pleasure from the initial moments of an experience. In other words, it doesn’t matter how big the cookie is — we’ll get the most satisfaction from the first few bites and then the pleasure begins to wear off. Two small cookies eaten at separate times are more satisfying than one big cookie in a single sitting, according to studies. (See 8 ways to spend on happiness for more details.)

Spread it out. Worried a small portion isn’t going to cut it? Fool your eyes. For example, two small squares of chocolate might not satisfy, but what about a few chocolate chips in a low fat muffin or chocolate shavings topping fruit and plain yoghurt? A bowl of popcorn looks like a lot of food, but has relatively few calories (even with a little butter and seasonings) compared to a smaller portion of potato chips.

Don’t go it alone. If you decide to indulge, don’t eat alone or let a craved food be the first or last thing you eat. The best way to enjoy it is in the middle of a meal so your brain will feel satisfied on less.

Look for healthy substitutions. Experts say we can fool our brains too by going for similar flavours or healthy alternatives. For example, try:

– Dried fruit instead of candy.
– Vegetable sticks instead of chips for dipping.
– Raw nuts instead of the roasted and salted variety. (You can toast them at home without adding fat.)
– A fruit smoothie instead of a milk shake.
– Pita chips or whole grain crackers instead of potato chips.
– Frozen yoghurt instead of ice cream.

Over time, some experts think we may be able to divert our cravings to healthier foods — or simply lose interest altogether. (For some recipe ideas, try Junk food substitutes.)

Do it yourself. Love baked goods? You can make healthier versions at home by cutting back on the amount of sugar and salt or substituting ingredients. For instance, try whole wheat flour instead of white, use applesauce in place of some of the oil, or go for healthier fat sources like avocado. (See Healthy ingredient substitutions and Give your recipes a healthy makeover for more ideas.)

Spice things up. Spice blends can up the flavour without the added salt or fat. Try a shake of your favourite blend on roasted potatoes, vegetables or meat.

What if your taste tends towards sweet? Try spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, anise and cardamom to enhance flavour and reduce your use of sweeteners. Extracts such as vanilla, almond and mint can also give a flavourful boost to your drinks, as can ginger. (See Spices of life for more ideas.)

Savour it. When you do decide to indulge, take the time to really enjoy your favourite food or drink. Sit down and eat or drink slowly. (Sometimes it helps to close your eyes too.) Avoid grabbing a favourite food on the run, or eating while you’re distracted — like working or watching TV.

Can you quash cravings for good? Maybe, say experts — but be patient. These strategies can help you deal with immediate cravings, but they can also lead to more long-term change. In the meantime, it’s okay to occasionally treat yourself — and forgive yourself if you over-indulge!

Sources: Nutrition, The Huffington Post, The, Psychology Today,

Photo © Lisa F. Young

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