Combat Food Cravings, Part 1: Determine Your Triggers

Food Cravings: Berry Delicious, Berry Tempting?

Berry Delicious, Berry Tempting?
Photo Courtesy of dusky,

*Download a complimentary copy of the Death of the Diet Indulgence Journal here to determine your triggers and start fighting food cravings today.  Want to discuss your triggers further?  Comment below.*

You’re minding your own business at work, watching TV, being stressed out, or lounging around after dinner and BAM you find yourself craving something sweet.  Or salty.  The craving may general, or for a specific food. Pastry, ice cream, pizza or gooey macaroni and cheese (if I just triggered a craving for you, I apologize).  The more you try to think about something else, the more you get pulled into the craving.  And then you can’t get your mind off it – until you give in.  Are food cravings inevitable?  When they strike are we sentenced to a calorie-laden, guilt-inducing fate?  Or can we fight back?

First, a review of recent research.

Then, a three step process to start overcoming your food cravings.

Recent Research Review

Recent research provides some obvious, but useful insights – well summarized by Melinda Beck in the Wall Street Journal.  While I recommend reading the article, here’s a Cliff’s Notes summary:

  • Food cravings activate the same reward circuits in the brain as drugs and alcohol (sweets and carbs release serotonin and other feel-good brain chemicals).  Anticipation, hit, reward.  And eventually it takes larger doses to get the same hit.  Yes, we can become food addicts, especially to sugary foods.
  • Cravings involve a complex mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues.  Makes sense – you tell recovering alcoholics to stop hanging around in bars or reduce spending time with people who drink like a fish (origins of that analogy?).  If you know you can’t resist cookies – why have them in the house.  Or frequent bakeries?
  • Cravings can be culturally specific – “while chocolate is consistently the most-craved food in North America, Japanese women are more likely to crave sushi.”  And why doesn’t anyone crave kale?!
  • Cravings can have gender differences – 85% of men found giving into a craving satisfying vs. 57% of women.
  • “It’s possible to like a food without craving it, and crave a food without liking it.” Have you ever caught yourself eating something that looked tempting, but half way through you’re like, “Why am I eating this, it’s not very good.”  And then you finish it anyways.

Three Steps to Fend Off Unwanted Food Cravings

Fending off unwanted food cravings involves three key steps:

  1. Become Aware of Your Triggers
  2. Determine How You Fight Back Best
  3. Decide What’s Worth Indulging In – How Much & How Often

It’s hard to fight unless we know what we’re fighting against, so Part 1 this week discusses how you can become more aware of your food craving triggers.  Use this week to determine and explore your triggers.  Consider everything from what, where, when, with whom, why, etc.  Part 2 next week will discuss how to fight back and how to decide which indulgences are worth it.

Step 1: Become Aware of Your Triggers

Think back to your most recent cravings – what caused them?  Were you somewhere?  Was it a particular time of day?  Were you stressed?  Five of the most common triggers that make us cuckoo-for-cookies are:

Emotion – Do you find yourself seeking out food when you’re angry, lonely, stressed, tired or even happy?  Physical hunger typically comes on gradually, while emotional hunger is usually sudden, and often for a very specific food (usually not an apple).   Ever have those times when you eat snack after snack and nothing seems to be hitting the spot? Well, that’s because you’re not physically hungry. You’re emotionally hungry. (Adapted from Adam Gilbert,

Habit – Going on auto-pilot can be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Do you always eat dessert or snack after dinner?  Do you always munch on foods while watching TV, or while sitting at your desk at work?  Do you always have chips with your sandwich?  If you “always” eat something for a reason other than physical hunger (especially if you find yourself eating even though you’re full), odds are it’s become a habit.

Boredom – Idle hands can lead to unwanted calories.  Do you find yourself sitting down to watch TV or read and you start munching and munching and munching?  Or how about at work.  Your mind wanders off after a particularly boring assignment – oh and look, there’s free donuts!  When there’s nothing else to do, eating can become an easy default activity, even if we don’t want the calories.

Environmental Cues – Is food the focus of every celebration, or bad day?  Is going out to eat the social activity of choice for your friends and family?  Do you find yourself staring at a candy bowl at work?  Are there treats in the house that you buy for others, but end up mostly eating mostly yourself?  Do you tend to go to certain restaurants or cafes (or ice cream parlors) that force you to make less-healthy decisions?  The saying “out of sight, out of mind” exists for a reason.

Hunger – If you go a long time between eating (or if you eat foods that tend to spike your blood sugar), your blood sugar can drop.  As a result, hunger hormones spike, your brain freaks out and you’re no longer looking for the healthiest option – you’re looking for the closest option, even if it’s cookies, candy or pizza.

