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I've never met a carbohydrate I didn't love. Wheat Thins? I can eat the whole box in one sitting. If someone brings cupcakes to a party, my eyes immediately zoom in on them as a familiar voice starts to chatter in my brain. Seriously, Arianne, you have got to have one of those, it says. There must be an inch of frosting on that baby! And that cake -- it looks so moist and fudgy. You know you're going to love it. Go get one. Now. Those cupcakes won't be sitting on the coffee table forever.
By this point, most of us are well aware of what constitutes healthy eating. I can't blame my splurges on lack of nutrition know-how, and chances are you can't use that excuse either. Nope, the real problem is that we feel powerless to challenge that inner monologue that gives us permission to eat the (many) enticing treats we encounter every day. Who can argue with a voice that is so utterly persuasive?
Well, you can. The next time you're faced with temptation, you're not going to fight it -- you're going to reason with it instead. How? By asking yourself these five very simple questions.
Do I really have to have this?
Consider this: The voice that's telling me those cupcakes are a must-have is a relic of the Cenozoic era. Back then, when food was in short supply, that voice was a lifesaver. It told our cave-dwelling ancestors to eat whenever they had the opportunity because famine could strike at any time. That's obviously not an issue now but the voice is still there, urging us to eat up.
Beyond reminding yourself that there will never be a Great Cupcake Depression, what can you do to quiet your inner cavewoman? Eat the occasional treat. "If you think of certain foods as bad and consider them off-limits, they're going to be compelling," says author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, PhD. "There's no getting around that." In fact, new research conducted at Israel's Tel Aviv University revealed that dieters who ate a 600-calorie breakfast that included dessert had fewer cravings and lost more weight than those who ate a treat-free, 300-calorie a.m. meal -- even though both groups ate the same number of calories per day. What's more, the dessert eaters kept the pounds off longer. While no one is advocating eating cake for breakfast, study author Daniela Jakubowicz, MD, says it's smarter to include some treats in your diet than to give them up entirely -- which, as many of us have learned the hard way, is unrealistic and just makes your cravings worse.
The answer isn't always easy to come by, particularly when you're confronted with a food you always manage to find room for, like the pint of chocolate chunk ice cream in your freezer. To figure out whether your body actually needs food, imagine that the ice cream is a bowl of fruit salad. If you would eat the fruit, then you're probably hungry, says Janet R. Laubgross, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Fairfax, Virginia. "In that case, you should eat something healthy before you even debate having ice cream," she says.
If you determine that you're not hungry, yet you're craving dessert, that's likely emotional hunger or boredom -- and diving into a pint of ice cream won't necessarily make you feel better. In those moments, listen closely to what your inner voice is saying about that chocolate chunk ice cream: how decadent it tastes, how soothing it would be to eat it, and so on. Then, step back and focus on the reality. "Look at the ice cream and describe it dispassionately," says Marion Jacobs, PhD, an adjunct psychology professor emerita at UCLA. The ice cream is white. It's frozen milk with dark brown chunks in it. The container is green. Not very exciting, is it? "By doing this, you're training your brain to strip away the emotion and just focus on the facts of your food choice," Dr. Jacobs explains.
Is this food splurge-worthy?
And I mean worthy, people. There is some mind-meltingly delicious food in this world. There's a lot of mediocre stuff too. When it comes to indulgent treats, there's no reason to settle for anything less than the best, yet we do it all too often. You'd never buy a car that looks kind of like the one you want, or splurge on a bottle of perfume that smells merely okay. Why not be just as selective about the treats you eat?
If you're having trouble deciding whether the food you're fixated on is worth the calories, try this mind trick: Simply tell yourself you can have it later. People who postpone a treat they're yearning for actually decrease their craving and eat less of the food over time, according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Delaying is an effective strategy because your goal is to simply get past the craving. Tomorrow -- or even a few minutes from now -- that seemingly must-have food may be the furthest thing from your mind.
Though your brain may be telling you how blissful it would be to polish off the doughnut holes your coworker brought to the office this morning, you know you'll probably regret that decision. Comfort food is not actually comforting. Think back to the last time you binged on something rich and fattening. Maybe your stomach hurt afterward, or you felt a little sick. And then there was that miserable sugar crash an hour or two later. Do you really want to relive that?
Another thing to keep in mind: "Almost all the pleasure you get from high-fat or high-calorie food comes from the first few bites," says Edward Abramson, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Another Diet. "After that, it doesn't have the same reward value." In other words, you only truly taste doughnut holes #1 and #2. Why obsess about something you'll enjoy for a matter of seconds?
Is the world going to end if I don't have it?
Obviously not. But when your inner voice is practically yelling at you to taste the cookies you just made for the church bake sale, it can feel like you're in crisis. "Feelings can be very compelling, to the point that people often think that they can't do anything about them," says Dr. Jacobs. "The reality is that you don't have to follow the feeling." The pleas coming from inside your head can drive you crazy, but you do have the power to say no. And as long as you keep resisting, your brain will eventually abandon its demands. Wait it out by distracting yourself, suggests Dr. Abramson. "Anything that occupies you intellectually or emotionally helps," he says. Strike up a conversation, play a game on your phone, or watch cute pet videos on YouTube -- now there's something sweeter than cookies.
If your inner voice always manages to come up with some justification for eating junk food, shut it down with these comebacks.
You hear: "Of course you can order fries -- you exercised today."
The comeback: "I'll end up eating all the calories I just burned off."
You hear: "There's no way you can pass up those brownies -- they're your favorite dessert!"
The comeback: "Eh, they don't look like anything special. I'd rather treat myself to the ones I really love from the bakery this weekend."
You hear: "Yay, you finally finished that hellish work project! This calls for a bacon cheeseburger."
The comeback: "That could be good, but a massage or a movie would be even better."
You hear: "You have to order that giant blueberry muffin with your morning coffee. It looks amazing."
The comeback: "Really? I have to waste 500-plus calories on something that's going to make me feel tired and cranky later?"