How To Stop Food Cravings: Achieving Self Control Over Your Eating Habits
Dealing with food cravings can be one the hardest part of losing weight and maintaining any weight loss can only come if there is some degree of self control over your eating habits. The most common phrase that I have heard over the past 30 years when it comes to the foods they find themselves craving is, “I can’t control myself!” Often, the very thought of having to deny yourself your favorite junk foods sends many into paroxysms and can in some cases increase food cravings. Leading so many to resign themselves to the idea that they lack the willpower to eat consistently well and control their eating habits. This leads to some interesting questions about human nature; are some people just better endowed with innate abilities to control their food intake and maintain a healthier lifestyle? If so, does that mean that if you aren’t one of those iron-willed few who can easily stroll past the not-so-great-foods at the buffet table without stopping that you are doomed to an eternity of trying to stay on your diet and control your eating habits, but always failing? Research has given us some fascinating and useful insight into these questions and the answers leave us with hope for everyone in being able to master our eating habits. In this article and in the podcast above, we will delve into some behavioral strategies that have helped thousands of people gain control over their cravings and set them on the path towards being able to maintain a healthy diet. Thanks as always for tuning in and do be sure to share this article and podcast with those who you think might find it to be of use!
How To Stop Food Cravings- Understanding Where Cravings Come From
A craving is defined as “a consuming desire or yearning” for something outside of the self.  Food cravings are almost completely ubiquitous and appear to be more prevalent in women than men, as studies have found as many as 97% of women and 68% of men report some episode of food cravings.  A daunting statistic and self-control in the face of these cravings can seem to be a Sisyphean task as our cravings are not simply our brain trying to sabotage our weight loss efforts, but represent a form of self-comfort for most people. Some behavioral scientists theorize that there is a connection between food cravings and our moods, especially with carbohydrates. The idea is that many of us consume (usually refined) carbohydrates as a way of elevating mood. A form of easily accessible self-medication for lack of a better word, for coping with and or avoiding unpleasant states. Consumption of highly refined carbohydrates have been linked to increases in the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which has been shown to produce marked increases in positive mood.  Much of the literature on food cravings has been devoted to carbohydrate cravings and to the connection between food and mood. A frequently proposed theory is that many individuals ingest carbohydrates in an effort to elevate mood (3). This theory postulates that, in essence, food is being used as a form of self-medication to ameliorate unpleasant affective states. This occurs through increases in the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to have a positive impact on mood.
How To Stop Food Cravings- Chocolate Isn’t The Problem, It’s Fat And Sugar
Chocolate is one of the most frequently craved food in the United States  with 40% of women reporting cravings and 15% of men, and most say that other foods don’t satisfy the craving for chocolate.  As a side note, chocolate isn’t really what people crave, as studies have shown that it’s actually the sugar and fat and not the chocolate being craved. Researchers randomly presented self-proclaimed “chocolate cravers with closed boxes containing either a milk chocolate bar, a white chocolate bar, capsules of cocoa or a placebo. One would that the high chocolate content of the cocoa capsules would satisfy the craving, but it didn’t as only consumption of the white or milk chocolate bars reduced the cravings. We are in essence hard wired to crave sugar and fat as all mammals are programmed to have sugar, fat and salt cravings as these are the three main ingredients of breast milk. Without this innate craving, we would have all died out as a species, as the suckling mechanism would not have taken place after birth and without milk infants would starve to death. The problem is that this little universal aspect of what it means to be human is universally exploited by food manufacturers who use our intrinsic cravings for fat, sugar and salt to develop foods that directly appeal to these desires. When most people choose a food, they do so not based on the nutritional value of the food, but rather how they expect them to taste and the signals of pleasure their brains will discharge as a reward. Which is why high calorie, high fat and or high sugar foods are such an indelible part of the Western diet as it does take a lot to not give into their siren song.
Making matters worse is that the Catch 22 that more you try to avoid a high energy food, as is the case with almost any practical weight loss program, the more likely you will be to crave it.
