“Hella pizza late at night.
I keep saying just one more slice.
And I feel so HANGRY
Breakfast, dinner and lunch.
And the ice cream truck is the only reason I run anymore.”
There are the lyrics from yet another parody of Adele’s “Hello.” I thought “Hello From the Mother Side” – an ode to stressed out moms everywhere – was pretty awesome. But this one topped the charts for me. Dubbed Hella Cravings by its creators, Dustin and Genevieve Ahkuoi, it’s spot on when it comes to how many of us feel about eating healthy and exercising.
It’s no secret that one of the biggest obstacles to eating healthy is junk food cravings. Whether it’s sweet, salty, or spicy that you crave, we all get them. And while there is no one-size fits all solution to overcoming cravings, understanding why cravings occur and what triggers them for YOU is the key to overcoming them.
Take this quiz to identify the triggers that bring on your cravings and reveal strategies that will work for you.
POP QUIZ: I am most likely to give in to my cravings when…
A. I am dieting or trying to lose weight.
B. I am at a party, out at a restaurant, or in other social situations.
C. I feel stressed, anxious, guilty, upset, lonely or depressed.
D. I am watching television or late at night.
E. All of the above! My cravings are out of control!
If you answered A…
1. Make sure that you’re not cutting your calories so low that your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs to function at an optimum level, which leads to food cravings.
- To lose 1 pound a week, you need a calorie deficit of 3500 calories/week or 500 calories/day. The optimal calorie deficit to stimulate fat loss without leaving you feeling hungry and lethargic is 500-700 calories below your baseline if you are within a normal weight range (BMI 18.5-24.9), 700-1000 calories if you are overweight (BMI 25-29.9), and 1,000-1,500 calories if you are obese (BMI ≥30). This calorie deficit includes exercise. So, if I want to lose 1 lb/week, I can create a caloric deficit of 500 calories/day by burning 300 calories exercising and reducing my caloric intake in food by 200 calories. It is suggested that women eat at least 1200 calories/day and men eat at least 1800 calories/day. Going beyond this will slow your metabolic rate and hinder your weight loss efforts.
- You can use an online BMI calculator to determine your Body Mass Index. To find out how many calories you should consume to lose weight safely and efficiently, calculate your baseline caloric needs (i.e. the amount required to maintain your weight) using an online Basil Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator and subtract the caloric deficit specified above based on your current BMI.
2. Make sure you are eating a healthy, well-balanced breakfast within about an hour of when you wake up.
- Eating breakfast jump starts your metabolism and helps keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout the day. Skipping breakfast or going 4-5 hours without eating during the day causes your blood sugar levels to drop and your body to go into “starvation mode.” As a protection mechanism, your body will conserve energy by reducing your calorie expenditure, meaning your metabolism will actually DECREASE, sabotaging your weight loss efforts.
3. Eat every 2-4 hours (3 meals and 2-3 snacks) and balance each meal with a carbohydrate, lean protein, and healthy fat (see examples from my Keep It Super Simple Meal Planning Guide).
- Eating every 2-4 hours prevents your energy levels from crashing, speeds up your metabolism, keeps your body in the “fat burning zone” and prevents your hunger from reaching a point where you are “starving”, making you less likely to overeat and give in to food cravings.
4. Allow yourself to have healthier versions of the foods you crave or plan a few “indulgence meals” a week so you don’t feel deprived.
- If you’re craving something sweet, try a piece of fruit, a protein smoothie (chocolate is my favorite – email me at email@example.com for samples), or some homemade trail mix. Whip up some “Chocolate Peanut Butter Pudding” by mixing 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 2T natural PB, 2T unsweetened cocoa powder, and 1-2 T honey or a pinch of pure Stevia (2 servings). Top it with ½ cup fresh berries to make it a complete “meal” – Greek yogurt for protein, Natural PB for healthy fat, and fruit as your carbohydrate. Visit my blog for more healthy snack ideas and check out my blog post – 12 Decadent Desserts that You Can Enjoy Guilt Free.
- One reason we crave sugar is because it stimulates dopamine release, an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain that produces feelings of pleasure. Foods high in sugar, like chocolate, produce this feeling, but there are other, less sugary, lower calorie foods that can cause a similar response. They include almonds, avocados, bananas, papaya, prunes, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, apples, strawberries, blueberries, black beans, leafy greens, and foods high in protein including eggs, fish, poultry, and red meat.
- Allow yourself to have a small amount of what you are craving. Strive to keep it under 150 calories by monitoring your portion size. Combine it with a protein and healthy fat like unsalted almonds when possible. Savor every bite, but don’t let it become a trigger to continually giving in to your cravings. Enjoy it and then move on, reminding yourself of your WHY!
