Whether you’re trying to lose some weight or trying to eat healthier, food cravings that seem to come out of nowhere can undermine your good intentions in a minute. 91% of women experience these. Four things (stress, hunger, being tired, or bad habits) can make you vulnerable. If you know when you’re experiencing one of these states, you can fight the cravings before they bring you down. Here’s how Sally Kuzemchak RD explains it in Prevention.com.
One minute, you’re innocently going about your day–the next, you’re in the clutches of desire. Your object of lust: a chocolate cupcake with butter cream icing. Next thing you know, you’re licking frosting off your fingers. What just happened? You were clobbered by a food craving. And willpower isn’t the answer. These urges are fueled by feel-good brain chemicals. What you need is a plan that stops this natural cycle–and helps prevent unwanted weight gain. Ask yourself…
1. Am I stressed out?
When you’re under pressure, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which signals your brain to seek out rewards. Comfort foods loaded with sugar and fat basically “apply the brakes” to the stress system by blunting this hormone, explains researcher Norman Pecoraro, PhD, who studies the physiology of stress at the University of California, San Francisco. When you reach for food in response to negative feelings such as anger or sadness (like potato chips after a fight with your spouse), you inadvertently create a powerful connection in your brain. Face that same problem again, and your brain will likely tell you, “Get the Cheetos!”
• Wait it out. People give in to cravings because they think they’ll build in intensity until they become overwhelming, but that’s not true. Food cravings behave like waves: They build, crest, and then disappear. If you can “surf the urge,” you have a better chance of beating it altogether.
• Choose the best distraction. “What you’re really craving is to feel better. Identify your current emotion–bored, anxious, mad–by filling in these blanks: “I feel ____ because of ____.” Then find an activity that releases it. If you’re stressed, channeling nervous energy into a workout can help; if you’re upset over a problem at the office, call a friend and ask for advice.
2. Have I been eating less than usual?
If you’re eating fewer than 1,000 calories a day or restricting an entire food group (like carbs), you’re putting your body in prime craving mode. Restrained eaters are more likely to experience cravings and to overeat the “forbidden” food when given the chance.
• Lift any bans–safely. Plan ways to enjoy your favorite foods in controlled portions. Get a slice of pizza instead of a whole pie, or share a piece of restaurant cheesecake with two friends.
• Don’t “eat around” food cravings. Trying to quell a food craving with a low-cal imitation won’t satisfy your brain’s memory center. Munching five crackers, a handful of popcorn, and a bag of pretzels, all in the name of trying to squash a craving for potato chips, will net you about 250 more calories than if you’d eaten a single-serving bag.
3. Am I getting enough sleep?
In a University of Chicago study, a few sleepless nights were enough to drop levels of the hormone leptin (which signals satiety) by 18% and boost levels of ghrelin, an appetite trigger, by about 30%. Those two changes alone caused appetite to kick into overdrive, and cravings for starchy foods like cookies, potato chips, and bread jumped 45%.
• Have some caffeine. It can help you get through the day without any high-calorie pick-me-ups. It won’t solve your bigger issue of chronic sleep loss, but it’s a good short-term fix until you get back on track.
• Portion out a serving. You probably don’t have the energy to fight it, so try this trick: Before you dig in, dole out a small amount of the food you want (on a plate) and put the rest away.
4. Am I a creature of habit?
You may not realize it, but seemingly innocent routines, such as eating cheese popcorn while watching TV, create powerful associations. “The brain loves routine. The thought of letting go of these patterns can cause a fear response in an area of the brain called the amygdala. Once the food hits your lips, the fear response shuts off in a heartbeat.
• Picture yourself healthy. Every time the food you crave pops into your head, think, Stop! Then, picture a healthy image (say, you lean and fit). After a while, your brain will dismiss the food image and the craving will subside.
• Shift your focus. Australian researchers found that distracting your brain really does work. When a food craving hits, divert your attention to something visual not related to food, like typing an e-mail.
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Source: Sally Kuzemchak, RD, Prevention.com
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