Everyone has a unique relationship with food. Some see it as fuel, strictly and simply. Some see food as a hands-on art form. Some see food as an emotional crutch.
If you love food, you know what it's like to yearn for, salivate in front of, and crave your favorite foods. Cravings are the Spanish inquisitors to my 16th century heretic--experts at torture.
If you're also a health nut like me, you might ask: Why can't I just have a slice of that 12-inch-wide pizza, the one that smells like mozzarella married garlic bread and created a sensationally delicious baby?
Unfortunately, that one piece of pizza can start a waterfall of "cheat meals," undoing weeks or months of good nutrition. And, even if it tastes good, caving into cravings may result in a rollercoaster of energy highs and crashes along with upset stomach.
So until your "planned" cheat meal arrives on the schedule, it's best to do something about cravings. And I'm not talking about "motivation" techniques like looking at pictures, visualizing your abs--or lack of them--or whispering mantras: I will not eat the cookies. I will not eat the cookies. I can eat one cookie...dang it!
Instead, these are the 11 things you can actually do to outsmart cravings. Okay, so there are really 10 action items and 1 thing you can do if all else fails. Either way, it's time to say goodbye to the torture while wielding one of these murder weapons against your cravings.
1. Challenge Yourself: Go 2 Days with No Sugars or Empty Carbs
"But why can't you have insert-name-of-blood-sugar-spiking-diet-ruining-food-here?" Whether it's cookies, ice cream, cheese pizza, or fries-I get asked this question again and again. Then I have to explain that simple carbs, even in small doses now and then, can create an addiction problem.
Your body gets addicted to the massive, quick spike of energy. Then it crashes just as hard and wants to spike all over again.
When you try to get "back on the wagon" with your diet, your body rebels in a similar manner to a drug addiction. Cravings for your carb-drug-of-choice make you cranky, irritated, and distracted.
It sucks, believe me. So why not go to one of the sources of cravings and try to head them off before they rear their ugly, sugarcoated heads? If you can cut out sugars and empty carbs for 2 days, you'll definitely notice a difference. You just might not have cravings at all!
It's worth a try...right?
It may be difficult to cut out everything that has sugar or simple carbs, and you may want to take a break from most fruits as well-maybe with the exception of apples. But this challenge doesn't last forever. It's just enough to get you to a point where you are in control and not your cravings.
2. Dive into a Cup of Joe
Maybe you've never thought about coffee as a potential "craving killer," but it's time to wake up and smell the...well, the coffee, obviously.
Even as your spider senses start tingling that a craving is coming on, you should turn to your friend java. Not only does drinking anything tend to take your mind off of the immediate need for eating, but coffee may also suppress your appetite. If you're trying to make it between meals without grabbing a handful of office candy, coffee may be just what you need!
And don't forget the energy boost! When your body craves energy, those fast-burning carbs from candy, chips, and sugar-laden granola bars can look mighty appealing.
Instead, give your body a sugar-free and fat-free caffeine boost! You can even add sugar-free condiments like Splenda or sugar-free syrups for fun. I don't recommend getting addicted to sugar-free coffees, though, because it only makes indulging your sweet tooth with real sugary treats that much easier.
Try plain coffee or a plain latte with nutmeg, cinnamon, and a dash of cocoa powder. If the coffee/espresso is worth its stuff, this concoction will seem both exotic and delicious.
3. Fill the Munchies-Void with Healthy Snacks
Snacking is the second level of dieting hell. Why? Because the most popular and convenient snacks are usually pumped full of empty sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, saturated/trans-fats. Worse, they're low in anything that could be considered "good" for your body.
But when cravings strike and you have the mid-day munchies those vending-machine snacks and invulnerable-to-decay foods start to look like sweet, sweet heaven.
Stop! For the love of your pancreas, metabolism, and abs, just put that chocolate moon pie down. I can't magically make your munchies vanish.
So instead, chew on one of these options:
- Celery and natural peanut (or almond) butter
- 1/2 an apple and 2 ounces of low-fat cheese
- Broccoli dipped in hummus
- Low-fat Greek yogurt topped with walnuts, cinnamon, and a dash of honey
- Chocolate protein shake (go for a low-carb variety)
- 2 boiled eggs with a bit of salt, black pepper, and cayenne if you like it spicy
You'll likely eat less of one of these snacks than something out of a box or machine, and you'll feel fuller. Not to mention the actual health benefits of eating real foods with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein, and fiber.
