How to Resist Junk Food Cravings
Old Excuse: "I need to listen to my body, and it wants ice cream."
New Mantra: "What I want isn't necessarily what I need."
Think of your body as if it were a baby monitor: You should pay close attention to it, but you don't have to stop what you're doing each time it rumbles. "While hunger is your body telling you that you need to eat, cravings are a suggestion, not an order," says Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of Eat.Q.
Smart strategy: Start by determining whether you're actually hungry. Aside from the obvious symptoms like fatigue and irritability, pickiness is also a good indicator of appetite. The less you care about eating a specific food and the more you just want to eat something, the likelier it is that you don't have just a hankering.
If it is only a craving (for example, you would kill for a cookie but could easily pass on an apple), make yourself a cup of jasmine green tea and take a big whiff of it before you sip. In recent studies, women who smelled jasmine were able to significantly reduce their chocolate cravings. Or use your imagination: Other research has shown that visualizing yourself eating your favorite food can tamp down your desire for it by tricking your brain into thinking you've already indulged.
Old Excuse: "I've been really good lately."
New Mantra: "I've been feeling really good lately, and I want to keep it that way."
"When you use food as a prize, you risk sabotaging your motivation by signaling to yourself that you've reached an end point; you got the medal, so the race is over," Albers says. "This can be an open invitation to revert to unhealthy behaviors."
Smart strategy: Rather than rewarding yourself for a job well done, focus on how eating healthfully has already paid off. Do you have more energy? Do your clothes fit better? Then take a moment to let the emotions that come with that benefit sink in. Why? In the same way you can get addicted to the endorphins your body releases when you work up a sweat, "you can get hooked on the feeling of pride or progress, which makes you want to continue down a healthy path," Dr. Colbert says.
Old Excuse: "If that skinny girl can eat a brownie sundae, so can I."
New Mantra: "I need to eat what's right for me."
Everyone has a thin friend or coworker who seems to live on junk food and lots of it. And because studies have found that women tend to eat more when they're together, you probably want what she's having every time you two go out to lunch.
"Imitating other people, or 'social modeling,' is how we learn to navigate the world almost from the time we're born, and it's a hard habit to break," says Sonali Sharma, MD, a psychiatrist in New York City. But as tempting as it is to imagine that your friend has discovered some kind of fifth dimension for dieters, whatever is going on with her probably doesn't translate. "Maybe she has a fast metabolism or spends hours in the gym every day," Dr. Sharma explains.
Smart strategy: According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, having a healthy role model can play a key part in helping you stick to your diet and exercise plan. So think of someone, whether it's a celebrity or a friend, whose eating habits you aspire to. (Skip the pin-thin actress who subsists on diet soda alone and instead choose a woman who has professed her love for pizza but limits herself to two slices.) Then, rather than matching Ms. Sky-High Metabolism bite for bite, think, What would my health hero do? and act accordingly.
Old Excuse: "I'll work it off later."
New Mantra: "I'll work out now and treat myself later."
When you're faced with a cupcake in all its frosted deliciousness, more time at the gym might seem like a reasonable trade-off. The problem is that "we're all optimists when it comes to our future selves," Dr. Colbert says. "But diets run on momentum. It's easier to eat well when you're feeling successful and seeing results than it is when you're trying to compensate for a transgression."
Smart strategy: Pound the pavement first and see if you still want that treat afterward. According to a study from Brigham Young University, women had less of an appetite after exercise, which may lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. And in a separate study, a 15-minute stroll cut chocolate consumption almost in half. Jonesing after you've changed into your pj's for the night? Australian scientists found that swishing a drink that contains glucose, like Gatorade, can bolster flagging willpower.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2014.
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