You may notice some of these triggers have overlapping causes – if you’re hungry and bored and only junk food is available, the odds are stacked against you.  Let’s unstack them.  Download a complimentary copy of the Death of the Diet Indulgence Journal here to determine your triggers and start fight food cravings today.  Want to discuss your triggers further?  Comment below.

Part 2 next week will discuss how to fight back against food cravings and how to decide which indulgences are worth it.

Want to Eat Better or Lose Weight? Write on!

Man Writing What He Ate

Do you spell spaghetti with one “t” or two?!?
Image Courtesy of Microsoft Images

Keeping a food record, independent of other factors, can lead to better weight loss across a wide range of people.  Click on the link and check out figure #4 a little more than halfway down the page – the more food records kept, the more weight lost.

Why does food journaling work? Because it gives you a moment to pause and consider what you’ll be eating…and why you’re eating it.  Journaling also provides you with a concrete record to review and learn from.  Patterns and trends that you never considered become crystal clear when you look at it on paper:

  • Seven hours between meals leads to an afternoon crash and overeating at dinner.
  • Every time you go out with friends you end up eating and drinking a little more than you wanted to.
  • It’s too hard to say no to the brownies in the house after dinner.
  • A stressful day always leads to a comfort food.  And so on.

The main objection I (and probably many other dietitians) get from people in response to keeping a food record is that they “don’t have the time” to keep a detailed record and “don’t want to measure” everything they eat.  My response?  Don’t worry, do your best.

Of course, the more detail I can get the better, but keeping a food journal, especially in the beginning of my relationship with a client is not to analyze their exact daily caloric intake.  Instead, it’s to give me an idea of the types of foods they eat, when they eat, where they eat and of course, why they eat.  It gives me a lens into their life, via their food.  Because in the end, changing a person’s eating habits impacts a lot more than just what they eat.

More importantly, though, this exercise provides my client with an opportunity to become aware of, and reflect upon, their own eating habits.  By the time I see them for their first session, they’ve usually already got their own ideas on how to make changes. I’m there to be a sounding board, correct any misconceptions and help make the proposed eating improvements the “path of least resistance.”

Can you devote 3 to 5 minutes a day to your health? And you don’t have to touch a measuring spoon (unless you want to).  Just focus on three things:

  1. What you ate
  2. When you ate
  3. Why you ate (were you really hungry?  Or just bored?  Or stressed?)

Extra credit responses include where you ate and rough estimates of how much you ate – just use your hand (a fistful, a palmful, a fingertip, etc.).  Get access to the easiest, most comprehensive food journal (a $15 value) by subscribing to the monthly JM Wellness newsletter to the right.

Then at the end of the week spend 3 to 5 minutes reviewing the record and seeing where you could, and are willing, to improve.  Or contact me and we can review it together!

Reference: :

Research Roundup – Jan. 7 2013

Research Roundup!

Research Roundup!

I’m excited to start the new, Research Roundup series on the blog.  For those that don’t know, I love learning and figuring out how research can be applied to everyday life. Every post will include links to a couple recent research articles and my thoughts on them.  Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts too – did I mention I love learning?

Study #1 (via AND Knowledge Center Daily News):

Your Smartphone Might Help You Lose Weight: “Personalized feedback and coaching along with education let patients shed pounds, study found.”

Sources: Healthday & Archives of Internal Medicine

Jason’s Thoughts:

In my opinion, the two most insightful quotes of the article:

Bonnie Spring, study author: “This reminds us that few, if any, commercially available weight-loss apps have been tested in rigorous clinical trials, and that technology may work best when it’s integrated into a care system that also provides accountability and support.”

Dr. David Katz, director of Prevention Research Center at Yale: “Not much weight loss happens at a clinical visit, of course, weight loss happens in between visits … It makes sense to extend coaching and guidance between visits.”

Making healthy changes to your eating and physical activity habits can be hard; accountability and support are key, whether it comes from within yourself or from other, caring individuals.  While it’s not the most time efficient for practitioners, small frequent “touches” such as check-ins, motivations, etc. is the best way to stay in touch with a client between sessions.  It can also become its own unique service model – frequent, small touches for a monthly fee rather than one big follow up.  Thoughts?

Study #2 (via AND Knowledge Center Daily News):

All in the mind? Meal memories may influence later feelings of satiety: “People who believe they have eaten a large meal feel less hungry for hours after the meal, irrespective of the actual amount they consume, say researchers.”

