The number one thing I get asked in the gym is how to curb cravings…
“I eat well all day long then the evening comes, I sit down and I give in to the biscuits!”
“I eat my dinner and ALWAYS need something sweet afterwards…”
“Can I have some ‘healthy snack’ ideas I can have in front of the TV?”
The cravings cycle works like this:
First comes the urge (the craving), followed by the behaviour (finding foods that satisfy that craving). Then, you get the reward (eating the food you wanted). That last part is accompanied by a release of dopamine, giving your brain a “hit” of pleasure.
From there it can snowball: The more often you reward your brain, the more likely it is to stimulate the craving, and the stronger that craving may become.
Strategy #1: WAIT it out.
Notice your snack urge, and sit with it for FIVE minutes without taking action.
Yes, the strategy traditionally used with willful toddlers can also work with a Rocky Road.
This isn’t about exercising willpower. It’s about pausing just long enough to let your conscious mind say, ‘Hey, I’m in charge here!’ This gives you the chance to evaluate all your options, and make a rational decision, rather than a reactionary one.
Are you actually hungry? Or are you bored or stressed or procrastinating?
Does a steak or baked potato sound good, or is it just those doughnuts in the break room?
These are the kinds of questions you can ask yourself.
Granted, you may still decide to go ahead and indulge. After all, maybe you’re truly hungry.
Or perhaps you’re just not having your best day. (Trigger alert.) And that’s okay.
Don’t consider this a failure.
In your efforts to break your cravings cycle, you won’t be perfect. Simply think of this as an opportunity to gather more data about your cravings, so you better understand them for next time. (And give yourself a pat on the back for taking five minutes.)
But here’s the really important part: You don’t have to choose between giving in to your cravings and depriving yourself.
There’s a space in between the two, and that’s where you can really break the cravings cycle.
Strategy #2: GET DOING: choose a different (non-chewing) activity
What happens if you step away from the fridge and go for a walk, clean up your phone’s camera roll, scroll through Pinterest looking at country house interiors (nope, just me? 🙂 or make a new Spotify playlist?
By immersing your mind or body in an activity long enough, you may run the urge all the way out of your system.
That’s because cravings are often psychological rather than physical. And with the exception of very strong grief or trauma, intense feelings don’t usually last longer than 15 to 20 minutes. If you’re not really hungry, the craving will likely dissipate.
Once you sense a craving, choose an activity you can really dig into, such as:
Working on a project you’re passionate about or planning your next adventure!
Crossing an item off of your daily to-do list
Responding to a few emails
Calling a friend
Playing an instrument or video game
Colouring a page or two in a colouring book
Exercising, gardening, or cleaning
Remember, you’re looking to activate and occupy your mind and/or body. So, while different activities may work better for different people, watching TV probably won’t help (and in fact, is often a trigger).
Strategy #3: EXPERIMENT: What is true hunger?
Hunger and cravings tend to come in waves, rising and falling throughout the day.
It helps to understand how this feels. That’s why we often suggest our healthy clients (those without any pre-existing health conditions) try a fasting experiment. For 24 hours, they don’t eat (they’re reminded to stay well hydrated, though). Although some are afraid they’ll be “starving all day long,” that’s not usually what happens.
Yes, they get hungry. Yes, they get cravings. But these feelings come and go, and for many folks, this can be both eye-opening and empowering. In a sense, fasting forces them to “lean in” to urges, and accept “it’s okay to be hungry.”
Do they waste away? No.
Do they collapse from exhaustion? No.
Does the world end? No.
Again, this isn’t about testing your willpower or denying yourself. It’s about giving you a fresh perspective, and reducing the anxiety, discomfort, and urgency you feel the moment hunger or cravings arise.
Strategy #4: BALANCE: Choose the right foods to fill you up
Though cravings can happen any time of day, nighttime cravings and overeating are very common.
With the nutrition coaching I do with clients, I don’t necessarily like to tell people exactly when or how many meals to eat. It’s okay whether you eat a couple of times a day or several, or if you have most of your food in either earlier in the day or later. So long as it’s working for you, it’s all fair game.
But over the years, research has shown that clients who overeat at night are often restricting their intake throughout the day—knowingly or unknowingly.
For example, they might be skipping breakfast and having a salad with little or no protein for lunch. By dinner, they could be making solid choices rich in fibre, protein, and healthy fats, but their appetite is already in overdrive. So it’s no wonder they’re feeling snacky before bed.
What you eat during the day matters. Not so much what you eat on any given day, but what you eat most days.
Fibre (especially from low-calorie vegetables) helps fill you up, and protein keeps you full longer between meals. This makes eating a combination of these nutrients, in sensible portions at regular intervals, key for regulating appetite.
The message here is simple: If you have a voracious night-time appetite, look at what you’re eating the rest of the day. You may find if you do a better job of nourishing your body at other meals, you won’t hear that little “feed me!” voice when you’re about to brush your teeth.
Strategy #5: INDULGE: Go ahead and indulge —under the following conditions.
Really craving a chocolate bar? Okay, have one. But choose a bar of pricey, high-quality chocolate. Eat it slowly, and savour the experience. Though it seems counterintuitive, clients tell us they eat far less of the chocolate (or any craved food) this way. And research shows the same.
Or even better, try this unconventional strategy from Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D., Precision Nutrition’s Director of Curriculum. She tells her clients they can have any snack they want, but it has to be purchased—right before eating—from a shop that’s 15 minutes away.
She’s discovered that half the time, people decide it’s not worth the effort.
What about clients who do set out for the shop? By the time these folks arrive, they sometimes don’t even want the snack because the craving’s gone.
So remember Berardi‘s First Law (named for its originator, Precision Nutrition co-founder Dr John Berardi):
If a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.