Don't let your cravings for sweets sabotage your diet or weight loss efforts. Learn the healthy tricks to nix these eating habits
You know the feeling: a sudden, powerful desire to throw a coat over your pajamas and drive to the nearest market because you absolutely need that one chocolate cookie. Food cravings are practically universal—research shows virtually all women ages 18 to 35 have had a craving in the past year. But, as anyone who has tried to just eat one cookie knows, these urges can wreak havoc on your efforts to lose—or even maintain—weight. (Your sudden need for snacking could be your body trying to tell you something. Find out What Your Food Cravings Mean.)
Good news: An ongoing study at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that while 94 percent of dieting participants report cravings, they are still able to shed pounds by managing the impulse. It’s good to know what triggers a food obsession (stress, a memory, the need for comfort, boredom), but how well you deal with the discomfort may matter more, says Laura Slayton, R.D., a nutrition practicing in New York City, and author of The Little Book of Thin.
The biggest mistake you can make? Trying to go it alone: Studies shows that having any kind of game plan makes you better able to resist. Instead of just digging in your heels against unhealthy urges in the name of weight loss, try one of these tricks to fight cravings without going crazy.
Food prompts are everywhere, and these cues spark cravings, whether you realize it consciously or not, says Evan Forman, Ph.D., professor at Drexel University and an expert on food cravings at the Lab for Innovations in Health-Related Behavioral Change. It’s that uninterrupted hum that exists under the radar and keeps your brain perpetually reminded of the pleasure of food. We live in an eating-centric world, as Forman points out, so control your corner of it: Avoid having food you crave in the house, don’t window-shop for food and recipes online, find a route for your commute that doesn’t bring you past delicious places, stop “just looking” at what’s stocked in the vending machine today…. Simple enough, but effective.
As anyone who’s raided the fridge while watching late-night TV knows, you’re at prime risk for furious snacking at night, according to a study published in The Journal of Obesity. “It’s the work of your circadian system, which amps up cravings come sundown, telling you to keep eating in order to store energy until the next meal,” explains Steven Shea, Ph.D., from Oregon Health and Sciences University and senior author on the study. “Your food urges peak at 8 p.m. and stay high until midnight. Basically, the later you stay up, the more food you’re likely to eat.” Not getting enough sleep also triggers the release of hormones that are linked to hunger, which can spark more cravings the next day. (If you're legitimately hungry, try eating these Foods That Help You Sleep.)
“Imagining a scent, like freshly cut grass or gasoline, takes over the place in your brain occupied by a craving,” says Forman. “Focus on the smell for a few minutes and it can dissipate the strength of your urge.”
It’s not a “no,” so it won’t shift your body and brain into defiant mode. But postponing your indulgence can diffuse the intensity of the moment, and research shows that you’re not likely to end up treating yourself after the situation has passed. One caveat: Don’t attach a time to “later,” or you may hold yourself to it.
Acknowledge in the moment that you want a cupcake, or chips, or whatever your kryptonite may be, and just be Zen with it. Don’t try to push the feeling away, or ignore it, or punish yourself for it—just coexist with the feeling. “It’s a technique called urge surfing,” explains Forman. “It’s like being in the ocean: If you fight the waves, you’ll struggle, panic, and eventually go under. But if you just surf them, you stay calm and in control. It takes practice, but pretty soon you’ll learn that not fighting the craving, while also not giving in, is a perfectly okay state.”
Not surprisingly, women who try to ignore their hunger have stronger cravings. (Learn The New Rules of Hunger here.) A study out of Oregon Research Institute found that the more people cut calories, the more activity there was in the parts of the brain associated with reward and urges in response to all foods—especially highly caloric treats, like milkshakes. “Timing your meals and distributing your calories throughout the day so you’re not deprived for long stretches is key,” says Slayton. “Have a good breakfast, then eat what I call ‘dunch,’ which is dinner for lunch. No skimpy salads. That way, you go into the afternoon and early evening—prime craving time—fortified.”
When exposed to food cues, people low on protein had stronger cravings, found a study at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Scans showed that the areas of the brain responsible for reward had increased activity when protein-deprived people were shown pictures of, and smelled, savory foods, even when they ate as many calories as the control group,” explains Sanne Griffioen-Roose, lead author on the study. “They reached for more meat, cheese, and savory snacks.” The researchers limited the subjects’ protein intake for two weeks, but if your routine includes juicing, fasting, or a low-fat, veg-based diet, you might be in a similarly low state. Focus on breakfast and lunch; women often wait until dinner, at the end of the day when they need it least, to fill up on protein.
The foods women go bonkers for the most are sweet ones, according to recent research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That’s because when you eat sugar and carbs, your brain releases hormones like serotonin and endorphins, which make you calm and relaxed—for a little while. But then your insulin levels spike, causing you to crash. That makes you hanker for more sugar…and so starts the candy roller coaster. When you start the morning with sweetened coffee, you’re setting yourself up for a sugar-and-carb-frenzied day.
Routines are a huge factor in what you crave and when, says Slayton. “If you eat dessert every night, you’ll start to yearn for it midway through dinner. But habits are malleable.” Your body might not like being told it can’t have its treat, but it doesn’t mind a swap. Instead of cookies for dessert, have some Sweetriot cacao nibs, which are intense in flavor and have just a few calories. No, they won’t give you the exact same pleasure, but you’ll get enough gratification to hold you over until the craving fades. Other swaps Slayton recommends: If you’re dying for salt, try Brussel Bytes, which are the new kale chip, or Alexia baked sweet potato fries. “The trick is to not think of it as a lowly substitute,” says Slayton, “but instead be excited about all the delicious options you do have.” (Here are 8 Clean-Eating Recipes to Satisfy Any Craving.)