Dieting and restrained eating increases the likelihood of food cravings, while not eating at all diminishes cravings. A notable finding as it shows that there are a slew of underlying cognitive, conditioning and emotional processes associated with food cravings, which is good news as it means that if we learn how to crave foods, we can learn how to minimize these cravings.
How To Stop Food Cravings- Lessons from The Marshmallow Experiment
In 1965 a landmark experiment was carried out at Stanford University by Professor Walter Mischel with 653 preschool children. It was called the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’ and its findings were landmark in terms of understanding human self-control. The goal of the experiment was to explore why it was that some children are able to delay gratification while others almost immediately succumb to temptation. By using preschoolers, the experiment was focused on assessing innate abilities, rather than those learned through life experience and determine the natural inclinations of the children in the experiment. The tests were extremely simple, but perhaps torturous for the preschoolers involved. Each child was made to sit in a game room and asked to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies or pretzel sticks. Researchers then gave each child a challenge, they could have one treat immediate- a treat that was placed directly in front of them at the table, or if they were willing to wait for a few minutes, they could have two treats when the researcher returned. If the wait felt unbearable, the child had the option to ring a bell left on the table. At which point the researcher would come back into the room and the child could have one treat but would forfeit the second treat.
You imagine the dilemma that this would have presented for those poor preschoolers- a dilemma that is not far removed from what many of us experience today as adults when faced with the choice of instant gratification from eating junk foods or abstaining in the hopes of enjoying a future reward of a better body and better health. A perplexing predicament indeed, and what happened next in the experiment was as most would expect. The children all wanted to try to get the second treat and struggled to be patient and not ring the bell immediately. A few kids ate the treat as soon as the researcher left the room without even bothering to ring the bell! However, on average most persevered for about three minutes before succumbing to temptation. What was fascinating though, were the 30% of preschoolers who were able to successfully delay their urges until the researcher came back into the room fifteen minutes later.  A veritable eternity by preschooler standards!
How To Stop Food Cravings- Metacognition Exercises
Professor Mischel continued to track these kids into adulthood and what he found was that those on the lower scale of being able to delay their gratification in the experiment as children were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and be more inclined to have substance abuse issues and behavioral problems as adults.  Not surprisingly the kids that were able to hold on for the full fifteen minutes tended to do better academically and socially. Proving that some of us may indeed have genetically predetermined abilities that help delay gratification and in many ways increase the likelihood of success in many areas as adults. From a weight loss and self-control perspective, some of us are naturally able to resist the temptation of the foods that we know we should not eat. This might make those less inclined to delay their gratification urges throw their hands up in the air in defeat and resign themselves to a life of never having the self-control to lose weight and overcome food cravings, but this is not the case at all!
Of all the data extrapolated from the marshmallow experiment, the most intriguing and perhaps most important finding are from the group of kids who failed the marshmallow test early on as preschoolers, but went on nonetheless to become adults with impressive self-control. This group highlighted the idea that what we call “willpower” is simply a matter of learning how to control our thought processes. A skill that can be learned over time. Professor Mischel observed that the kids who were able to wait for the full fifteen minutes all used the same set of coping skills to hold out. Skills that we can all use today to help us gain a measure of self-control over even the strongest of food cravings and any other form of temptation for that matter.
The Golden Rule- Learn To Distract Yourself
The kids who held out the longest during the Marshmallow Experiment all distracted themselves in one way or the other, by covering their eyes, singing songs or playing games, basically doing anything to remove their focus from what is termed the ‘hot stimulus’. For those of us placed in a situation where we are confronted by that situation where you are face to face with an opportunity to eat a food that you know you should avoid, but have a craving for nonetheless, the key to getting away without blowing your diet it to just not to think about it by distracting yourself. Don’t even think about avoiding it, as that keeps the focus on the hot stimulus and actually makes it more likely that you will give into the craving. I mention this strategy not as an intellectual or abstract mechanism, but as one that I myself have employed with outstanding results over the years. I struggled many years ago with cravings for donuts. (Or to be technically correct, a craving for the sugar and fat that donuts delivered.) Not a light craving, but a serious one that manifested itself after my earlier bodybuilding contests where I would diet down to the low single digit body fat percentages following a quite strict and demanding diet. One day after winning a show, I stopped by a Dunkin Donuts shop right next to where I worked and got myself a dozen glazed donuts. I promptly proceeded back to my office where I ate all twelve and marched back out to get another dozen! I ate that dozen and went out again and in so doing I ate 36 glazed donuts in a half hour!
