You wander into the kitchen, find an open snack, start nibbling away, and soon? The bag’s empty and you don’t know what time it is. Mindless eating: We’re all guilty of it; we all want to find a way to break the cycle.
In some senses, it’s easier said than done. After all, in the first few months of life, you learned that food can calm, soothe, entertain, numb, and comfort you. “When we are infants and we cry, we are usually given a bottle or a breast. We are in distress, someone feeds us, and the world feels okay again,” Katie Rickel, Ph.D., a psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight management program in Durham, NC, tells SheKnows. “Because this relationship becomes so hard-wired, we start to turn to food when we are having a difficult emotion, even before we realize what we are doing.”
And since turning toward food for comfort works — food can indeed damper down stress (temporarily, that is) — the behavior pattern can become reinforced. “We wash, rinse, repeat the same cycle,” says Rickel. The worst part? Fatty, sugary and salty foods tend to look even more appealing when you’re stressed, in a bad mood or just feeling down.
Here’s the good news: A mind-over-matter approach can help you handle your cravings and help you turn toward smarter, healthier eats in those moments of need. And better-for-you snacks — think: a Bolthouse Farms® Green Goodness® Smoothie (which, by the way, has no added sugar but tons of natural sweetness thanks to apple, mango, and kiwi and is a good source of antioxidant vitamins A and C) — will leave you feeling more satisfied both mentally and physically in the long-run than cookies ever could.
Here, how to rewire your cravings so that you can break the junk food snacking habit for good.
Control your food environment
The easiest way to get out of a vicious snacking cycle? Control what you can, says Rickel.
“If you know that there are specific foods that you grab for when you are feeling stressed out or sad, make sure not to have those foods in your home,” she says. Sure, you could go buy them, but the time and energy that would take may be just enough to make you question whether or not junk is going to make you feel better in the moment, she notes.
Along the same lines? Keep plenty of healthy options — fruits, vegetables, and prepared foods packed with produce — in the kitchen for times when cravings strike, suggests the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
When you’re not at home? “Choose how you position yourself and where you orient your attention,” suggests Rickel. If treats are set out at a party, hang out in a part of the room where you can face away from the food. If you know that the break room at the office is always stocked with goodies? Take your lunch outside for a picnic.
“It sounds too simple to be true, but the effectiveness of this strategy simply boils down to our human nature to take the path of least resistance,” says Rickel. “When it comes to any mindless behavior, we are much less likely to do it if we have to exert even a little bit of effort.”
Do a little visualization
Feel a craving for something sweet coming on? Imagine you’ve already splurged on the piece of cake or the bag of candy and think about how you feel. Do you regret the decision? Do you feel stuffed? Uncomfortable? Research finds that a little bit of mindfulness can reduce reward-driven eating and may even promote weight loss.
“From a psychological standpoint, this strategy is effective because human beings have the unique ability to learn from imagined experiences almost as well as we learn from real experiences,” says Rickel. Viewing mental imagery of cravings as ‘just a thought’ can help you deal with them, research finds. And thinking through a craving can help you handle it in the moment.
“When we look ahead into the future and realize that we are headed toward an unwanted consequence, we have the ability to change our behavior in the present,” says Rickel. (And that could mean reaching for something a little bit healthier.)
Start a ‘sweets box’
Rickel often suggests clients create a ‘sweets box.’ “Rather than being filled with junk food, this box is filled with items that are pleasing to other senses,” she says. “The box might contain a yummy smelling lotion, a smooth stone, cozy socks, or a picture from a favorite vacation.”
There’s some science behind the idea, too. Both visual tasks (à la looking at an old photo) and sniffing non-food items can help reduce cravings. Also, because the box is full of positivity, you’ll be able to interact with something nice before you turn to food, which could help you turn toward a healthier snack if you don’t feel the need to ‘feel better’ from an unhealthier snack, she notes.
This post was created by SheKnows for Bolthouse Farms.