Any of these snacks are sure to do in your cravings and provide you with substantially healthy nutrition.
4. Trick Your Sweet Tooth
Some people have a killer sweet tooth; mine is on wanted posters in 10 counties. Instead of constantly depriving yourself of things that taste good, trick your body with alternatives to sugar.
Here are some oh-so-sweet options for every-day use, baking, and cooking:
Stevia is derived from a shrub that grows in tropical areas across the world. The concentrated form of stevia is much sweeter than sugar and can be bought as a liquid or powder.
Stevia rates as a "0" on the glycemic index, meaning that, according to glycemic index scientists, stevia has no blood sugar effects.
However, to be turned into an easily consumed powder form, fillers like maltodextrin are added to popular brands of stevia. It's best to be aware of these fillers and still consume stevia with moderation.
Similarly, when using stevia in drinks or baked goods, you can usually find information on the sugar-to-stevia conversion online.
You'll recognize this zero-calorie sweetener all over the place in sugar-free varieties of foods, drinks, and even supplements. A popular brand name, Splenda, is widely used in baking and can be seen at coffee bars across the country. It's widely considered to be a safe alternative to sugar.
Don't be afraid to experiment with sugar-free versions of old favorites. It's possible to make sugar-free, high-fiber cookies, bars, and baked goods that taste amazing. Check out some of Jamie Eason's famous protein bar recipes for ideas. On the other hand, you can always go JNL style for dessert and freeze some fresh fruit on skewers for delicious and refreshing fruit-kabobs.
And don't forget flavored protein powders. With flavors like double-chocolate fudge, cinnamon roll, strawberries and cream and more, you can definitely find a delicious variety and keep it on hand for a convenient, protein-rich and sweet snack. Or use only a little bit of water and create a "protein-pudding" using your favorite flavor.
5. DIY Comfort Foods
This next list may not encompass a healthier version of every comfort food out there. But sometimes what we crave about comfort foods is not the meal itself but the texture, salt, crunch and gooey aspects of these foods.
DIY Healthy "Cheese Pizza"
What You Need:
- 1 whole wheat English muffin
- 1 tablespoon of low-sodium canned tomato sauce
- ¼ cup low-fat shredded cheese
- Spices to taste. (I recommend fresh basil, pan-roasted garlic, chopped, black pepper, and oregano)
What You Need To Do:
Cook the "pizza" in a conventional or toaster oven for 5 minutes (350 degrees Fahrenheit works well) or until the cheese on top starts to bubble and lightly brown while the English muffin toasts on the bottom.
For an even crunchier crust, toast the English muffin before assembling the pizza. Consider adding a bit of shredded chicken for a protein boost!
DIY Healthy "Fries"
What You Need:
- 1 medium or large sweet potato
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Spices to taste. (I recommend coarse sea salt, black pepper, and cayenne for a hint of spice)
What You Need To Do: Cut the sweet potato into equally sized, fry-shaped pieces-the better for baking. Heat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
On a non-stick cookie sheet, drizzle sweet potato with olive oil and toss to coat. Sprinkle on spices and spread potatoes into one layer. Bake sweet potato fries for 20-to-25 minutes or until brown and crispy on both sides, turning the fries occasionally.
Sweet and salty with the health benefits of sweet potato!
DIY Healthy "Burger"
What You Need:
- 1 pound super-lean ground turkey and your favorite spices/toppings
What You Need To Do: Form the turkey into patties and grill or pan fry to make your own burger! You can jazz your burger up with salsa a la Nicole Moneer, or you can try it with jalapenos, corn, veggies, low-fat cheese--just about any healthy condiment!
Skip the bun to avoid extra carbs or go with whole-wheat/multi-grain.
DIY Veggie Chips
What You Need:
- One of the following vegetables: carrots, sweet potato, kale, asparagus; veggie slicing or peeling kitchen utensil, olive oil, and spices to taste.
What You Need To Do: For carrots and sweet potato you will want to use a peeler or sharp knife to make wide, thin slices of veggie. For kale and asparagus you will just use the "whole" veggie.
Make sure to remove the bottom part of the asparagus stem, and for kale, remove the leaves from the stems using scissors or tearing with your hands-you animal.
Use olive oil to very lightly coat the surface of your veggie. Heat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread veggies out in a single layer on a baking sheet.
