No matter how riveting this week's episode of "Lost" is, when all you really want is a chocolate chip cookie, it seems impossible to focus on anything else until you take that first bite.
Although it's true (and truly frustrating) that we don’t crave healthy eats such as carrots with the same intensity as not-so-healthy treats like chocolate, new studies provide some much-needed hope to would-be overeaters everywhere: You can learn to curb cravings without feeling deprived. Scientists have zeroed in on the source of cravings (your head, not your belly) and figured out ingenious ways to tweak the way you think about food, so you crave less and feel satisfied with smaller bites.
It's not a cruel joke that our favorite noshes happen to be the bad boys of the food world. Our desire for all things decadent may date back thousands of years, to when high-calorie eats were dietary heroes.
"Throughout most of history, food scarcity was a real risk, so it made sense for the body to encourage eating," says Evan Forman, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
And because fatty, salty and sweet foods tended to be life-sustaining, scientists theorize that favoring them proved an evolutionary advantage. "Of course, now those same cravings probably confer a disadvantage," Forman says. You can't help being hardwired to yearn for unhealthy fare, but you can minimize the damage by stashing light versions of the flavors you crave most, suggests Keri Gans, R.D., a spokeswoman in New York City for the American Dietetic Association. Love ice cream at night? Stock up on 80-calorie Skinny Cow Skinny Dippers. Can't miss that crunch in the afternoon? Keep crudités at your desk.
Schedule your splurges
It's not only imagination or a cliché: Food cravings during PMS may be brought on by your brain chemistry. When you have PMS, the amount of the feel-good chemical serotonin circulating in your body tends to be lower, which may make you more susceptible to junk food cravings, research suggests. When you bite into something delicious, your brain releases dopamine, the same "reward chemical" that kicks in during sex and drug use but in a smaller amount, says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston. To keep urges from taking over your life (that's what bosses are for), schedule a specific time to enjoy a reasonable portion of your favorite treat. If you know ahead of time that you will savor a sweet snack at 4 p.m., it should be easier to ignore your desire for it at noon.
Wait it out
Some urges — like texting your ex-boyfriend at 12 a.m. — are better to let pass. Ditto certain food hankerings: Most go away within 20 minutes, Roberts says, so hold off for that amount of time. "If you can take your mind off the food, that works well," she adds. Meanwhile, occupy your mouth with a piece of sugar-free gum. A study in the journal Appetite found that people who popped in a piece for 15 minutes every hour after lunch ate an average of 36 fewer calories when they snacked later in the same afternoon.
Beware the witching hour
There's a reason you have potato chips on the brain in the late afternoon rather than at 8 a.m. After a long day, you're fatigued and suffering from low blood sugar, explains Bryan Raudenbush, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia — meaning you can't muster the emotional energy to overcome your yearning. If you're truly hungry, have a healthy, filling snack to raise your blood sugar to normal levels. Then grab some ammunition against mindless snacking: Pop an Altoid to perk yourself up. Raudenbush's research team found that inhaling a peppermint scent helps give you the oomph you need to sidestep afternoon munchies. In Raudenbush's preliminary research, subjects who sniffed mint periodically throughout the day ate 3,000 fewer calories over the course of the week. (That's almost a pound!) If you don't like mints, try applying a mint-scented hand lotion such as Empowermint by Philosophy ($15; Philosophy.com) whenever your afternoon nibbles usually hit. Your skin and your scale may benefit.
Ditch the diet mentality
Ever notice that when you decide to give up a favorite food, it's the only thing you can think about? You're totally normal. When researchers at the University of Toronto deprived women of chocolate for a week, they found that the restrained eaters experienced more intense, chronic chocolate cravings and swallowed approximately double the amount of the forbidden food when it was finally allowed. "When you cut something out of your diet, you're more likely to overeat it when you do encounter it," says Janet Polivy, Ph.D., the study's lead author. In other words, restricting your diet primes you to obsess. Instead of swearing off sweets, pare down your portions, says SELF contributing editor Janis Jibrin, R.D. At SelfDietClub.com, you can determine how many calories your cravings account for. "If you’ve been eating 500 calories of sweets, cut it in half. Then start to work your way down," Jibrin says. If you're trying to lose weight, your eventual goal is to be satisfied by 150 calories per day. Replace the foods you're limiting with naturally sweet eats such as berries, pears and other fruit to help appease your sweet tooth, Gans suggests.
Let your imagination go wild
Although it seems as if french fries can dominate your thoughts for days, your brain allocates a specific amount of space to focusing on such matters and can be distracted, according to a study done at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. The proof: Women who watched a flickering pattern on a computer screen while thinking about their favorite foods felt a diminished desire to indulge. Any new image can bump the urge to eat out of your head, the researchers say. "The distraction should be visual in order to be effective," notes lead author Eva Kemps, Ph.D. Staring at the doughnut display at the coffee shop? Whip the J.Crew catalog out of your handbag and start perusing the sweater selection. Having visions of gummi bears at work? Go to Flickr.com and type your favorite city or sport into the search field. Flipping through photos of brightly colored cashmere or Venetian sunsets could take your mind far away from junk food junction.
Accept defeat — occasionally
File this under best news ever: A recent small study from Tufts University in Boston found that women who sometimes gave in to their yens still lost weight. The trick is to make those occasional bites truly satisfying so you don't go back for more, says Joan Salge Blake, R.D., nutrition professor at Boston University and author of "Nutrition & You" (Pearson/Benjamin Cummings). "If you’re craving chocolate, eat fabulous chocolate — a Lindt Lindor chocolate ball. They're decadent, delicious and portion-controlled. One ball [less than 100 calories] will likely squelch the craving."
Quit fighting with yourself over food and you might banish cravings for good. A study published in Behaviour and Research Therapy revealed that women who accept that they lust after Hershey's Kisses found it easier to resist the urge to unwrap them. Researchers taught the women in the study to recognize their limited ability to control their thoughts about certain foods. Then they encouraged them to give themselves permission to have those thoughts and let them go rather than acting on them. "Think of cravings like any other tic in your body, like hiccups and itches," Forman says. "Tell yourself, 'My mind is having a craving right now.' Pretty soon, you'll see that the impulse to order something fattening is not the same as actually ordering it." Use this mental trick the next time you're at a restaurant and the siren song of a bacon cheeseburger threatens to derail your healthy plan. Breathe, count to three and select the grilled salmon and green salad. Then eat them serenely.
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