No one hates on themselves when they crave a salad or a grilled chicken breast.
But most cravings are closely tied to junk food and have little to do with true hunger. And each time you indulge these urges you reinforce the behavior, creating a “cravings cycle” that can hijack your progress… and your sanity.
The more often you reward your brain, the more likely it is to stimulate the craving, and the stronger that craving may become.
Find your trigger
Cravings are often brought on by environmental cues such as sight, smell, taste, location, or company. So tracking when and where your cravings occur can you help you figure out what triggers them. From there, you can adjust your environment and habits to disrupt the cycle.
Each time you experience a craving, jot down the answers to these questions:
- What are you craving? (A specific food? A certain flavor or texture?)
- Where are you? (Note your location, but also any smells or visual cues— like a restaurant advert or commercial.)
- What are you doing? (Driving? Working? Watching TV?)
- What are you feeling physically? (Shaky? Lightheaded? Tense?)
- What are you feeling emotionally? (Happy? Cranky? Rushed?)
- What are you thinking? (For instance: ‘I might as well eat this… I’ve already blown my diet.’)
- Who are you with? (Be very specific.)
This isn’t a one-time exercise. Try it for a couple of weeks so you can see what patterns emerge. There are almost always patterns.
Once you’ve just identified a pattern, you can disrupt the cycle with these smart behavioral strategies:
Strategy #1: Give your craving a timeout.
Notice your snack urge, and sit with it for five minutes without taking action.
This isn’t about exercising willpower. It’s about pausing just long enough to let your conscious mind say, ‘Hey, I’m in charge here!’ This gives you the chance to evaluate all your options, and make a rational decision, rather than a reactionary one.
Are you actually hungry? Or are you bored or stressed or procrastinating?
Does chicken and broccoli sound good, or is it just those donuts in the break room?
Maybe you’re truly hungry. Or perhaps you’re just not having your best day. (Trigger alert.) And that’s okay.
Don’t consider this a failure.
In your efforts to break your cravings cycle, you won’t be perfect. Simply think of this as an opportunity to gather more data about your cravings, so you better understand them for next time. (And give yourself a pat on the back for taking five minutes.)
Important: You don’t have to choose between giving in to your cravings and depriving yourself.
There’s a space in between the two, and that’s where you can really break the cravings cycle.
Strategy #2: Choose an activity that doesn’t involve chewing.
Once you sense a craving, choose an activity you can really dig into, such as:
- working on a project you’re passionate about
- crossing an item off of your daily to-do list
- going for a walk
- meditating or doing breathing exercises
- calling a friend
- playing an instrument
- exercising, or gardening, or cleaning
By immersing your mind or body in an activity long enough, you may run the urge out of your system.
That’s because cravings are often psychological rather than physical. And with the exception of very strong grief or trauma, intense feelings don’t usually last longer than 15 to 20 minutes.
If you’re not really hungry, the craving will likely dissipate.
You’ve probably even experienced a form of this “diversion therapy” before. Ever get so involved in a project that you actually forget to eat lunch? Or the afternoon flies by, and you didn’t even think about a snack? Same concept, only this time, you’ll do it on purpose.
Remember, you’re looking to activate and occupy your mind and/or body. So, while different activities may work better for different people, watching TV probably won’t help (and in fact, is often a trigger).
Strategy #3: Try an experiment *(contact for more support if you want to try)
Hunger and cravings tend to come in waves, rising and falling throughout the day. It is useful to understand how this feels. That’s why, if you don’t have any pre-existing health conditions, it is good to try a fasting experiment.
Again, this isn’t about testing your willpower or denying yourself. It’s about giving you a fresh perspective, and reducing the anxiety, discomfort, urgency you feel the moment hunger or cravings arise.
Do not eat for 12 or the whole 24 hours – stay well hydrated, though!
Yes, you will get hungry. Yes, you will get cravings. But these feelings come and go, and for many this can be both eye-opening and empowering. Fasting forces to accept “it’s okay to be hungry.”
Strategy #4: Eat the right foods during the day.
Though cravings can happen any time of day, nighttime cravings and overeating are very common.
Usually people who overeat at night are often restricting their intake throughout the day.
For example, they might be skipping breakfast and having a salad with little or no protein for lunch. By dinner, they could be making solid choices rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, but their appetite is already in overdrive. So it’s no wonder they’re feeling snacky before bed.
What you eat during the day matters. Not so much what you eat on any given day, but what you eat most days.
Fiber (especially from low-calorie vegetables) helps fill you up, and protein keeps you full longer between meals. This makes eating a combination of these nutrients, in sensible portions at regular intervals, key for regulating appetite.
If you have a voracious night-time appetite, look at what you’re eating the rest of the day. You may find if you do a better job of nourishing your body at other meals, you won’t hear that little “feed me!” voice when you’re about to brush your teeth.
Strategy #5: Indulge your cravings—under the following conditions:
Really craving a chocolate bar? Have one – choose a pricey, high-quality chocolate. Eat it slowly, and savor the experience. Research shows people eat far less of the chocolate (or any craved food) this way.
Or even better, try this unconventional strategy: have any snack you want, but it has to be purchased — right before eating not in advance —from a store that’s 15 minutes away.
Dr Krista Scott-Dixon, who came up with this strategy, has discovered that half the time, people decide it’s not worth the effort. And those who do set out for the grocery store – by the time they arrive, they sometimes don’t even want the snack because the craving’s gone.
One important consideration for both of these strategies: they work if your kitchen and office aren’t full of ready-to-eat temptations.
Remember: if a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.
Strategy #6 – have a cuppa!
Very often people forget to keep hydrated throughout the day, especially after lunch – within an hour they are finding themselves feeling munchy, forgetting that to digest well we need water. Perhaps they had a coffee after food but that might be not enough. Having a cup of tea will help to keep hydrated and give a chance to de-stress too!
Let me know what helps you and we’ll update the Strategy list!
Have questions or need help with nutrition and training – get it touch and let’s set an action plan for you!
Big thanks to Precision Nutrition specialists for the wonderful ideas, read their article here https://www.precisionnutrition.com/junk-food-alternatives