One of the hardest aspects of weight loss is how to manage cravings.
It is 100% human to get cravings. An inheritance from our Neanderthal past is to crave foods high in fat and sugar; foods that either give an instant burst of energy or that have a high calorific value; foods that will help us in a hunt or provide lots of energy over a fallow period. When they strike they can be really difficult to resist. There are several keys to manage cravings; one of them is to actually surrender to your particular craving…just in a controlled way. There are also other strategies – one (or combination of a few) might just work for you.
What causes food cravings?
They can be divided into two parts – the psychological and the physiological. The body and the mind. Sometimes a craving can be both at once though.
Psychological or emotional cravings
Psychological cravings usually happen through emotional eating. Your inner Neanderthal and modern computer brain get crossed wires. Let’s say you have a pressing and seemingly impossible work deadline. Your computer or rational brain translates this pressure into stress. Your Neanderthal, however, does not differentiate between types of stress. It just thinks that stress = a danger to survival. The best way to survive most perceived threats? Get fuelled up to make sure you don’t go short in this time of emergency. So, many different types of stress will be translated into hunger cravings, whether loneliness, work pressure or sadness.
These are a little more simple and make up our natural survival strategy. When we are hungry we want to eat. Normal hunger differs from craving though. Craving is more likely to be caused by food deprivation, lack of sleep, hormonal imbalances, skipping meals, lack of hydration and over training. Physical cravings can be easier to deal with but it is important to deal with the underlying causes.
How do I manage emotional or psychological cravings?
The first step is to pause when cravings strike and try to define your hunger. Emotional hunger:
- Comes on suddenly.
- Only makes you want a specific food.
- Feels like you need to eat now.
- Leaves you feeling guilty.
Once identified the best strategy to help with emotional eating is to fix the source – your mind and the stress it’s feeling. Mindfulness, meditation apps like calm or headspace, specific managerial or resilience courses, therapy, hypnotherapy and counselling can all arm you to cope much better with emotional stress. Spending time outdoors, joining a club or society, being open about emotional issues with friends and family are also helpful. Exercise is especially useful to create clarity and mental well-being. Planning controlled treats can also help control what happens (or how bad things get) during emotional cravings. So, making a smart swap of some hummus and rice cakes instead of chocolate, and having the former ready before you head out for the latter can work. This is just an example. Find treat that works for you that is an improvement on what you’d normally have.
How do I manage physical cravings?
The first step is to pause when cravings strike and try to define your hunger. Physical hunger:
- Comes on gradually.
- Means you’ll eat whatever is available.
- Feels like you could wait a little bit.
- Doesn’t come attached with guilt.
Management of physical cravings actually overlaps with our first craving category – psychological eating – many of the techniques to manage the physical will also help the mental. These include:
Eat reasonably often to avoid getting too hungry.
Plan indulgences ahead of time, giving in to cravings but in a planned and controlled way.
Try to get a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep will increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Make indulgences count – if you want cake, avoid a “free from” or lower calorie alternative. Get the real thing (albeit a small slice) but eat it slowly, savour it.
Include plenty of protein and fibre to stay feeling full for as long as possible.
Don’t restrict something entirely – it will just become more desirable.
Acceptance and planning for cravings are the key to managing them, along with stress management, exercise, healthy eating and a good night’s sleep.