6 Ways to Control Your Cravings
You're feeling down -- and want a snack to perk you up.
Fight back: Stop and identify your emotions. Are you stressed? Did a fight with your husband put you on edge? Acknowledging your feelings can help you pinpoint the "why" behind a craving — and address the real issue head on instead of running to the fridge.
Why it works: A study from the University of Kentucky found that people who were the most in touch with their feelings were more likely to pick healthier options when ordering from a restaurant menu — regardless of how much they knew about nutrition.
"Being in tune with your mood lets you determine a more effective way to cope, so you don't end up reaching for that snack," says Dr. Kessler.
Bonus tip: Keep a food diary and make notes about your state of mind in the margins. This simple trick allows you to track your psychological connections to overeating. You can then brainstorm other ways to handle potential triggers.
There's a two-for-one sale on your favorite ice cream.
Fight back: Rather than stocking up, buy a smaller amount of your not-so-favorite flavor to keep in the fridge for guests and kids (a pint is cheaper than a quart anyway). The key is keeping around a tiny portion that doesn't entice you as much.
Why it works: "Think of this as a vaccine against cravings — exposure to a small amount will help you overcome the big problem," says Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, professor of behavioral science and marketing at University of Chicago.
Fishbach's research has found that making a temptation available renders it, well, less tempting. Over time, you'll build self-control and have a decreased desire for the food. And if you do end up giving in, you can't go totally overboard.
Bonus tip: Stash the pint in the back of the freezer, so you won't see the mint chip whenever you reach for frozen veggies.
The party buffet is calling your name.
Fight back: Distract yourself. Talk to a guest or help the host. Turning your attention to another activity will keep you from fixating on the food.
Why it works: Cravings live in your short-term memory, which holds only a limited number of things at once. A diversion helps by crowding out the temptation, and your brain is forced to refocus.
In a study from Flinders University in Australia, weight-watchers who were asked to imagine highly desired food and then were immediately exposed to something else (in this case, a flickering computer screen) reported a 30 percent reduction in cravings.
Bonus tip: Eat a healthy snack like an apple before you go to the party. "Distraction works only if you're not feeling unsatisfied," says Roberts. "When you're hungry, cravings are harder to control."
Your drive home takes you past your favorite fast-food joint.
Fight back: Take an alternative route to your house, even if it's a little bit longer. This strategy works when you're walking too. In fact, Dr. Kessler uses it himself — he loves the fried dumplings at the Asian take-out place in the San Francisco Airport, so he takes a different path through the terminal to keep them out of sight and prevent himself from indulging.
Why it works: If you stop for a bacon cheeseburger, cookies-and-cream milkshake, glazed chocolate doughnut, or any other fix often enough, it becomes what Kessler calls a habit-driven behavior. This means that just seeing the golden arches or driving onto the road that goes there will trigger the desire to eat the food again. Simply stay away and you're less likely to be drawn in.
Bonus tip: When it's not possible to go any other way, decide ahead of time on a couple of healthier items you will order if you end up stopping. At least you won't get caught making an impulse choice.
Movie popcorn -- it smells too good to resist.
Fight back: Mentally prepare. Before buying your ticket, acknowledge the urge by saying to yourself: "I will probably want to buy a huge tub of buttery popcorn, but I will go straight to my seat instead."
Why it works: Just the act of realizing that you crave something makes it easier to control, says Evan Forman, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. It may sound simple, but being armed with this same type of self-awareness helped participants in a recent study resist bags of Hershey's Kisses. People who were instructed to "accept the craving" had fewer and less-intense thoughts about the chocolate than those who were told to suppress their desires. "The more you try not to think about something, the more you obsess over it," Forman says.
Bonus tip: If you love munching on something during a flick, it's hard to go cold turkey. So go for a low-cal option like sharing a box of Junior Mints with a friend. You'll save up to 1,000 calories and still get the satisfaction of snacking.
You're out with friends and they order unhealthy foods.
Fight back: Don't let their bad habits sway you — stick to your original healthy order, but choose a small splurge like sharing an appetizer of loaded potato skins, enjoying a glass of white wine, or having just a few bites of your friend's piece of cheesecake.
Why it works: Being more mindful of what you choose to indulge in will help you avoid overeating throughout the meal — a trap we frequently fall into, particularly when dining with female friends. According to a recent study from McMaster University in Canada, the more women who attend a meal, the more high-calorie foods they eat (for example, a woman dining in a group of four consumes nearly 800 calories, almost 200 more than if eating with just one friend).
Bonus tip: Invite a bunch of your friends over to a weekend lunch at your place and have everyone bring a healthy dish to share, like baked salmon or whole wheat pasta. It's much easier to control calories this way — just make sure your guests take home the leftovers.