5. Follow the 80/20 rule.
- I am a huge advocate of this. The reason so many of us “fall off the wagon” is because we try to eat clean 100% of the time. That mentality is unrealistic, sets us up for failure, and results in periods of binge eating because we feel deprived. It’s also the reason why diets don’t work. The best way to combat unhealthy food cravings is to focus less on dieting and more on eating a well-balanced diet with a few of the foods we crave in moderation, assuming we have enough self-control to not let it start a waterfall of poor eating.
- The 80/20 rule is simply this: Eat healthy 80% of the time. Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods (not pre-packaged or highly processed), lots of veggies, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Then, have that glass of wine, piece of cake on your birthday, dessert when you go out to eat, or nachos at the game. Gradually, work your way up to 85/15 and then to 90/10 if possible, which equates to 3-4 “indulgence meals” (preferably NOT on the same day) during the week. The BOTTOM LINE is that you want to build a lifestyle that is sustainable. Don’t try to be perfect – none of us are. Find a balance that works for you, live life and enjoy it – no “dieting” necessary! (For more information on Clean Eating, visit my Clean Eating 101 page).
If you answered B…
1. Plan ahead!
- When going out to eat, check out the menu ahead of time and look for healthier, low calorie options. Even fast food restaurants have healthy options (see Top Fast Food and Frozen Meal Picks).
- Think outside the box – order a side salad with an appetizer, a lunch-sized portion, or pack half of your dinner portion in a to-go container when it first arrives so you’re not tempted to supersize your portions. When attending social gatherings, bring something along that you can eat and choose one or two items to “splurge” on after you’ve filled up on healthy foods.
2. Change the way that you think so that your sole focus is not on the foods that you eat but the company that we are with!
- Don’t hang out at the food table or be tempted by other people’s poor food choices. Try to get yourself out of the “special occasion” mindset where you can eat whatever you want whenever you want.
3. Get active!
- If you’re going out to eat and know you’ll be consuming some extra calories, make a point to do something active that day. “Earn your meal” by going for a walk/run or doing one of those amazing Beachbody workouts. I may be biased, but nothing beats getting a great workout in 30 minutes without leaving the comfort of your own home. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like me to help you select or customize the perfect program for you!
If you answered C…
1. You tend to give in to cravings to fulfill an emotional, rather than physiological, need. To find out what you are ACTUALLY craving, identify your emotional or environmental trigger/s.
- Do you experience cravings every time your in-laws are in town or when your kids are screaming at each other? Are you more likely to give in to cravings when you are tired, bored, lonely, or upset? Or is it when you spot a Starbucks or your favorite fast food restaurant? The key is not to ignore or refuse your cravings, but instead to acknowledge what causes them and then REPLACE the unhealthy habit with a healthy one that will achieve the same reward.
2. Don’t refuse your cravings. Replace them with a different activity (besides eating) that will achieve the same reward. Let’s look at a few examples…
- If you’re bored or need a break in routine, can you get outside, go for a walk, or pick up a project that’ll take your mind off food? Clean out a junk drawer, organize files, or delete old messages from your inbox. If it’s a break in routine or a change in activity that you crave, you’ll find that by getting moving or by getting involved in an alternative activity.
- If you’re feeling lonely, call or visit a friend, play a game with your kids, write a note of encouragement, make a meal for someone in need, or send a thank you note or birthday card.
- Stressed? Turn on some music, dance, exercise, read, take a bath, pray, meditate, give yourself a mani/pedi (or better yet, go get one!) or write in a journal to get your feelings out.
- Tired? Often cravings occur because we want an instant pick-me up, but this short-term energy boost isn’t what you REALLY need. Brush your teeth to signal NO more food and go to bed!
- The key is to divert your focus AWAY from the food that is tempting you. Instead of saying, “I will not eat that cookie” over and over in your head, focus instead on the NEW activity. Try it for 10-20 minutes and, if you still feel like eating allow yourself to have a healthy snack. At first, this will take conscious effort, but in time this new activity will develop into a habit you can count on to avert temptations.
3. Make peace with yourself. Engage in activities that will encourage you and build your self-esteem while also holding you accountable.
- I too am guilty of eating when stressed, sad, lonely, upset, or just bored, but we can change our habits simply by changing our mindset. It all starts with how we view ourselves. Making peace with ourselves does NOT mean accepting that we will always be the way we are now. It means loving yourself while you are growing towards becoming the person you WANT to be in order to do the work that is required for you to ACTUALLY get there. If you’re waiting to love your appearance before you love the person you are inside, you’re doomed. Your self-worth is NOT determined by your physical appearance, it’s found in your potential, in your purpose (not your occupation), and in Christ, who gave His life for you. YOU must believe you are worthy of the hard work and of becoming the person you are destined to be. Once you believe that, you will WANT to treat yourself better. You’ll want to improve because you’ll believe deep down that you are meant for something bigger and greater. Accept who you are now so that you can move forward.
