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Combat Food Cravings, Part 1: Determine Your Triggers

Food Cravings: Berry Delicious, Berry Tempting?

Berry Delicious, Berry Tempting? Photo Courtesy of dusky,

*Download a complimentary copy of the Death of the Diet Indulgence Journal here to determine your triggers and start fighting food cravings today.  Want to discuss your triggers further?  Comment below.*

You’re minding your own business at work, watching TV, being stressed out, or lounging around after dinner and BAM you find yourself craving something sweet.  Or salty.  The craving may general, or for a specific food. Pastry, ice cream, pizza or gooey macaroni and cheese (if I just triggered a craving for you, I apologize).  The more you try to think about something else, the more you get pulled into the craving.  And then you can’t get your mind off it – until you give in.  Are food cravings inevitable?  When they strike are we sentenced to a calorie-laden, guilt-inducing fate?  Or can we fight back?

First, a review of recent research.

Then, a three step process to start overcoming your food cravings.

Recent Research Review

Recent research provides some obvious, but useful insights – well summarized by Melinda Beck in the Wall Street Journal.  While I recommend reading the article, here’s a Cliff’s Notes summary:

  1. Food cravings activate the same reward circuits in the brain as drugs and alcohol (sweets and carbs release serotonin and other feel-good brain chemicals).  Anticipation, hit, reward.  And eventually it takes larger doses to get the same hit.  Yes, we can become food addicts, especially to sugary foods.

  2. Cravings involve a complex mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues.  Makes sense – you tell recovering alcoholics to stop hanging around in bars or reduce spending time with people who drink like a fish (origins of that analogy?).  If you know you can’t resist cookies – why have them in the house.  Or frequent bakeries?

  3. Cravings can be culturally specific – “while chocolate is consistently the most-craved food in North America, Japanese women are more likely to crave sushi.”  And why doesn’t anyone crave kale?!

  4. Cravings can have gender differences – 85% of men found giving into a craving satisfying vs. 57% of women.

  5. “It’s possible to like a food without craving it, and crave a food without liking it.” Have you ever caught yourself eating something that looked tempting, but half way through you’re like, “Why am I eating this, it’s not very good.”  And then you finish it anyways.

Three Steps to Fend Off Unwanted Food Cravings

Fending off unwanted food cravings involves three key steps:

  1. Become Aware of Your Triggers

  2. Determine How You Fight Back Best

  3. Decide What’s Worth Indulging In – How Much & How Often

It’s hard to fight unless we know what we’re fighting against, so Part 1 this week discusses how you can become more aware of your food craving triggers.  Use this week to determine and explore your triggers.  Consider everything from what, where, when, with whom, why, etc.  Part 2 next week will discuss how to fight back and how to decide which indulgences are worth it.

Step 1: Become Aware of Your Triggers

Think back to your most recent cravings – what caused them?  Were you somewhere?  Was it a particular time of day?  Were you stressed?  Five of the most common triggers that make us cuckoo-for-cookies are:

Emotion – Do you find yourself seeking out food when you’re angry, lonely, stressed, tired or even happy?  Physical hunger typically comes on gradually, while emotional hunger is usually sudden, and often for a very specific food (usually not an apple).   Ever have those times when you eat snack after snack and nothing seems to be hitting the spot? Well, that’s because you’re not physically hungry. You’re emotionally hungry. (Adapted from Adam Gilbert,

Habit – Going on auto-pilot can be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Do you always eat dessert or snack after dinner?  Do you always munch on foods while watching TV, or while sitting at your desk at work?  Do you always have chips with your sandwich?  If you “always” eat something for a reason other than physical hunger (especially if you find yourself eating even though you’re full), odds are it’s become a habit.

Boredom – Idle hands can lead to unwanted calories.  Do you find yourself sitting down to watch TV or read and you start munching and munching and munching?  Or how about at work.  Your mind wanders off after a particularly boring assignment – oh and look, there’s free donuts!  When there’s nothing else to do, eating can become an easy default activity, even if we don’t want the calories.

Environmental Cues – Is food the focus of every celebration, or bad day?  Is going out to eat the social activity of choice for your friends and family?  Do you find yourself staring at a candy bowl at work?  Are there treats in the house that you buy for others, but end up mostly eating mostly yourself?  Do you tend to go to certain restaurants or cafes (or ice cream parlors) that force you to make less-healthy decisions?  The saying “out of sight, out of mind” exists for a reason.

Hunger – If you go a long time between eating (or if you eat foods that tend to spike your blood sugar), your blood sugar can drop.  As a result, hunger hormones spike, your brain freaks out and you’re no longer looking for the healthiest option – you’re looking for the closest option, even if it’s cookies, candy or pizza.

You may notice some of these triggers have overlapping causes – if you’re hungry and bored and only junk food is available, the odds are stacked against you.  Let’s unstack them.  Download a complimentary copy of the Death of the Diet Indulgence Journal here to determine your triggers and start fight food cravings today.  Want to discuss your triggers further?  Comment below.

Part 2 next week will discuss how to fight back against food cravings and how to decide which indulgences are worth it.

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