Cravings can spell trouble for the most committed of healthy eaters. It’s viciously hard to hold up under the all-consuming drive to eat that makes your mouth start watering just imaging the food you want. And even if you can struggle through it once, could you keep doing it forever?
Probably not – and that’s why you need a better strategy than “willpower.” Save your willpower for the emergencies when you really need it, and take a look at this list of 8 better ways to tackle a craving:
1. Prevent It
What’s better than successfully powering through a craving? Not having one in the first place! Before you start looking into psychological tricks, make sure you’re doing both of the following to reduce the number of cravings you get:
- Eat when you’re hungry. If your stomach is growling, it’s not a craving; it’s hunger. Feed it with quality fat and protein. Eating enough fat and protein at every meal can help prevent cravings from starting in the first place. And in fact, if you're already having a craving, eating some quality fat and protein can sometimes get rid of it just like that.
- Don’t skimp on the carbs. Many people find that when they add in more Paleo-friendly starch to their diet on a regular basis, they stop craving carby junk food like pretzels and crackers.
Cravings are often born of calorie, carb, or fat restriction – you can nip them in the bud by not doing that to yourself.
2. Distract Yourself
Everyone had a lot of fun with this study, which showed that playing Tetris helped reduce food cravings. But even though it sounds silly, it’s true: if you get a craving out of your head for just a few minutes, you can break its hold on you. Once they're gone, they rarely come back. Why not…
- Read a book.
- Watch an episode of your favorite TV show.
- Look through old photos that make you smile.
- Call a friend – and talk about anything but food.
- Stretch or do gentle yoga.
- Write down your health goals.
- Knit, crochet, sew, paint, draw, or do something else to keep your hands busy.
- Clean your house or car.
- Organize a folder on your computer (you know it needs it!)
- Find someone who needs your help and do something to make their day.
- Take a nap.
Any random thing will work; the point is just to focus on something else for a while. If you can interrupt the craving, the desire to eat whatever it is becomes much less urgent, and it’s easier to make a better choice.
3. Make Yourself Happy
This study found that cravings were not necessarily associated with increased hunger, but with negative mood. People crave sugar when they’re bored, anxious, lonely, or stressed, and it’s not just your imagination: in the short term, eating junk food does actually make you feel less bad.
But if you can get a mood boost from somewhere else instead, you can eliminate the funk that caused the craving to begin with. Why not…
- Splurge on something fun just because you want it.
- Go somewhere new and interesting, even if it’s just a park you’ve never been before.
- Pencil in an hour of guilt-free “me time” to do whatever you feel like no matter how “unproductive” it is.
- Plan a surprise for someone else.
4. Sit With It
This one isn’t for the faint of heart, but sometimes it does help just to sit quietly and let yourself feel the craving without judgment or shame. Often, being upset about the craving is more upsetting than the craving itself; if you can stay calm and accept that it’s happening, suddenly it becomes much more manageable.
Look at the craving with detachment, and remind yourself that the craving isn’t you; it’s just a passing emotion that you happen to be experiencing right now. It doesn’t make you weak or inadequate; it just makes you human. Acknowledge it, don’t try to fight it, and then let it go.
5. (Maybe) Replace It
A very common response to craving some non-Paleo food is to make a Paleo re-creation of it: that’s where Paleo cookies, Paleo crackers, Paleo cakes, Paleo pizza, and Paleo ice cream get so popular. Other people turn to fruit as a substitute for sugary foods, especially very sweet fruits like dates.
If you’re craving the food for its own sake, this can work. If you just really loved the taste of lemon cake, then a Paleo version of lemon cake can scratch the itch. But if you’re craving the food because you’re bored, or lonely, or stressed, then the Paleo imitation junk won’t fill the hole any more than the original unreconstructed junk would.
The second situation is much more common. So before you try concocting some Paleo replacement for whatever you’re craving, take an honest look at why you really want it. Is it for the sake of the food? Or is it an emotional crutch? If you’re eating for emotional reasons, you’re not doing yourself any favors by eating something different; the only way out is to deal with the emotional problem and find a healthier way of addressing those feelings.
One of the tricks that athletes use to get ready for an event is to visualize themselves winning. You can use the same technique to give yourself a little boost: just play a video in your head of yourself the way you would like to be in the face of this craving (strong and committed, completely capable of resisting), and concentrate on what that version of you would do. How would perfect-you handle it?
Write yourself into the hero role, and you might find that you actually do have the power to act that way after all.
7. Remove Yourself
You don’t have to be limited to mental distractions like playing a computer game or picking up a book. It also helps to just get up and physically remove yourself from the food you’re craving. Go somewhere else – ideally somewhere “safe” with no unhealthy food to prey on the edges of your mind, and then sit down to do something else.
This helps by removing the need to keep fighting that “I-want-to/I-shouldn’t” battle. It’s not even an issue any longer, since the food you’re craving is physically unavailable anyway. Now you can use your mental energy on other things, and reassess the situation from a calmer point of view. It’s funny how much easier it is to turn down pizza when you don’t have to smell it!
8. Work it Out
A surprisingly effective trick is to promise yourself that you don’t have to make a decision about whether or not you’re going to eat this food right now – you’ll do it when you get back from the gym. Don’t worry about resisting forever; just make a deal that you’ll put it off for an hour or so while you work out. Then go get sweaty.
While you’re at the gym…
- You’re distracted. If you’re thinking about your deadlift, you’re not thinking about food (if you are thinking about food, you need to add more weight to that bar!).
- You’re releasing endorphins. Endorphins are feel-good chemicals that give you the same mental buzz that you were looking for from the junk food. Once you’re already feeling good, you won’t need chocolate to get you there.
- You’re setting up a “virtuous cycle” by acting the way you want to feel. Once you get on a roll, it’s easier to say “no” to foods that won’t help you feel good in the long run.
It’s a triple whammy, perfect for those really stubborn cravings that just won’t leave.
Bear in mind that not everything on this list will help everyone: we’re all individuals, and each person experiences cravings differently. You might have to experiment with a few different strategies before you find one that works for you. But even if you struggle the first few times, just take it as an opportunity to learn, and get right back on the wagon!