As most dieters can attest, cravings can sidetrack the best of diet intentions. When a craving strikes, your brain gets “hijacked”—research shows that it literally lights up in the same pleasure and emotion-driven areas that are activated by drugs like cocaine and nicotine. Simply knowing your triggers and how to avoid them is important. So is having a plan in place when cravings strike. You want to be able to stay in your rational mind so that you can ride it out, eat sensibly and feel a sense of control. Here are some ways to do that.
1. Use “out of sight, out of mind.” Just seeing a food can activate your brain and set off automatic behavior that ends up in overeating, says Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatric obesity expert and author of Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right. The trick, she says, is to avoid the brain activation in the first place. That’s what she does for herself. “I cannot control myself when there are Chips Ahoy cookies around. I love them,” Dolgoff says. “And so the rule is: no Chips Ahoy cookies in the house. I know that it if these cookies are in the house, I will eat them. The control I have over it is to keep it out of my house. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact.’ "
2. Resist commercials. Creating cravings is an art form for advertisers. Research shows that both adults and children eat more when exposed to food commercials on TV. One way to avoid them: Tape shows so you can fast-forward through commercials and avoid their influence. But also become aware of how such “mental contamination” affects you and drives your behavior, and defend against it, suggests Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Create your own internal messages that counteract the commercial message, such as “I eat only healthy foods” or “I am a healthy eater.”
3. Eat real food throughout the day. Too many dieters starve themselves all day, then overeat after 5 o’clock, says Kirsten Greishaber, a Killington, Vermont, health coach. “What has helped me, and works for my clients, is to look at how we are eating throughout the day,” she says. “Getting well-nourished throughout the day, including a good breakfast and real meals with protein, fiber and vegetables, makes it a lot easier to resist those cravings at the end of the day, when energy and willpower is waning.” This strategy also improves blood sugar control and provides micronutrients needed for proper brain chemistry.
4. Ride the wave. Cravings typically progress like a wave, swelling, cresting and then breaking. Use this visualization to ride out your cravings, a process that should take 15 or 20 minutes, experts say. Distract yourself while you wait it out by drinking a glass of water, playing a game on the computer, or best of all, taking a walk. Researchers in the U.K. found that people who took a brisk 15-minute walk on a treadmill before a difficult task ate half the amount of chocolate as those who rested for 15 minutes before the task.
5. Strengthen your willpower. It’s a fact: If you’ve had a hard day at work, you’re more likely to blow off the gym, go home, watch TV and eat macaroni and cheese. “You’ve exhausted your willpower, or self-regulation,” says Pychyl. Exercise your self-regulation “muscle”–the executive part of your brain–by learning to focus your attention. Ways that work: For two weeks, sit up straighter in your chair every time you sit down, or use your non-dominant hand for a task, such as cooking. Mindfulness meditation also strengthens the executive part of your brain, Pychyl says, because it requires that you bring your attention back again and again to a specific activity.
6. Be cautious around sugar. Sugar is a double-edged sword. Research shows that eating sugar helps to reduce stress hormones. On the other hand, sugar stimulates the same pleasure-seeking parts of the brain as opiate drugs, and, for some people, it triggers all sorts of cravings. “I know I was addicted to sugar,” says Jennifer Fuller, of Fergus, Ontario. It wasn’t until a health crisis forced her to cut out sweets completely that she got her cravings under control. She’s lost 30 pounds by getting enough protein, along with whole grains and vegetables. Such a diet supports blood sugar balance and stabilizes energy levels, appetite and mood.
7. Balance exercise and sleep. Hormonal imbalances can undermine the willpower to maintain a weight loss, researchers have discovered. With weight loss, levels of an appetite-increasing hormone, ghrelin, go up. Levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone, leptin, go down. This imbalance can leave you vulnerable to cravings. One way to suppress the release of ghrelin: a vigorous 60-minute workout. Weight lifting can help keep ghrelin in check as well. Getting enough sleep also lowers ghrelin and raises leptin levels.