Tips On Sticking With Your Diet
If, in the next 30 seconds, you don't think about a gooey slab of warm chocolate cake, Evan Forman, assistant professor of psychology at Drexel University, will mail you a check for a million dollars. Forman loves to pose this mind-screw to his study subjects because he knows that thoughts are like zits—they pop up whether you want them to or not. And that's the problem with cravings. "While there are things you can do to manage cravings, you can't stop yourself from thinking about the foods you love," Forman says.
Unlike run-of-the-mill hunger, cravings—intense desires for certain foods—seem to be linked to our brain's reward system. Emotions, situations, or pleasant associations (Grandma fed you Little Debbie snack cakes) can trigger a craving, says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Tufts University Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. When you eat a food you crave, your brain releases dopamine, a natural chemical related to pleasure. It's the same reward system you get from sex or illegal drugs, "but it's at much lower concentrations," Roberts says.
So what to do the next time you start jonesing for a pumpkin spice latte when you're already stuffed from lunch? The following stay-slim strategies will boost your ability to just say no.
Craving Killer No. 1 Accept Defeat
Playing head games isn't the only way Forman and his colleagues torture dieters in the name of science. They gave 98 study participants a questionnaire to determine how susceptible they were to food urges, then loaded them up with transparent boxes of Hershey's Kisses they had to keep with them at all times for the next 48 hours. Those who proved most successful at fighting temptation used an acceptance-based strategy they had been taught: Acknowledge the craving, accept it, and choose not to act on it. When you're struck by the desire for that double-fudge cake, practice what Forman calls cognitive "defusion": Instead of trying to ignore the craving, admit to yourself that you want a slice. It works on the same principle as getting the hots for a coworker when you're in a great relationship: Recognizing that you'll always be attracted to cute guys (or yummy food) prevents you from acting on the feeling every time it comes up.
Craving Killer No. 2 Give in—a little
Now this is our kind of news: Recent research from Tufts University revealed that surrendering to a craving is sometimes the best course of action—as long as you can practice portion control. In a study of 32 overweight women, all averaged an 8 percent weight loss after 12 months, but those who had the greatest weight loss success gave in to their cravings occasionally. When they did indulge, they ate small amounts—just enough to be satisfied, says Roberts, one of the study's co-authors. The key is practicing restraint, not deprivation. "When you forbid a food, it only becomes more attractive, and you become likely to overeat," says Janet Polivy, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. So when you need to feed the cocoa monster, reach for a prepackaged snack, such as Entenmann's Little Bites 100 Calorie Pack Brownie Squares, and call it a day. You'll be much less likely to break down and attack an entire hot fudge sundae.
Craving Killer No. 3 Fantasize
Being told to think of something else when you're in the grip of a powerful craving is about as helpful as being told to swim when you're drowning. But there is one way that advice can work: Researchers at Flinders University in Australia found that occupying your senses with a vivid non-food fantasy just might stifle your urge.
"Your short-term memory has limited storage," says study author Eva Kemps. To conjure any image—nachos or that spring break in Cancun—you need to pull them out of your long-term memory, the way an iPod cues up one song at a time from the gazillion it has in storage. But short-term memory has only so much room; it can't play "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Holiday" at the same time. "The idea is to keep your short-term memory busy by fantasizing about something else," Kemps says.
It worked for Kemps's study participants. When they were asked to drum up remembered smells and sights—the scent of freshly cut grass or a log fire, and images such as a hot-air balloon or the Sydney Opera House—their cravings for chocolate (which was right in front of them) were reduced by about 30 percent. Their minds couldn't handle the craving and the new sensory imagery at the same time, so the craving got dumped. Try thinking about what your guy looks like in nothing but a towel—you might forget all about that cookie.
Craving Killer No. 4 Swap smart
No one has ever made a longing for a jelly doughnut disappear by gnawing on celery sticks. But that doesn't mean substitutions never work. It's all about satisfying your appetite. The secret, Roberts says, is to get the flavor you want with minimal caloric damage. If you can't stop thinking about caramel corn, try LesserEvil "SinNamon" kettle corn (one cup has about 120 calories and 2 grams of fat). Or, give in to a sweet tooth with fruit—natural sugar can be amazingly satisfying. "Sometimes you have to reinvent a sweet," says Cheryl Forberg, R.D., nutritionist for the TV show The Biggest Loser. Try frozen grapes instead of popsicles and fresh cherries instead of candy.
One caveat: When it comes to chocolate (one of the most-craved foods in the world), it's better not to accept imitations. A study from the University of Toronto found that chronic dieters didn't have as much trouble resisting vanilla as they did chocolate. The reason, Polivy says, may be that although vanilla cravings may be sated by other flavors, like cinnamon or butterscotch, chocolate is unique—nothing else seems to hit the spot.
When you do indulge, keep an eye on how much. Get your fix in small (about 150-calorie) doses—that's two chocolate truffles or one snack-size chocolate bar. And don't tempt yourself by keeping supersize chocolate bars and trays of brownies at the ready—we already know who'll win that bet.