It’s like a silent clock ticking away in your ear, or a magnetlike grip that draws you closer. It’s unavoidable and inescapable, and you’re powerless against its demands.
It’s a craving for Mexican food. Or chocolate. Or a Coke, or salt-and-vinegar chips, or macaroni and cheese, or a candy bar, or any number of salty, sweet, savory, and delicious foods. This time of year, with everyone determined to get back on track with good eating habits, beating cravings is even harder, since mindless snacking can derail any diet.
It’s normal to have a hard time letting go once you’ve gotten a hankering for a particular food item. For some people, it’s for salty snacks; for others, it’s for sugary treats. But all of us can beat our cravings with a few simple tricks.
- Set a clock. We tend to think of a craving as a building tsunami that will eventually become uncontrollable if we don’t give in to its demands. But actually, cravings are more like regular waves; they reach their crest, and then they ebb quietly. According to nutritionists, most food cravings last only between eight and fourteen minutes, so if you feel yourself yearning for an impulse snack, resolve to wait fifteen minutes before indulging. Chances are good that by then, the craving will have passed and you won’t want that food anymore.
- Drink a glass of water. Nutritionists say that many people confuse the body’s hunger signal with the thirst signal. Since most people don’t drink enough water anyway, wash down a tall glass before snacking. It fills up your stomach and can satiate the craving.
- Distract yourself. Many food cravings are actually the result of boredom. When you feel the urge to snack, try to busy yourself by making a phone call, undertaking a project, sending an email, or even watching a video online. Once your attention is fully occupied, the craving can go away.
- Pretend to eat it. A study at Carnegie Mellon University revealed that when test subjects thought intensely about their favorite foods, imagining themselves biting, chewing, swallowing, and tasting the food, their cravings decreased. The researchers theorized that by imagining themselves indulging, they had satisfied their psychological desire for the food itself.
- Simulate happiness. It’s also common to use food to alleviate stress, loneliness, or depression. If you’re prone to eating to make yourself feel good, try to do something else to make yourself feel good whenever you’re feeling snacky. Call a friend who makes you laugh, exercise a bit, or do anything else that boosts your mood—the goal being to break the mental association between food and happiness.
- Take a walk. In a 2008 study at the University of Exeter, chocolate eaters who took a brisk walk before being allowed to eat a piece of chocolate reported that their cravings were reduced significantly. Walking stimulates blood flow and releases endorphins, which can lower appetite, and it’s another great distraction.
- Keep snack foods inconvenient. If your favorite potato chips are in the cupboard, they’re harder to resist than if they were at the grocery store. Stop buying items that you know are diet weak spots. If you have to work to get it, you might find that you don’t want that snack as much as you thought you did.
- Eat right at meal times. Real biological food cravings are caused by dips in blood sugar. If you eat balanced, healthy meals full of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates, your blood sugar will stay stable, you’ll stay fuller longer, and you’ll have less desire to nibble between meals.
Ultimately, the best way to fight back against food cravings is to keep a journal and find out what your particular triggers are. If you find that you regularly develop midmorning cravings, a higher-protein breakfast may be in order. If you’re susceptible to midafternoon boredom snacking, try to take that walk around the block or take a quick break to rejuvenate your mind. If you know you fantasize about ice cream right before bed, don’t even bring it into the house, or replace it with some other prebedtime ritual. Once you learn which emotions or circumstances prompt you to seek solace in sweets or salts, you’ll be armed with a safe solution.