If you answered D…
1. To prevent mindless eating, stop and ask yourself, “Would I rather…?”
- “Would I rather eat this ___ and feel like crap afterwards by overloading my body with sugar, contributing to weight gain, and taking a step BACKWARDS from reaching my fitness goals? OR would I rather eat this apple with peanut butter to satisfy my sweet tooth so I can feel proud of myself for making a healthy choice?
- “Would I rather eat this ___ and feel good for a few minutes OR choose a healthier alternative and feel good about it for the rest of the day?”
- “Would I rather eat this junk food that I’ve been craving for an hour OR resist the temptation and achieve the body/energy/health/self confidence that I have been wanting for years?”
- Follow up with “I choose” and a reason WHY you’ll be happier with the healthier choice. “For example, I choose to eat an apple because it will nourish by body, I will feel great about myself, and I can’t wait to reach my goals!” This may seem silly, but taking a moment to THINK ABOUT OUR DECISIONS and HOW YOU WILL FEEL AFTERWARDS can make all the difference! To help remind you to do this, consider posting the words “WOULD I RATHER” on your fridge or pantry door or post a motivational quote or picture somewhere it is clearly visible to stay on track!
2. Use the STOP CHALLENGE CHOOSE or STOP BREATHE THINK Strategy.
- Similar to the strategy above, the point is to take a moment to breathe and THINK about your actions ahead of time instead of acting impulsively. STOP CHALLENGE CHOOSE was shared with me by a client who came to me for support after finishing the Medifast program, returning to “normal eating” and gaining her weight back. It works like this: When you feel tempted, STOP. CHALLENGE your temptation, asking yourself, what decision will benefit me overall – not just in this moment? Then, CHOOSE what will benefit you the most in the long term.
3. Keep a food journal, use myfitnesspal, or take a picture of everything you eat BEFORE you eat it. This will bring a level of awareness that prevents mindless eating.
- For added accountability, get an accountability partner or coach – someone you can check in with daily, share your meal pics/food journal with, and who will hold you accountable to your goals. (For more information or to register for my one-on-one or group coaching programs, please email me at email@example.com)
4. Make a commitment to get active.
Hormones released during cardio actually suppress your appetite, which will prevent mindless snacking in the evening. Plus, you’ll be working hard to achieve your goals and won’t be tempted to jeopardize the progress you’ve made.
If you answered E…
1. It’s time to regain control! And not just of food, but of other things in your life that may be out of balance or make you cause you to feel out of control.
- Remind yourself that you control what you eat, not the other way around. You have the power to make choices you will be proud of and which will shape the person you want to become.
2. Plan your meals AHEAD OF TIME.
- Having snacks that are prepped and ready to go as well as ingredients to prepare healthy meals ahead of time can make all the difference! Meal planning and grocery shopping might seem like an added stress, but it can be a lifesaver. For sample meal plans, click HERE. (When you join one of my group programs, you’ll get weekly meal plans complete with recipes and shopping lists!)
3. Remind yourself that God does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can endure.
- This applies to all types of temptations, including food cravings. He will “make the way of escape,” meaning we have other options! “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7 ESV). It’s time to exercise this self-control and remember that we have a power greater than willpower – His power! It may seem impossible, but we are able to bear it and we become stronger individuals – physically and spiritually – when we persevere and rely on God’s strength. Pray that He will help you act with purpose and intention rather than giving in to fleeting temptations and that you will find a “way out” by substituting a different, healthier routine in place of your food cravings.
The Bottom Line: If we want to be fit, we have to train our bodies, exercising our muscles on a regular basis so they become stronger. If we want to implement healthier eating habits, instead of training our body, we must train our MIND. We can think of willpower as a muscle – the more we use it, the stronger it gets. Saying “no” to unhealthy cravings takes self-control, which doesn’t come naturally to many of us, but just as we must exercise self-control when it comes to what comes OUT of our mouths, we must do the same for what goes IN. By using one or more of the strategies outlined above, you can learn to REPLACE YOUR CRAVINGS WITH HEALTHIER HABITS instead of refusing them or focusing on them. As with any new habit you are trying to implement, prayer and accountability can be powerful tools to help you exercise self-control, persevere, and reach your goals.
CALL TO ACTION (share in the comment section): What was your answer to today’s pop quiz and which strategy resonated most with you? Share the healthy habit you will use to replace unhealthy cravings.
If you found this post helpful, please subscribe to my blog to receive notifications of new posts by email and get free resources to live a healthier life. For ongoing support and accountability to get your diet back on track, get fit, be more intentional with your time, and/or grow in your faith, please join my Fueled Fit Focused Facebook Community. Thank you!
Additional Resources: Are you looking for some delicious recipes to cut back on your sugar intake? Check out this 72 Hour Sugar Free Challenge Meal Plan (with shopping list) and additional tips on curbing carb cravings.