As a kid growing up, and even into my 20s, I was a pretty healthy weight.
Then, suddenly, within nine months, I gained 20 pounds and moved up a dress size. I knew it wasn’t what I was eating—I ate healthy balanced meals and didn’t eat out very much—and I was exercising, so I was stumped for a long time.
Doing some research helped me realize that the mysterious source of this weight gain were my nightly overeating episodes. I would crave food in the evenings and be restless without it. It was only when I stuffed myself that I felt comforted and happy after a long day.
When I was finally able to overcome this, my weight dropped off in no time. I was able to stop having cravings altogether, and quit this comfort eating habit for good.
This is the four-step checklist that I follow to keep cravings and comfort eating at bay:
1. Eat enough food, especially protein.
When I gained weight, my first impulse was to start eating lesser food so I could lose weight quickly. I looked at diets like keto which advocated a high fat diet, and thought that I needed to eat more avocados, nuts, and other healthy fats to lose weight.
However, protein is the most important macronutrient to stave off cravings and hunger pangs. Research shows that protein keeps us satiated for longer because it naturally suppresses the hunger hormones, improves functioning of our reward hormones so we stop looking for food again and again to feel good, and has zero glycemic index which means no sugar highs and lows.
By eating sufficient protein at each meal, we can easily stop cravings. Studies show that we need 1-1.5 palm-sized servings of protein at each of our main meals for optimum health.
This could mean eating:
>> A two-egg omelette for breakfast
>> Chicken and some rice for lunch
>> Salmon with a side of vegetables for dinner
>> Snacking on yogurt or cheese when we are hungry
You could easily design meals around this (and substitute tofu, tempeh, or beans for vegetarians and vegans) and see your cravings reduce almost instantly.
2. Don’t restrict all unhealthy foods.
When we gain weight, our default response is to go on a diet—and usually a strict one at that. We say no to all chips, cookies, and desserts until we drop the weight.
However, doing this creates forbidden foods in our minds—and as humans, we always want what we can’t have. Cravings are our brain’s way of reminding us of our forbidden foods. But by allowing ourselves to eat these foods in moderation, our minds stop longing for them, and the cravings go away.
By the way, cravings also happen when our body is missing vital minerals or vitamins. So that craving for chocolate? That’s actually the body’s way of asking for some magnesium. Instead of ignoring the craving, just eat some high quality dark chocolate (70 percent or over) to help.
3. Understand you may be using food to cope with your emotions.
When we crave unhealthy or junk food, we are basically using food to make ourselves feel better. Because food stimulates positive feelings in our mind, it can help us feel good when we are sad, angry, or stressed.
If this is you, then addressing the root cause of the emotion will help immensely. If this is not you, jump to step four.
How do we find the root cause of emotional eating?
First, we can ask ourselves if there is something in life that’s pulling us down.
>> Are you dissatisfied with your career or relationships?
>> Are you unhappy and feeling hopeless about your weight or body?
>> Are you really stressed out from work and tired all the time?
Any of these could be a reason that you are turning to food for comfort.
Second, we can start to look for patterns around when we have cravings to help us create more self-awareness.
>> Are you usually restless at work and end up looking for something to snack on to feel better?
>> Do you eat healthy all day, but when you come home at night you lose all self-control and finish that bag of chips?
>> Do you usually find yourself walking into the kitchen on weekends when you have nothing else to keep your mind occupied?
Lastly, we can think about how we feel when we indulge our cravings.
>> Do you like to eat until you feel comfortably stuffed and warm from the inside? Are you restless when you are not full? In this case, you are definitely using food for comfort.
>> Do you eat really quickly, and don’t even realize you’ve finished an entire bag of chips until they’re all gone? Likely you are anxious or stressed.
>> Do you feel like you have no power to resist your cravings? Perhaps you are seeking a sense of control somewhere else in life, and trying to control food makes you feel better.
Once we know what emotion we are compensating for, we can find other ways to feel comforted, other ways to de-stress, and other ways to feel in control of our lives.
4. Cravings are habits, which means we can change them.
Even if we don’t identify with step three and feel pretty content and settled in life, we can still have cravings. These cravings are stubborn because they’ve become habits due to weeks, months, or even years of us indulging them.
To get rid of such cravings is to unlearn a skill we’ve developed over time. A habit is actually a defined neural pathway in our brains—the route that our thoughts take to become actions. By noticing the thoughts that come into our minds but choosing not to act immediately upon them, we can weaken the habits considerably.
One way to do this is to allow ourselves to eat only if we still have the craving after five minutes. Research shows that most cravings usually disappear in this time (usually in three minutes or so). At the end of the five minutes, you’ll most likely not even want to eat the food because your craving has disappeared. This will start to weaken our habits—and as we continue to practice this again and again, the cravings will also vanish and the habit will eventually disappear.
Cravings and comfort eating can often have us feeling like we are stuck in a rut, but it’s important to realize that cravings and comfort eating are a habit and not something easily overcome by determination or willpower alone. Instead of trying to have more self-control, I hope you will try this four-step method—while having compassion for yourself if you slip up—to quit comfort eating and stop cravings for good.
Good luck on your journey!
Bonus: 5 Mindful Things to Do Each Morning.
Author: Sai Aparajitha Khanna
Image: Vintage ad
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron