Mind Over Meal: Nine Tips to Help You Pass Up Food Cravings

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By Dr. Joyce Nash

You’re sitting at your desk, diligently working the afternoon away…when all of a sudden it hits. You’re totally consumed by the intense need to eat a candy bar right now. You can see the soft brown chocolate as clearly as if it were already in your hand. Your mouth begins to water as you anticipate the rich, sweet taste, perfectly balanced by a few salty peanuts. You need that candy bar so badly it practically hurts, and you know there’s no way you’ll get anything done until your longing for chocolate has been sated. Yes, you’ve been blindsided by a craving…and if you’re not careful, intense desires like this one can sabotage your best efforts at maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

Whether you’re on an official quest to lose weight or just want to be healthy, it’s crucial that you control what you allow yourself to eat rather than letting what you want to eat control you. The good news is that there are specific steps you can take to change the way you react when your brain tells you to eat something, now.


So, first things first. What is a craving exactly? It’s an intense desire or longing for a particular substance. Both hunger and negative emotions can trigger one, as can imagining and thinking about something that would “taste good.” Even seeing an advertisement for a tasty-looking food or having an attractive leftover available can set off a full-blown craving.

The more you dwell on the idea of a particular food, the more you think about how much you want it and how great it would be to eat it, the more your craving grows. Pretty soon, that food is practically “calling to you” from the fridge, the table, or the vending machine—and you’ll need a predetermined game plan in place if you don’t want to answer.

As a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and anxiety disorders, I know what I’m talking about. And I can’t stress enough that while food cravings may seem unbearable, it is possible to recognize them as being thoughts—nothing more, nothing less—that your thinking mind is using to trip you up.

Responding differently to cravings involves accepting your thoughts as just thoughts and your feelings as just feelings, and remembering that these are nothing you must act on. When it comes to eating, acting on your thoughts gets you in trouble. So you need to be a skeptic and think about what you really want out of your life—the short-term relief from caving in to a craving or the long-term satisfaction of being as healthy as you can be. Observe and identify all of the cues that prompt cravings and tell yourself, I don’t have to act on that. Also, get rid of as much temptation as possible!

If you’re ready to do battle against the visions of chocolate bars and salty chips that dance in your head, read on for some advice on how to create a winning strategy:

Catch your craving early. Think of a craving like a weed: If you’re going to eradicate that unwanted plant life from your yard, it’s best to spray the weed killer early on before your entire lawn is infested. Likewise, if you interrupt a craving early on—before it gets out of control—you’re more likely to be able to stop it in its tracks.

It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut, just ruminating on the thing you want to eat. Try to consciously catch yourself doing this and purposefully turn your attention to something else. Think about a project you’re working on or recall a recent vacation—just don’t let yourself focus more and more on eating. If you continue to think about eating a particular food, your mouth will begin to water, and your mind will zoom-focus on that food until you lose control.

Remove yourself from temptation’s path. While this is one of those “no, duh!” pieces of advice, it’s amazing how many people persist in not following it. The fact is, though, that if you allow yourself to be around a food that typically breaks down all of your defenses, you have only yourself to blame when you cave.

If you’re serious about eating well, then for the love of all that’s holy, get out of the area of temptation! Cross the street if you see a bakery looming in the distance. Stay away from the food table at a party. Hang out anywhere but in the kitchen at the next family gathering!

Distract your taste buds. Most of us have been guilty of exclaiming, “Wow! Look over there!” and then pointing in the opposite direction of something we don’t want a friend or family member to see. It’s time to employ that tactic with your taste buds. The next time a craving hits you, make your senses focus on something totally different.

If possible, brush your teeth and gargle with strong mouthwash when you feel a craving coming on. It’s difficult to feel like eating afterwards. Or put a strong mint in your mouth—anything to divert your taste buds. Alternatively, try dabbing some cologne or strong-smelling ointment under your nose. These are short-term ways to stop a craving in its tracks.