It didn’t stop there. As time when on I would find myself suddenly struck with an almost insatiable urge for those sugar-coated monsters. I would leave the house at odd hours in search of my donut fix and about a month or two into this insanity I realized that I had a very real problem that had to be addressed. The next time I had one of my overwhelming desires for donuts, instead of focusing on not eating them I would distract myself by thinking about something else or occupying myself with some form of activity (some of the things I don’t think I will put in print). It was not easy at first, but over time the cravings did subside, and I haven’t had a donut since 2003- and I don’t see myself ever having one ever again in this lifetime. This method didn’t just work for me for avoiding donuts- but it worked equally well for pizza, bread, pastries and just about every high calorie refined food that I loved but knew wasn’t good for me and my long-term goals. As we touched on earlier, it’s not the food that we crave, it’s the sugar, fat or salt, so what works for one food will inevitably work for another as long as you keep practicing. In my experience, the more I practiced distracting myself the better I got at it, until I came to where I am now where what I eat is always a planned-out choice and not a compulsion. Many erroneously hold me up on a pedestal for my achievements in terms of dietary adherence and maybe I may have had some innate genetic predisposition toward patience, but it was not a steel will that enabled me to eat the way I do today. Like everyone else I struggled to eat better and remember all too well the sense of hopelessness in the face of those late-night calls to eat just what you should not be eating, but I used some very useful tools to get me through the hard parts. This particular skill is called metacognition- and is the most powerful tool in your arsenal of being able to resist the foods that you should not eat and build your armor of self-control
Professor Mischel found that by teaching children a series of mental tricks, such as pretending that the treat in front of them was only a picture in their imagination, the kids that could hardly wait for 30 seconds were able to wait for the full 15 minutes. As adults we can use similar processes to create delay strategies but it will only work when we have practiced them to the point where it becomes almost second nature. The best part is that by learning how to increase our self-control by understanding how our brains work, we are not only able to resist the temptations that chocolate, cakes and ice cream present, but we can also improve our overall success in just about every aspect of everyday life. Studies show that delayed gratification is one of the most common traits of successful people, and those who can constructively manage their need to be satisfied in the moment tend to do better in their relationships, careers, health, and tend to be more financially stable than those who give in to it. So start practicing!
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References for Food And Self Control- Dealing With Cravings
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2. Weingarten, H. P. & Elston, D. The phenomenology of food cravings. Appetite 1990
3. Wurtman, J. J. Carbohydrate cravings: a disorder of food intake and mood. Clin. Neuropharmacol. 1988
4. Susan Yanovski; Sugar and Fat: Cravings and Aversions, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 133, Issue 3, 2003
5. Bruinsma, K. & Taren, D. L. Chocolate: food or drug? J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 1999
6. Weingarten, H. P. & Elston, D. Food cravings in a college population. Appetite 1991
7. Michener, W. & Rozin, P. Pharmacological versus sensory factors in the satiation of chocolate craving. Physiol. Behav 1994
8. M. Moss. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition, 2014
9. Hill AJ. The psychology of food craving. Proc Nutr Soc. 2007
10. Mischel, W; Ebbesen, Ebbe B.; Raskoff Zeiss, Antonette. “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1972
11. Schlam, Tanya R.; Wilson, Nicole L.; Shoda, Yuichi; Mischel, Walter; Ayduk, Ozlem. “Preschoolers’ delay of gratification predicts their body mass 30 years later”. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2013