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Controlling cravings: strategies for success

How are you doing on your New Year’s resolution? Maybe you have decided to eat fewer carbs, or to eat less fat, to get better exercise, or to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Are you really into it?

Perhaps you have steeled yourself against temptation. Maybe you have armed yourself with little reminders of your motivations for eating better, losing weight and getting healthy. Maybe you are making it easier by exiling the junk you used to eat and getting the house stocked with the good foods you should be enjoying.

But no matter what else you do, you are still going to have cravings that hit you out of nowhere. It is like having a guerrilla enemy trying to undermine your best dietary intentions. These recurrent, unwanted urges can derail your weight-loss efforts and erode your confidence. But you don’t have to let them.

Understanding the enemy Cravings result from various physical, psychological and environmental factors that affect the way your body and brain function. The causes fall roughly into four general categories: time of day, places, activities and feelings.

Most people feel hungry around ‘dinner time,’ whatever that is for them. Going to your mother’s house, or even past the local donut shop, can stimulate a desire to eat. Watching television is an activity that’s notorious for raising the impulse to eat.

Emotions can be the most compelling stimulus of all. Many times, uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety or resentment cause people to reach for food. But good feelings can trigger an eating spree, too. Many people overeat when they feel like celebrating, when they are having fun with friends, or when they just find themselves in an unusually good mood. Good food is an enhancement to most enjoyable experiences.

I really can’t overemphasize the significance cravings have for people with entrenched weight issues. They are a big part of the problem. As a result, we put some considerable effort into helping people identify and understand their individual triggers, and ultimately break the associations that cause them.

But even if you don’t have a structured approach for breaking the root of the craving problem, there are things you can do to effectively respond when a craving arises. Here a defensive arsenal. Distraction There’s a saying: ‘If you don’t like how you are feeling, change what you are doing.’ You can apply it to almost any feeling, but it’s especially helpful for dealing with the urge to eat. A simple shift in your current activity is often all it takes to derail a craving, instead of letting the craving derail you. So when you feel a craving about to overwhelm you, do something else.

Think about your dream vacation. Get out of the house and go for a walk, phone a friend, anything to take your attention away from the urge to eat. If you’ve armed yourself with a list or note cards itemizing your motivations for losing weight, by all means, take a moment and read those, preferably out loud.

Typically, you only have to distract yourself for a brief period, as cravings typically pass within minutes or even seconds. But if cravings bombard you all day long, confronting the enemy may be a better strategy.

Confrontation The confrontation approach pits you against your urges as though they truly were your foe. If you are struck by a craving for ice cream, you can pretend the craving is another person trying to convince you to eat the ice cream. You can argue with this person and assert that you will not succumb, and state your reasons why not.

Another approach is to visualize the food itself, cartoonishly animated and beckoning you with promises of fulfillment. But you are a thinking, reasonable being. You will not be led astray by a mere carton of ice cream. You recognize the craving and take charge. You can tell it, ‘You are but a passing urge. You are not the boss of me. I am in control of my own life and my weight.’ End of discussion!

One advantage of confrontation is that it can be very empowering as you get better and better at it with use. And it has the practical advantage of being a tool you can use even when you can’t otherwise change what you’re doing. If you’re sitting in a meeting and someone puts a plate of refreshments down right in front of you, you probably can’t move to another chair or go out for a quick walk. But right there in your seat, you can acknowledge and reject the temptation. Remember who’s in charge; you can make those cookies crumble.

Stress tools While stress tools roughly fall into the category of distractions, they are more focused and can be more effective and we teach patients several that they can draw from depending on their circumstances. But almost everyone knows of a couple such tools. Basic stress-management techniques like mental visualization exercises, a short walk, or even a neck massage all create particular biochemical modifications in your body that are specifically useful in diffusing the urge to eat, not to mention that they also generally give your body and psyche a breather from any other accruing stressors. Depending on the craving at hand, these can be like bringing out the big guns.

Exercise Here we go again! But the fact of the matter is that exercise has been shown in study after study to be an effective and efficient response for managing cravings and controlling weight in general. And it’s not just that it’s a mental distraction, though that is part of its value in the immediate battle with the beckoning brownies.

Exercise affects your muscle cells in two important ways, by developing more mitochondria in those cells so that you have an improved ability to burn fat, and by developing more insulin receptors on the surface of cells. That improves your body’s ability to move sugar from the blood into your muscle cells and stabilize blood sugar, which in turn helps to control cravings!

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