Substitute, substitute, substitute. Yes, you can distract your taste buds through other tastes and scents…but you don’t have to stop there! Any other healthy use of your time can divert your brain from obsessing over food, too. Try to choose an activity that will physically remove you from temptation, take up much of your conscious thoughts, or both.

If you’re at home when a craving hits, hop in the shower—I’m serious! It’s hard to eat when water is cascading down on you. Alternatively, you might take your dog for a walk, call a friend to catch up, or get on the Internet. Do whatever it takes to distract yourself from wanting something to eat.

Become a (personal) environmentalist. You might not be able to control the fact that you see a picture of a big, juicy cheeseburger on a billboard each day during your commute, but you can control what you see in your own home. Managing your personal environment in terms of food is a crucial step not only in curbing cravings, but in eating well in general.

Get in the habit of putting leftovers away promptly and storing tempting food out of sight. Also, be careful when you shop. Use a list and don’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry. If you feel that you just can’t resist buying your trigger foods, take your spouse or a friend with you. After all…if you don’t buy it, you can’t eat it!

Watch how you talk to yourself. We all talk to ourselves (and it doesn’t mean we’re crazy!)—there’s always a running stream-of-consciousness commentary of observations, opinions, and thoughts running through our minds. But what you might not know is that this sort of self-talk can sink you before you even set out to conquer your cravings…or it can help you clinch the victory.

How do you think about yourself in terms of managing what you eat? Is it positive or negative? The fact is, thinking things like, I’ll never resist eating a piece of that cake, or, I already ate a handful of chips…might as well go all out since I blew my diet anyway make you much more likely to obey your body’s request for a particular food at a particular time. Instead, try to consciously tell yourself, That junk food is no match for me, or, I’m proud of myself because I know I can maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Don’t let hunger gain the upper hand. When you’re extremely hungry, unhealthy foods are likely to look even more attractive to you than usual. Plus, your resistance is likely to be at an all-time low. With a little planning, though, you can completely avoid this pitfall.

You’ve probably heard this advice before, and it’s still as true as ever. Don’t skip meals, and eat at least three of them a day with planned snacks. Never go more than three to four hours without eating. And drink plenty of water!

Remember, this too shall pass. Just like waves in the ocean, cravings peak and then subside. Using the tactics above, learn to “surf an urge”; in other words, ride it out. And sooner or later, that can’t-live-without-it craving will miraculously be gone.

If you find your hand twitching toward the door of the pantry, tell yourself to wait ten minutes, then decide whether or not to eat. In the meantime, get busy doing something else. Tell yourself something like, It won’t kill me to wait. I can handle it. Because guess what—you can!

Indulge in a little of a good thing. While it’s obviously a bad idea to throw in the towel each and every time a craving rears its head, remember that you can indulge in your favorite foods in moderation.

Maintaining a healthy diet doesn’t mean that you can never have deep-fried chicken or decadent German chocolate cake ever again. Just don’t allow these things to become the norm on your menu. When you do indulge, watch your portions and do so without guilt!

Yes, cravings are a very real temptation for everyone. But even though they might have been your diet’s downfall in the past, tomorrow is a new day. Using these tactics, you can reduce your vulnerability to the urges that prompt you to eat problem foods.

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Joyce D. Nash, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Menlo Park, CA, specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and anxiety disorders. She holds two Ph.D.s—one in clinical psychology from the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, CA, and one in communication from Stanford University. She also completed postdoctoral work at the Stanford University School of Medicine, during which time she founded the Diet and Weight Control Clinic at Stanford. Dr. Nash has authored nine books on behavioral medicine subjects and weight-related topics. For more information about Dr. Nash, visit her website at www.joycenashphd.com.

Lose Weight, Live Healthy: A Complete Guide to Designing Your Own Weight Loss Program (Bull Publishing Company, April 2011, ISBN: 978-1-933503-61-5, $16.95, www.loseweightlivehealthyguide.com) is available from bookstores nationwide and all major online booksellers.

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