How to Curb Cravings During the Holidays and Beyond

Mapping out your habit loops can help.

Posted Dec 18, 2018

The holiday season is here, and if you’re like most Americans, your stress levels will rise. How do you get by? Many of us have trained our brains to cope by eating. Mashed potatoes. Pumpkin pie. Cake. You name it.

I’ve discovered the key elements to hack our minds and have used these to empower people to overcome unhealthy habits related to emotional eating, anxiety, and smoking

My aim with these three tips is to help you survive and even thrive this holiday season. Whether your goal is to decrease stress eating, unwind anxiety or create short mental wellness “snacks” to nibble on throughout the year, here is the science that can help.

During the holidays, map out your habit loops.

Let’s take this step by step.

 Africa_Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa_Studio/Shutterstock

Our brains learn in a three-step process. First, we see food, and our brain says calories, survival! Then, we eat the food. Finally, our bodies send a signal to our brains: remember what you’re eating and where you found it. We lay down what scientists call a context-dependent memory and learn to repeat the process next time. See food, eat food. Feel good. Repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.

Simple, right?

After a while, our brains learn that if we eat sweets when we’re mad or sad, we feel better. Same learning process, just a different trigger: the hunger signal from our stomach becomes an emotional signal from our brain. Before you know it, feeling sad triggers that urge to eat.

These habit loops are strongest when we’re physically and emotionally exhausted. During the holidays, we have so many extra things to do: go shopping, put up lights, host parties, see family. It’s no wonder we can’t resist that extra piece of pie, especially after a nice slog of stiff eggnog.

Tip: Take time to map out your habit loops and identify what initiates your cravings and the resulting behaviors and rewards. You’ll be amazed at what you notice throughout the day.

Recognize and accept where you’re at.

When you experience a craving, instead of immediately grabbing food or getting trapped by the emotion, recognize how you feel in that moment.

Often, cravings cause us to operate like we’re on autopilot. And our NIH-supported research shows that using willpower to resist them doesn’t work. We found that blaming reward-based eating on lack of willpower ignores our underlying biology and the social and cultural contexts in which these behaviors develop. Only when we stop relying on willpower and recognize that we’re about to reach for that second piece of pie can we start to gain control and make a change.

But, if willpower is futile, what can we do instead?

Bring the emotions and cravings lurking in the back of your mind into your awareness. Cravings aren’t as scary when we see them for what they are: thoughts and feelings. And curiosity about the cravings helps us understand that these cravings are simply sensations that come and go. All we have to do is be present with them, allow them to be there and just watch.

Tip: Next time you’re feeling a craving, try to acknowledge your acceptance in a small active way, like nod your head or just say, “Okay, I got you, craving.” Then, try tapping into your capacity to be curious about the craving. For example, where in your body do feel it? Curiosity is our inner superpower, and it’s always available.

Ditch dieting.

Now that we’ve mapped out our habit loops and started recognizing cravings, what’s next? Fortunately, we can intercept this cycle and stop the behaviors that feed the stress eating habit loop. 

The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that’s key to making logical decisions, actually goes offline when we get stressed or anxious. So, while it means well, we can’t trust it to be there when we need it. And resistance feels exhausting. It only takes a few minutes of staring down the pie to know you can’t win this battle.

To hack the habit loop, we need to ditch traditional dieting. Yes, you heard me. Stop dieting. Instead, lean into cravings. Have the second slice of pie, but be mindful about why you want it and how it makes you feel. There’s evidence to prove it works.

We found app-based mindfulness training helped obese and overweight women reduce craving-related eating by 40 percent. The smartphone-delivered intervention didn’t involve a diet. No list of foods you can’t eat. No fighting off hunger. Rather, in another NIH-supported study, our research showed that we can specifically target the mechanisms underlying unhealthy eating habits using mindfulness, being present and nonjudgmental with your thoughts in the moment.

Then why does it seem like there’s always a new diet craze? Because a lot of us aren’t in control. We need to look for the next diet because—you predicted it—the last one didn’t work. Most diets are based on willpower. But, a diet can’t help if willpower is based more on myth than mental muscle.

To be successful, we have to address our underlying habits. Say goodbye to willpower and hello to mindfulness.

Tip: Next time you’re experiencing a craving, recognize it, accept it’s there and then roll out the welcome mat and invite it in. Explore what it feels like and see that it’s temporary. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to show up and try.

References

Brewer, J., Ruf, A., Beccia, A. L., Essien, G., Finn, L. M., van Lutterveld, R., & Mason, A. E. (2018). Can Mindfulness Address Maladaptive Eating Behaviors? Why Traditional Diet Plans Fail and How New Mechanistic Insights May Lead to Novel Interventions. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1418.

Mason, A. E., Jhaveri, K., Cohn, M., & Brewer, J. A. (2018). Testing a mobile mindful eating intervention targeting craving-related eating: feasibility and proof of concept. Journal of behavioral medicine, 41(2), 160-173