Cravings are, for better or worse, a normal part of life. This means learning to deal with them in a healthy way is a big part of weight management. The goal should not be to eliminate cravings but to understand what triggers them and how to ride out the "wave of the crave."
Cravings often happen with foods that have been labelled as forbidden or off-limits. This is why the mindful eating movement advocates that all foods fit. The phenomenon of "wanting what you can't have" often pushes people to overeat the very foods (often their favourite foods) they have been trying to eliminate completely.
Although cravings are normal, they can become more frequent or intense for a few reasons:
1. Taking an "all or nothing" approach to eating rather than an "everything in moderation" approach. Aim for moderation instead of abstinence. Although avoiding foods completely may seem easier to do than eating them in smaller quantities, learning how to enjoy them in smaller amounts is essential for long term weight management. Also, avoiding foods reinforces a fear of them. Practicing enjoying reasonable amounts of them is a total confidence booster that will prove that they can be eaten in reasonable amounts.
2. Eating too few calories or allowing yourself to get too hungry. Eat three balanced meals per day. Skipping meals leads you to feel hungrier at the next meal and makes it harder to eat reasonable portion sizes. Include healthy snacks to avoid feeling very hungry before meals. Following a diet that contains less than 1500 calories may be the reason why you are so hungry or have experienced many more cravings than normal.
3. Trying to totally avoid certain foods can lead to over consuming them in the end. Although an all or nothing approach to food has already been mentioned, the concept of feeling guilty after eating must be addressed. Feeling overwhelmingly guilty after eating a food usually sparks a downward spiral that does not lead to eating less. Most people end up eating more of the so-called "bad food" and vow to start fresh tomorrow. This phenomenon can be called the "what the heck effect." For example, "what the heck, I've already ruined my diet, I might as well go nuts today." Giving yourself permission to eat your favourite foods in moderation can actually lead to eating less of them.
4. Eating out of habit, expecting certain foods at certain times or places and with certain people can lead to craving them. Starting new habits to replace the old one tends to work better than just avoiding eating while in the same situation. For example, if you always eat a snack while watching tv in the evening, vowing to not eat while sitting in the same spot, doing the same activity will be harder than if you switched up the place you sat or did something other than watching tv. If you always eat with a certain person chose an activity that cannot include eating. Another example is an afternoon snack. If you get hit with cravings often in the afternoon and tend to take a break in the lunch room where treats are always lurking, then it may be wise to skip the break room and treat yourself to a walk. You could try sitting in the break room with your favourite treat within reach, but that is less likely to work.
5. Using food as a source of pleasure or comfort. It is normal to occasionally eat for comfort. However, if you find that this is occurring often or that it is your only source of comfort during the day, that is when it can become a problem. The funny thing is that some people are not actually comforted by food. These are usually people who feel very guilty about eating the foods that comfort them. If you are a mindful eater, eating a treat can be a comfort because there is no stress about the calories you ate. However, people who agonize over calories and their weight tend to just feel stressed after indulging which can lead to even more eating. Being a more mindful eater can not only help reduce cravings, but foods can be a better source of comfort when they are used as comfort. Another way to combat stress eating is to reduce the stress. Exercising regularly not only helps to relieve tension and anxiety (more efficiently than food) but also lessen emotions that may lead to cravings.
6. Cupboards stocked with a lot of treats. Having large amounts of treats within reach can lead to eating more of them. What's a few handfuls of chips if there is a whole family sized bag in the pantry? They also serve as a visual reminder that tasty treats are just a few steps away and force people to be less creative with healthier options. I do not, however, recommend keeping zero treats in the house. As mentioned earlier, it is important to practice eating treats in reasonable quantities which means, occasionally eating them. One way to practice eating less is to buy smaller amounts. It may be more expensive, but an easy way to eat one ice cream bar or 50g of chips is to have these small portions handy (versus a giant box or bag of treats). Another way to do this is to allow a trip to the corner store any time you want a treat -- limit the access to the food and force yourself to go out to get the food rather than limiting the food itself.
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