The aroma of chocolate chip cookies, the thought of a juicy burger with a side of fries, or the dream of a steamy deep-dish pizza smothered in pepperoni and cheese can stop you in your tracks and quickly turn from a casual food fantasy to an unwelcome indulgence. Even the most nutrition-savvy among us can slip every now and then. The trouble comes when food cravings start overruling reasonable restraint and lead us down a slippery slope to mindless munching. So how can you stop unhealthy food cravings? Here are some tips to help you do just that.
How hungry are you?
Before you give in to the nagging temptation to throw caution to the wind and make an unhealthy choice that will blow a cavernous whole in your healthy diet, think about whether you are really hungry or just letting your mind and senses get the better of you. It might seem simple, but people often neglect to consider their level of hunger before they dig in. Give yourself a break for a few minutes and think about how you really feel before you order that large chocolate shake with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Honestly evaluate whether you can wait for a healthy meal or snack before you pass out from starvation, or if the craving you are feeling is legitimate hunger.
What does your body really need?
Some cravings are a sign that your body needs more of certain nutrients. For instance, a strong taste for red meat could be a hint that you’re low on iron. A blood test can measure whether you need to consume foods or supplements that provide these vitamins or minerals in particular.
A strong desire for certain types of food could also be a warning sign that you have a health issue worth checking out. Constantly reaching for sweets and starchy foods could indicate that your body isn’t metabolizing carbohydrates normally. That means your body isn’t able to move glucose into your cells for energy, so you end up feeling deprived and wanting to eat more carbs.
Give yourself a break (but only a small one).
If you’ve assessed your hunger, waited a few minutes, tried to distract from it and still can’t kick that pesky craving, it may be time to give in – but only a little. Satisfy your craving incrementally by slowly eating about one-fourth of the item, put the rest to the side and distract yourself for a few minutes. Chances are you’ll find that the smaller portion was sufficient to calm your craving.
Sidetrack your train of thought.
Once a craving comes on we often keep imagining what it would be like to eat the food we have in mind – the texture, crunch, smoothness, richness, for example. Doing that makes the craving more extreme. By distracting yourself from the thought, sometimes you can forget about it. Try chewing sugar-free gum or eating a granola bar, as a way to break the thought pattern and sidetrack your craving.
Take a few minutes to drink a glass of water, check your emails, make a phone call or walk around the block. By interjecting new activities, unrelated to your cravings, you can sidetrack your train of thought and get past the obsession stage. It also gives you the time and space to think about the healthy diet you’re trying to maintain and how eating this food might take you off-course from that plan.
Proactively prevent food cravings.
Ask yourself when your craving begins what you have already eaten today that could be triggering it. For example, eating candy or desserts can spur the craving for more sweets, especially when eaten on an empty stomach. Sidestep that kind of reaction by including protein and fiber in every meal and snack. This simple step can help to limit subsequent cravings by decreasing the blood sugar response.
If all else fails, get help.
If you follow these tips and still feel compelled to binge on certain foods, you should see your primary care provider to check for underlying medical conditions that could be fueling your cravings. If there is no indication of a health problem, ask you provider or a trained nutrition counselor to recommend other strategies to help you keep your food obsession in check.