Food cravings are the worst. They sit at the top of my “Most Annoying Diet Challenges” list, along with delayed onset muscle soreness and intermittent absence of motivation. Thanks to biological and social factors, cravings are almost impossible to avoid. Our bodies want to keep our weight and composition within a set range, food ads are everywhere, and so many social gatherings revolve around eating food. No wonder cravings hit so hard as soon as we start changing our diets.
So what are we supposed to do? Instead of rewiring our brains and adopting a hermit lifestyle, we can defend ourselves with a little advance planning and extra awareness about why and when cravings hit the hardest. Whether you’re goal is to lose weight, gain muscle or just stop eating crappy foods, these seven strategies will help you keep your diet on track.
1) Don’t Get TOO Hungry
We’ve all been there. That blind, “hangry” state where it’s been way too long since your last meal and suddenly that gas station hot dog looks like a good idea. When your body is this low on fuel, it may signal a craving for sugar or other simple carbohydrates because those are the fastest way to get glucose back into your system and recover your energy levels.
Strategy: Keep an eye on your hunger level. The hungrier you get, the harder it will be to make wise choices about what you’re eating. To avoid getting too hungry, increase the number of meals per day in your Eat This Much planner. You’ll still get the same number of calories to hit your goal, but more meals ensures you won’t go too long without at least having a snack.
2) Drink Water
Many times, our thirst manifests itself in the form of hunger. You can thank your hypothalamus for this one as it’s the portion of the brain responsible for regulating thirst and hunger. When that thirst signal is mislabeled, you’ll end up grabbing a snack instead of a glass of water.
Strategy: Drink water throughout the day, especially if you drink caffeinated beverages. How much water, exactly, depends on your body composition and diet, but six to eight glasses is a good starting point. Drink more if you have a steady workout routine. If you find it tough to remember, carry a reusable water bottle with you.
3) Get Enough Shut Eye
Being tired is a surefire way to suffer from cravings. When you’re low on energy, your brain turns to a reliable and quick boost – easily digested calories (think sugar and simple carbs.) There’s also the matter of having enough energy to make better meal choices. It’s much easier to order take out or hit a drive-thru than it is to cook a wholesome meal when you’re exhausted.
Strategy: Make getting enough sleep as high a priority as your new diet goals. Your body will reward you with more energy and a clearer head when it comes to making meal choices.
4) Boost Your Protein
Everything we eat can have an impact on how we feel, for better or worse. If your diet is comprised mostly of carbohydrates, you may find yourself on an energy rollercoaster, one where the highs feel great, but the lows hit fast and are filled with urgent cravings for snacks, sugar, etc. A diet out of balance like this will leave you feeling more susceptible to cravings more often.
Strategy: Add more protein to your diet in the form of lean meats, nuts, legumes, dairy, whey and soy. Protein doesn’t cause a rapid release of glucose in the bloodstream the way carbohydrates do, so you’re more likely to feel full for longer and avoid the crash in energy. As long as you’re not allergic, keeping a few almonds/walnuts/peanuts on hand is a great way to add protein on the go.
5) Fill Up On Fiber
There’s a reason why a plain bagel with jam is often more appealing than a bowl of lentil soup. Your body knows where it can get the quickest, easiest boosts of energy from food, so it creates cravings for simple carbohydrates and sugars. Too bad this is guaranteed to keep you stuck on the energy roller coaster, just like a lack of protein will.
Strategy: Identify high fiber foods and incorporate them into your diet. Much like protein, fiber is a slow burning superstar that enhances the feeling of satiety and helps balance out blood sugar levels. The easiest place to find fiber is in fruits and vegetables, which you already know you should eat more of.
6) Don’t Deny Yourself Completely
Sometimes a craving hits because you’re a human being. Our best intentions to stick with a strict diet regimen can lead to feeling deprived and bored. If you’ve denied yourself anything sweet or fried or salty for far too long, you could end up haunted by cravings all the time. Allergies and doctor’s orders aside, no single food or food group should be completely off limits, or you may find yourself succumbing to serious cravings for it.
Strategy: Indulge every so often and with mindfulness. Yes, it’s possible to reach your diet and nutrition goals while enjoying ice cream here and there. The same goes for chocolate, hot wings, beer, cookies, etc, as long as you don’t go overboard on the portions AND keep your indulgences rare. Eating these foods mindfully will help you enjoy them more and make them feel like more of a treat.
7) Plan Your Meals!
As good ol’ Ben Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Trying to reach a diet goal without a plan is like driving across the country without a map: you might make it there eventually but you’re likely to get turned around and even lost along the way. Not knowing what you’re having for lunch can easily turn into, “Sure, fried chicken sounds good,” or, “I’ll just order something, whatever,” when you’re hungry, stressed or tired.
Strategy: Align your meals to your goals in advance, as often as possible. This will ensure you can easily stay on track when cravings hit because you’re taking the brain-work out of the equation. You might want to eat an entire pizza for dinner, but when you have Hearty Beef Stew waiting for you after work, the choice becomes infinitely easier. If you haven’t already, see how easy meal planning can be when you use Eat This Much.
What do you get cravings for and how do you stay the course when they hit? Tell us in the comments below!