It happens far too often. You read about some celebrity who has a new diet that is guaranteed to help you shed those pounds. Or you talk to a friend who has lost a ton of weight by following a new plan. You even hear the experts describe it not as a diet, but as a new way of life. So you go on it. Then the inevitable happens: you get bored, you get stuck, you cheat a little and then the cravings hit. The next thing you know it’s a slip then a relapse. Your choice is to try again, or head off to the next diet. Atkins. South Beach. Body for Life. Paleo. Is it going to work? In fact, research shows that dieting actually increases cravings.
What if the problem isn’t what you eat, but what you do when you are not eating? For most people that’s exactly the issue: the problem is cravings. Cravings are why you switched from one plan to another; cravings are why you feel you need to “cheat.” And cravings will come no matter what diet or “way of life” you choose.
So instead of, yet again, changing what you eat, why not change you, by changing what you do when you’re not eating? Here are 5 suggestions that will help you do just that and get those pesky cravings under control.
Can't I cheat just this once?
Write it down
“Wait… you want me to write down every single thing I eat or drink?” Absolutely. Keeping a food diary greatly improves your chance of success. Food diary users are more likely to lose weight, less likely to crave and more likely to stick to their plans. If writing down your meals is too cumbersome, a number of smartphone apps like LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal make logging a snap, and even allow you to scan the barcodes of foods to automatically enter their nutritional information. Many food diary users, however, will log their meals for a while and then stop, which leads to the next suggestion:
The best plan in the world can’t work unless you do it. People have many reasons that they keep their diets and other behavior changes to themselves: shame about needing to lose weight, fear of failure, fear of being judged or even just a preference for privacy. Many yo-yo dieters will explain that they “don’t want to be yelled at for going off the plan.” However, there is no substitute for a nonjudgmental accountability partner, someone who will pay attention to what you are doing, review your plans and your eating, and let you know in a gentle, supportive way, that you are headed off track. Where can you find such a person?
Join a group
Groups like T.O.P.S. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) and even Meetup.com or exercise classes are filled with people who would love to help support you. Groups can achieve what individuals simply cannot. Time and again the research has shown that groups provide accountability, encouragement, practical suggestions and identification that are crucial to long term success. Worried about what others in the group will think of you? Remember they are there for the same reason that you are. Take advantage of what they offer, because what researchers call “pro-social ties” have been linked to reduced cravings, and groups are the best way to make those connections.
You don’t have to exercise vigorously or even every day to reduce your food cravings. Even a moderate amount of exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of your food cravings. What’s more, exercise has been shown to reduce many different urges including alcohol and cigarette cravings. Leaving aside the obvious health benefits of exercise, a good reason to increase your activity is because increased physical activity is associated with reduced cravings.
Sure…helping others is a good thing in general, but can it really help you change your behavior? You bet it can. Many groups have figured this out a long time ago, with 12-step programs such as Overeaters Anonymous based almost entirely on the idea that helping others can control the urges, and many other groups are founded on the notion that helping others helps you. But several research studies also back up the principle that helping others can help improve your chance of recovery from addictive behaviors. So find others who are struggling with cravings and share what has worked for you.
These are just a few of the research-based suggestions that can make a difference in your cravings, and you’ll learn about several more in upcoming posts.
Omar Manejwala, M.D. is an addiction psychiatrist and author of Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough (Hazelden Publishing 2013). You can learn more about Dr. Manejwala’s book and background at www.CravingBook.com, www.facebook.com/CravingBook or follow him @DrManejwala.