Each veggie will have slightly different baking time (anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes), so bake one type of veggie at a time. But all should be crispy when they are done!
Pair the veggies with a yogurt dip or hummus for a perfect snack.
6. Dip into Healthy Fats
It's easy to demonize dietary fat. Fat is higher in calories and often comes in foods that don't offer much in the way of nutrients. However, if you can break your fear of fat, you might discover that eating moderate amounts of healthy fats helps keep cravings at bay.
When you eat natural fats, your metabolism gets a stable source of energy to use, avoiding that notoriously sharp rise and fall of blood sugar. Your body gets substantial nutrition, stable energy, and hormone support. And you may get released from the burden of food cravings.
Add in healthy fats to your daily diet, and you may not even notice when your cravings disappear.
Try a palm-full of raw walnuts, almonds, or pumpkin seeds; half of an avocado, a spoonful of natural peanut or almond butter; flax seed oil on salad or oatmeal, low-fat cheese, low-fat cottage cheese, or low-fat Greek yogurt.
7. Jump on the Protein Train
You've probably heard by now that tipping your diet to include more protein and fewer carbs may assist fat loss while preserving lean muscle. Did you know that protein, similarly to fats, may help curb food cravings?
Next time you're about to give in to a bag of potato chips or the Monday morning doughnut, steer your hand toward a protein-rich snack instead.
You'll do your muscles, metabolism, and fitness goal a favor. Not to mention that you'll feel fuller for longer, and your sugar-addled brain will be able to quiet down.
Make sure that you have a substantial protein element in each meal and snack throughout the day. You can also keep protein ready-to-drink shakes or meal replacements on hand for a quick, satisfying end to your craving.
8. Create a Distraction
There always comes a time when being around foods that you crave is just too much to bear. Whether it's the smell of fried chicken or a carton full of dessert abandoned in the break room-sometimes you have to create a distraction for your brain before you can overcome the craving.
So go on a walk, listen to your favorite music, read a book, chew a piece of gum, or throw around a football with friends. Take a quick break and get your mind off of food. Just make sure that your "distraction" is an activity that engages some part of your brain or body, and that it's something you don't normally do while eating or snacking.
Watching a movie or lounging at a coffee shop are two activities I always associate with snacks, so I try to steer myself in another direction.
If you're able to, you can even distract yourself with a full on workout. Do some cardio or hit the weight racks. Afterward, you'll feel refreshed, less-stressed, and your cravings will have taken a hike to another sorry soul.
9. Wait 20 Minutes After Eating
Some of the strongest cravings can hit right after eating a meal. These cravings are usually strictly psychological. For instance, after eating a salty meal, I almost always crave a sweet dessert. In this case, one of the easiest things you can do is wait 20 minutes after eating.
In 20 minutes, your body will be able to recognize the nutrients it received from your meal or snack and start that metabolism cranking. With the physical reality of food and energy hitting your brain, it's more likely that you'll feel full and just not want to eat anything else.
Also, attention spans are pretty short in the age of Twitter, so after 20 minutes, you may just forget about it.
10. Don't Be Hungry-Utilize Meal Frequency
Are your cravings psychological or are you actually hungry? It's a question that most people talking about overcoming cravings want you to answer right now. And when you know which it is, supposedly your cravings will go away. I'm not so convinced.
Instead, I'd rather not be hungry. That way, when I'm craving something, I'll know it's not because my body is lacking vital nutrients. Meal frequency not only plays a large part in controlling portion sizes and calories but also in controlling hunger and cravings.
11. Congratulations! You've Earned a Reward!
If this 10-step program for defeating your cravings doesn't actually get rid of your cravings...just give in. I know, I know, it sounds like terrible advice. But if you can process the guilt of "cheating" and work extra hard in the gym or on a treadmill, you shouldn't have much to worry about. Giving in as a reward may actually help ease the stress of dieting.
But go easy! A full cheat day of foods will only end up making you feel sick. Instead, allow for that one craving to be satisfied. Maybe it is a cookie-so have one.
Even better if you can have one on a day you planned an intense workout. Remember to savor it, because, unlike Cookie Monster, "C" does stand for cookie but "Cookie" cannot stand as a major source of nutrition.
But if you follow the previous 10 tips, you might never have cravings again. Instead, you'll be eating those foods you think you crave in their healthy versions. And your love affair with good food can last a lifetime.