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Break the Cravings Cycle

Giving in to your cravings can make you feel like an absolute failure as you strive to become a healthier more fit you. In this article, I'll break down the real reasons you can’t stop giving in to your cravings, and explain how to use smart behavioral strategies so you can finally conquer your cravings.

I know that I can't be the only one that has stared at an empty carton of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream (Tonight Dough is the best, don't even try to debate), with a belly full of shame, and wondering, ‘How did I just do that?’

Everyone can relate!

Besides driving you to overeat, cravings can drive you nuts—making you feel like a failure who can’t keep from overindulging.

But you aren’t powerless against these urges, even if it seems that way.

It’s not about eliminating your cravings cold-turkey or building up your willpower. Relying solely on self-discipline all-too-often ends with a binge (and then a the same belly full of shame we just talked about). That is most often times wishful thinking.

The way to finally conquer your cravings is to out-smart them! By understanding why, where, and when they occur and creating a strategic action plan ahead of time.

The craving cycle works like this:

First comes the cue (the urge or craving), followed by the routine (the behavior of finding food that satisfies that craving). Then, you get the reward (eating the food you wanted). That last part is accompanied by a release of dopamine, giving your brain a “hit” of pleasure.

From there it can snowball: The more often you reward your brain, the more likely it is to stimulate the craving, and the stronger that craving may become.

Most cravings are closely tied to junk food and have little to do with true hunger. And each time you indulge these urges you reinforce the behavior, creating a “cravings cycle” that can hijack your progress (and your sanity).

Find the trigger(s)

Cravings are often brought on by environmental cues such as sight, smell, taste, location, or company. So tracking when and where your cravings occur can you help you figure out what triggers them. From there, you can adjust your environment and habits to disrupt the cycle.

Break the chain by using this great resource to help question your surroundings in the midst of experiencing a craving. Ultimately the goal is to be self-aware and find the triggers associated with your urges.

Change the pattern

Let’s say you tend to reach for ice cream an hour after dinner every night. According to your notes, you’re not even really hungry; you’re just craving something sweet, salty, or crunchy… or maybe a combination of the three.

Or maybe you’ve noticed that most days after your 3 pm conference call, you head to the cabinet for “just a handful of trail mix." Shovels bag into mouth. And you end up with a calorie bomb of a snack you didn’t need or even truly want.

Look on the bright side, you’ve just identified a pattern. Now you can disrupt the cycle with these smart behavioral strategies.

Strategy #1: Give it 5.

Notice your snack urge, and sit with it for five minutes without taking action.

This gives you the chance to evaluate all your options, and make a rational decision, rather than a reactionary one. Are you actually hungry? Or are you bored or stressed or procrastinating? Or maybe you're just dehydrated? Which reminds me, drink more water. Dehydration is usually a food craving in disguise.

Granted, you may still decide to go ahead and indulge. And that’s okay. Don’t consider this a failure. Simply think of this as an opportunity to gather more data about your cravings, so you better understand them for next time. These are the kinds of questions you can ask yourself to eventually find your trigger!

Strategy #2: Choose an activity other than eating.

Cravings are often psychological rather than physical.

Intense feelings, urges, and cravings don’t usually last longer than 15 to 20 minutes. If you’re not really hungry, the craving will likely dissipate. By focusing your mind or body in an activity long enough, you may run the urge all the way out of your system.

Once you sense a craving, choose an activity you can really dig into, such as:

  • working on a passion project

  • picking up that guitar you said you were going to start playing

  • responding to a few emails

  • calling a friend

  • going for a quick walk around the block

  • exercising, gardening, or cleaning

  • read a book

  • listen to a podcast... or better yet, listen to a podcast while walking. Mind blown.

Choose anything other than watching TV. That probably won’t help (and in fact, is often a trigger).

Strategy #3: Eat the right foods that will keep you full throughout the day.

What you eat during the day matters. Not so much what you eat on any given day, but what you eat most days.

Knowingly or unknowingly, people who overeat at night are often restricting their intake throughout the day. You might be skipping breakfast and having a salad with little or no protein for lunch. By dinner, you're ravenous and make irrational decisions.

Fiber (especially from low-calorie vegetables) and healthy fat from avocados, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, or chia seeds help fill you up, and protein keeps you full longer between meals. This makes eating a combination of these nutrients, in sensible portions at regular intervals throughout the day, key for regulating appetite and weight.

You may find if you do a better job of nourishing your body at other meals and staying hydrated, you won’t hear that demonic “feed me!” voice when you’re about to brush your teeth.

Strategy #4: Indulge but set some boundaries.

Really craving a chocolate bar? Okay, have one. Eat it slowly, and savor the experience. Once you are done eating it, it's done. No shame. No regrets. Yolo. Get right back on track the next time you eat.

I've also found success through using the "under these circumstances" game with clients.

Game 1: Have any snack you want, but it has to be purchased right before eating from a grocery store that requires a 10-15 minute drive or walk.

Oftentimes, clients report when getting to the grocery store the craving subsided. Half the time, some even decide it's not even worth the effort.

Game 2: You can eat it, but you have to make it. I am a huge advocate of cooking and baking your own food. Not only is it fun to put on your favorite playlist and cook, but it's also a huge eye-opener and educational tool being able to see first hand what actually goes into the process—the ingredients, servings, and methods involved in the finished product. If you went through all that to have some cookies, then enjoy it with some friends or family members.

Game 3: Try to make the food your craving just a little bit better by adding some fruit or trying a healthier alternative. But just note that in order for junk food alternatives to be helpful—instead of harmful—they need to be used in conjunction with the other strategies, like the ones in this article. Otherwise, you’re just continuing the cravings cycle with a different type of food.

The Bottom Line

Disrupting the cravings cycle is key, but it takes time and practice to master it. By understanding your specific craving cycle—why, where, and when they occur—you will be able to create a strategic action plan ahead of time. Use these strategies along with the 'Break the Chain' worksheet to conquer cravings for good.

Coach Cameron

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