Sources: Food Navigator and PLoS One

Jason’s Thoughts:

Interesting, though you’re probably not going to have someone pulling soup from your bowl or chicken from your plate as you eat it.  You know how much you’re cooking for yourself and research shows the larger the portion we take, the more we eat of it.  So how to implement this finding?  Maybe stare at a big box of cookies and imagine eating all of them (and feeling full from it).  Then only eat one or two slowly (take them out of the container and put the rest away before eating).  Happy to hear other suggestions.

Regardless, this does give credence to a neural aspect of satiation, which would operate independently of the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin.  Same idea applies to the research by Brian Wansink that shows eating meals on smaller plates makes you feel more satisfied form the same amount of food.

The last piece of the article regarding the use of artificial sweeteners and fat substitutes in foods and how they may impair our sense of satiety.  Some research exists in this area, especially with sugar substitutes and links to overeating.  In other words, highly processed foods aren’t so great for us…who knew? (note the sarcasm)

Thanksgiving: Food…and Habits for Thought

Avoid Being Stuffed, Like the Bird.

Avoid Being Stuffed, Like the Bird.
From: Microsoft Images

Why does giving thanks have to lead to food comas and indigestion?  While Thanksgiving dates back to a group of European settlers and Native Americans feasting over a plentiful harvest at Plymouth in 1621, most harvesting performed these days involves a bit less manual labor.  Rather, we’re driving over to the local supermarket and filling our carts with turkeys, pumpkin pie and the ingredients for mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Our modern interpretation has evolved into a celebration of family, friends and…lots of food.  Consider the holiday’s common nickname: Turkey Day.  In many ways it seems that the true meaning of Thanksgiving has been lost somewhere between the hors d’oeuvres, the gut-busting dinner buffet and the proliferation of pies for dessert.  This year, let’s give thanks to our health and finish the day feeling light and energetic by following some of the following tips:

Make Nutritious Nudges – If you control the day’s menu, make healthy options available.  Have crudite with appetizers.  Make a big salad with dinner.  Offer fruit as part of dessert.  Or make healthier tweaks to recipes.  Bake instead of fry.  Use less butter in the mashed potatoes.  Use more spices (zero calories).

Here are a few links for more ideas:

Portion Your Plate – When faced with a buffet, it’s amazing how quickly our eyes can become bigger than our stomach.  It takes 15 to 20 minutes to know that you’re full…plenty of time to have seconds and not realize you’re full.  And then you’re stuffed.

So, use smaller dishes and pile them up with fruits and veggies.  Don’t use a plate with appetizers so every time you want something, you have to actually get it.  Use a salad plate with dinner; research shows that we tend to eat less when we have less in front of us.  Then give yourself 15 minutes before getting seconds to give your body a chance to catch up.  If you’re still hungry, get more.  Finally, load up half your plate with veggies or fruit each time you go up, as they will typically be lower in calories and more filling due to their water and fiber content.

Indulge Wisely – It’s important to be sensible on food-focused holidays, which also means allowing ourselves to enjoy the foods that we rarely have otherwise.  For me, that’s sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, mmm.

The key is to choose the indulgences you really enjoy and only have those.  In other words, if you love the home-made pumpkin pie, have a slice (maybe not the entire pie).  If the stuffing is heavenly, enjoy a serving!  Just consider whether it’s also worth having the cheese and crackers with the appetizers, second helpings of mashed potatoes and trying all of the desserts on the table.  If the day loses meaning to you without having a particular food, then have it.  If it doesn’t, then leave it.

Stay Active – We can give our body a great head start toward digesting those Thanksgiving calories by exercising that morning.  Go to the gym or go for a jog.  You can even take it a step further by changing the focus of Thanksgiving from football and food to another activity, such as playing board games, charades, or even touch football outside with the family!  We tend to eat when we have nothing else to do.  Do something else.

Get Back on the Horse – Even with the best laid plans, stuff happens.  One unhealthy decision or day of eating doesn’t ruin our health or fitness…but allowing ourselves to continue those actions for the rest of month or year might.  So rather than feeling guilty or defeated, acknowledge your unintended indulgences (hopefully you enjoyed them), know that they don’t happen every day unless you let them and redouble your focus to healthier eating and staying active as soon as you can.

If you’re hosting, give away all your unwanted, calorie-laden leftovers.  If you’re visiting, don’t take home any leftovers, unless it’s salad.  If the host and visitors are both reading this article, good luck!

Choose the tip that most applies to your situation, make a change, and enjoy a happy, healthy Turkey Day!  I personally give thanks for feedback, so please leave a comment below and let me know what tip(s) worked for you, and which didn’t.

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