Crushing Cravings
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Crushing Cravings

Bad food urges happen -- even to good people! Here's what to do to keep temptation from hijacking your healthy eating plan.

Emotional Hunger

You're having a good food day, eating right and feeling satisfied with yourself, but the minute the sun goes down, it hits you: The urge to splurge. Throwing discipline out the window, you give in, eating not just a normal portion of the cookies, ice cream, or chocolate you crave, but the whole she-bang. Less than an hour later, before the taste has left your mouth, you're regretting your weakness and wondering why you have no willpower.

Well, give yourself a break. No matter how strong your psychological commitment, biology may be working against you. If you take a moment to understand how cravings work, you'll be able to arm yourself against future temptation.

Food behaviorists say there are two types of hunger -- physical hunger and emotional hunger. When you are physically hungry, your stomach sends a signal to the brain, saying it's time to eat. This signal, known as an internal hunger cue, is accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a feeling of emptiness in the stomach, stomach rumblings and grumblings, and even a feeling of light-headedness. If time passes and you don't answer the hunger cues, you may find yourself feeling irritable and fatigued.

Emotional hunger is not accompanied by these physical cues. How many times have you found yourself eating because you are bored, angry, sad, happy, depressed, anxious or stressed? When you do so, you are answering emotional huger cues. Why are you answering an emotional need with a physical response? It's a common cycle that may have started in childhood, with a parent or grandparent calming your tears or brushing away your complaints with food. As an adult, you still associate the sensation of eating or of fullness with the release of stress and pain. Are some of the foods you crave the same foods that comforted you in childhood? It wouldn't be surprising. That's where the notion of "comfort foods" comes from.

If you often find yourself eating for emotional comfort, you have a challenge ahead. The simple fact is, it is easier and psychologically safer to satiate yourself with food than it is to get at the root cause of your anger, boredom, anxiety, or depression and deal with it. Luckily, there are strategies that may help you.

The 5 D's

Linda Crawford, an eating behavior specialist at Green Mountain at Fox Run -- a residential weight and health management center in Ludlow, Vermont -- suggests using a group of strategies she calls "the 5 Ds".

Here's how it works:

When you feel a craving coming on:

Delay giving into it for fifteen minutes. Often the craving will subside. If it doesn't, move on to the next strategy.

Distract yourself from thinking about the food you crave by getting involved in an activity that requires concentration and that is not compatible with eating. Phone a friend, take a warm bath, vacuum the house, pop in a workout video, play music and dance around. Do something, anything that works for you, to take your mind off the urge to eat. You can even read or watch TV, unless these are activities that you associate with eating. If that doesn't work, move on to the next suggestion.

Distance yourself from the food you crave. Go to the gym, take a stroll, walk the dog. Get out of the house and away from the source of your temptation. If you still feel tempted, try the next strategy.

Determine how strong your craving is. How strong is your desire to eat the food in question? It's a good practice to rate your cravings on a scale of 1 to 10. If a craving is very strong, say, a 10, you may want to give in, especially if you have tried all of the previous strategies for dealing with cravings, but you still have a strong urge to taste the food. Now that you've determined you are going to have some of the food you crave, the question is, how much?

Decide what amount of food is reasonable and appropriate. Put a reasonable portion on a plate and return the rest. Eat your portion slowly. Savor every bite. And, most important, don't feel guilty. You've earned it!

Tips to Avoid Cravings

It's important that you not feel defeated if you occasionally give in to a food craving. Cravings can affect even the most determined dieter. But luckily, you can arm yourself against them:

  • Stop demonizing foods or food groups. Don't label foods "bad," "illegal," or "forbidden." It's not the food that counts so much as it is the portion size.
  • Don't starve yourself. Keep healthy snacks, like fruit or veggie sticks handy.
  • Don't skip meals as this will make you more likely to crave other foods and snack because you are hungry.
  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can sometimes be mistaken for hunger. Water will also make you feel full, so you'll feel less hungry.
  • Don't keep foods you crave in the house, and don't go shopping when you're hungry. You're more likely to buy temptation foods.
  • Indulge once in a while so that you don't feel deprived. Have a small portion of the food you crave -- a fun size chocolate bar, for example.
  • Exercise regularly. In addition to burning calories, regular exercise may relieve anxiety that can lead to the craving for comfort foods.