Everyone knows the feeling: A craving hits for a favorite indulgence and you can’t stop thinking about it until you finally give in. And once you’re satisfied, the craving subsides. But for those who struggle with losing weight and keeping it off, feeling satisfied doesn’t always come so easily. Cravings are often frequent and intense; they can dominate your focus, weaken your willpower, and cause you to overeat—totally against your will. Therefore, being in control of cravings is crucial to losing weight and maintaining it for life.
It’s common to feel out of control and like you allow your cravings to drive your eating habits. I used to try to manage cravings by banning all unhealthy foods, but then I’d experience intense cravings and overindulge. Other times, I’d try to gain control by fulfilling my cravings with “healthier” options like granola cereal or baked foods instead of fried, but afterward I rarely felt satisfied and the cravings persisted.
The problem with addictive foods.
It’s important to know why we crave certain foods over others. Addictive foods have an appealing (and unnatural) amount of fat and carbohydrates, particularly the refined types—including enriched flour and added sugars—making them irresistible. The pleasure reward from these foods is greater than the one you’d get from real, whole foods. Food companies take advantage of this response and use it to boost sales, meaning there’s a wide variety of options in virtually every aisle of the food store. How you feel (and how your brain reacts) after eating an apple is much different—and less pleasurable—than when you eat a bowl of cereal, chips, bread, or dessert, which can make it hard to eat healthy.
Processed foods, fried foods, sweets, and baked goods are the most pleasurable foods, which we also associate with fun celebrations or use for comfort when we’re feeling stressed and sad. The thought of life without them can be unsettling. The good news is that you don’t have to ban all enjoyable foods from your diet at once to improve cravings. The bad news is that limiting certain enjoyable foods that are difficult to part with is necessary to regain control.
The key to long-term control over cravings.
You probably already feel that you should limit certain foods, but you may have a hard time doing it long term or without sparking cravings and feeling restricted. Below are some tips to help you regain control over your cravings, so you can feel good about your food choices and lose weight for life.
1. Double check your food labels.
It can be easy to assume that if you’re shopping at the right store, then what you’re buying is healthy. But you may want to think again because while there are some brands making minimally processed foods—with whole food ingredients—this just isn’t always the case. If you’re shopping in the middle aisles of the food store and reaching for packaged foods, even if they’re organic, it’s a good idea to read their labels before tossing them in your cart. Keep an eye out for enriched flour, the many forms of added sugar, and various types of oil in order to avoid foods that intensify cravings.
2. Identify your own triggers.
Our emotional connection to food is deeply personal—so when it comes to triggers, one size does not fit all. You can probably list the foods that are particularly comforting to you: maybe bread, chips, fried foods, or chocolate? Rather than banning all “unhealthy” foods at once, start with just the few types you feel a strong emotional connection to or those that you have a particularly difficult time limiting. Many people are apprehensive to do this step out of fear that they’ll feel deprived. It’s important to focus on all the other foods you are eating and enjoying rather than the few you’re choosing to limit.
My trigger food was fried foods—especially french fries—so this was the first thing I chose to limit when starting out. I still ate less healthy foods but chose types I was able to have restraint with, like bread and chocolate, so I didn’t feel deprived. As time went on, I found it easy to limit more addictive foods without feeling like I was missing out. Now, since I don’t have these foods often, when I do indulge, they don’t have the same addictive effect and it’s easier to stay in control.
3. Avoid temptation completely.
Temptation is often a setup for failure. And sometimes it’s not worth it when you’re trying to foster a healthier relationship with food. Instead, avoid exposure to your trigger foods and other foods you choose to limit. If they’re not an option, you’ll think less about having them and will find it easier to abstain. Avoid shopping in certain aisles and don’t bring trigger foods into your home. Also, try to avoid situations in which it will be difficult not to indulge, like at parties, at the office, and at certain restaurants. Instead, set your environment up for success. You can choose restaurants that don’t serve your trigger foods, bring healthier but still tasty options that you’ll enjoy to parties, and stay out of the lunchroom when there are free doughnuts.
4. Be prepared with alternatives.
To get through periods when I feel compelled to indulge but don’t actually want to, I keep myself busy with things I enjoy. It helps to make a list of activities you can do that don’t involve eating to bring out when a craving hits. You could catch up with a friend, do yoga, get some fresh air and go for a walk, read a good book, take a warm bath, or do your favorite hobby. Try to choose things that boost your mood, relax you, and are fulfilling.
5. Set up a foolproof support system.
It would be nearly impossible to limit your favorite addictive foods if your friends and family continue to offer them to you, eat them around you, or pressure you to join. It’s crucial to have the people around you on your side to help you succeed. Let them know what your goals are, be honest with what you need from them, and offer ways they can help you.
Not giving in to cravings may be a lifelong struggle, but it does get easier! After getting over the initial hurdle of regaining control, it’s easier to sustain it. Starting slow, taking strategic steps, and having a support system are important for long-term success. If you struggle with food cravings and making healthy eating habits stick, check out this guide for more tips to beat cravings and regain control of your eating habits.