How to Outwit a Food Craving
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How to Outwit a Food Craving

Next time you get a sudden urge to dive into junk food, just hold off for a few minutes. Experts say that's all the time you need for the cravings to disappear.

Food cravings come on suddenly and are tough to resist. Before you know it, you're ripping open a bag of chips or inhaling a pint of double chocolate fudge ice cream. But researchers who study cravings know that the urges last only five to 10 minutes, a short enough time to just ride them out -- if you have the right tools.

Experts call this "urge surfing." "Urges are like waves," explains psychologist Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, in New Haven, Connecticut. They start out small, gain in strength, crest, and then subside. "By staying strong through the peak, you can sometimes outlast it," he adds. Here, some strategies to help you:

  • Tackle the emotions behind your food frenzies. Stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and anger can all trigger a craving. "Often when a person's emotional equilibrium gets thrown off, eating becomes a way to cope," says Dr. Brownell. If your food urges are linked to certain emotions, try to get to the heart of what's bothering you. Research shows that writing it down can help. If you have iron willpower, doing yoga, deep breathing, or meditation can help you relax and stay in control. If you don't, try something that's comforting and indulgent without being fattening, such as playing a silly game with your kids or browsing your favorite shopping Web site (but leave the credit cards in another room).
  • Think alternative foods. If you lust for chocolate doughnuts before your period or potato chips after a bad day, be sure you have a healthier food on hand, such as nonfat chocolate yogurt, sugar-free hot-chocolate mix, fruit, or nuts. "Eating something else that's healthier may take the edge off your craving," Dr. Brownell says.
  • Try to figure out why you have the craving. If you always long for a cream-filled glazed doughnut at 11 a.m., maybe you need a more substantial breakfast than a muffin (something with fiber or protein will keep you feeling full). If you have banished meat from your diet and suddenly salivate whenever you pass the meat section at your supermarket, your body could be telling you that you need more iron.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, September 2004.

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