When is the doughnut *more* than just a doughnut?
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Adam Gilbert is a certified nutrition counselor and the founder of MyBodyTutor, an online weight-loss coaching service.
One of the questions I’m asked most as a weight-loss coach: How do I get over cravings?
Before we even get into cravings, know this: Having a craving isn't the same thing as being hungry. If your stomach is growling, you're feeling lightheaded, or the idea of any food is appealing, you're hungry for food. Try the broccoli test: If the idea of broccoli doesn't seem appealing, then you're probably having a craving. (And, FYI, there may be legit nutritional reasons behind your specific cravings.)
True cravings can quickly hijack your intentions of eating well. They can override your long-term, rational mind with thoughts like, "You deserve this!" or "Treat yourself!" or "It's been a long day!" or "YOLO!"
First, know that cravings happen to everyone, they are normal and okay. You aren't failing at your healthy eating goals because you're craving pizza. But there are a few options to help you stay on track when the "I need a doughnut" thoughts creep in.
Not great: Beat the craving.
The short-term, arguably most-popular way to deal? You do everything you can to not think about the food you're craving. The problem with this strategy is that it probably won't work.
Let's play a game. It only has one rule: Don't think about white polar bears. You can think about anything but white polar bears. Ready? Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now banish any thoughts of animals from your head.
It's okay. Everyone loses...at first.
Try to avoid thinking about a white polar bear and the bear will constantly come to mind. In fact, whenever you try not to think about something—whether it's cookies or white polar bears—it will come to mind. Your attempts at repressing the thought turn into a fixation. This is exactly why restrictive diets don't work.
Eventually, you'll likely give in because you can't take the internal debate anymore. "Should I eat this?" "I shouldn't eat this!" "You work so hard. You deserve it." "I'm not going to feel good afterward." "Treat yourself!" On and on the food noise goes. You know that if you give in, and eat whatever it is you're fixated on, you won't have to listen to the noise in your head anymore.
Better: Distract yourself from the craving.
Do you ever get so busy you forget to eat, go to the bathroom, drink water? Obviously, that's not a great scenario—but there's a reason it happens. When you immerse yourself in something, there's no room for the craving thoughts to creep in. (Related: Read how one writer finally crushed her sugar cravings.)
What's the best way to distract yourself? Try problem-solving games. In 2016, two studies published in the journal Appetite found that when participants were distracted, they were less tempted by food. Researchers found that playing Tetris for just three minutes was enough to disrupt the craving.
Play a level on Candy Crush or give your thumbs a workout on the Xbox—the point is to do something engaging. What can you lose yourself in: texting a friend, reading a book, watching Netflix, getting outside? The key is deciding what you'll distract yourself with before the cravings come on.
This strategy of dealing with the symptom works, but it's not as effective as getting to the root cause.
Best: Decode and prevent the craving.
A much better alternative is to figure out why you're getting cravings in the first place. Instead of asking yourself, "How do I get over this craving?" ask yourself, "Why am I craving this food?" Dealing with the root cause is critical to sustainable weight loss.
It's like drinking coffee because you have no energy, rather than addressing why you don't have energy: Are you only sleeping a few hours per night? Are you anxious? The cause of your energy deficit should be addressed and understood. If you address the underlying cause, you have a much better chance of making the behavioral change last.
After all, you probably know what you should do if you want to lose weight—whether that's eating more vegetables, steering clear of processed foods, or getting active. The real question is: Why can't you do it?
Let's unpack that like the package of cookies you crave at 3 p.m. Are you stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, bored, or in need of a quick escape from whatever you're doing? When you have an overwhelming desire to indulge, it's sometimes because something in your life feels overwhelming at the moment. Ultimately, cravings are a signal. It's a signal that something is bothering you. It's a signal that you're emotional about something. Like emotional eating, the key to getting over cravings is to figure out what you really want. (If this isn't sounding spot-on, read this: When Emotional Eating Isn't the Problem.)
This doesn't mean every craving is emotionally loaded—and it doesn't mean you can’t enjoy that doughnut, pizza, peanut butter, etc. Sometimes, you just want something because it's delicious—and that's okay! Feel free to enjoy your favorite food. The idea is to actually enjoy it, rather than feeling bad about it. (For example, one study even found that thinking "maybe later" is much better than thinking you can never have that treat.)
Next time you face a craving, ask yourself: Is there something that's bothering me? What can I do about it? And why don't I do anything about it?
These questions can help you get to the source of what's bothering you. When you're emotionally eating—and that's often what you're doing when you're giving into cravings—you're choosing to be powerless, because you’re entering a sort of food trance. When you're in that food trance, everything feels great—or, more accurately, you don't feel at all. Your mind finally turns off.
However, the moment you're done, the good feelings fade, and you're often left feeling guilty and regretful because you're not following through on your intentions. Shortly after that, the very reason why you had the craving surfaces again. (Part of the problem is that you need to stop thinking about foods as "good" and "bad.")
Instead, if you choose to be powerful and deal with what's potentially bothering you, you can walk away feeling like you've had a win. (Hello, non-scale victories!)