Use These to Beat Junk Food Cravings
Last time I wrote about some ideas to employ to reduce encounters and/or the temptations to binge on hyper-palatable junk foods. Of course, in this arena, nothing is 100% effective. Suppose not everyone in your household is onboard with your junk food removal plan, or maybe someone else does the majority of the grocery shopping and isn't able to restrict those trigger foods from entering the grocery cart. Perhaps others you are with don’t have the same reaction as you to certain foods, or maybe some of those foods do sneak under the velvet rope and into your home. Somehow you find yourself, in spite of your efforts, in a trigger situation, fighting that battle at home. So in this blog, I will discuss, in some detail, the reasons we crave these “junk” foods and then provide you with some in-the-moment strategies to curb or overcome that unwanted craving.
The reward system
We humans are wired to seek rewarding behaviors. In fact, we have a ready-made neural “pathway” in our brains designed to reinforce previous actions that bring about pleasure. It serves as a built-in reward system, releasing specific chemicals in the brain (dopamine) in response to something we enjoy. Emotions and memories further augment the release of dopamine. So things we do or receive that bring enjoyment as well as trigger emotions, like nurturing, eating out, having sex, riding roller coasters, activate this “reward system” and magnify dopamine release and thus solidifying that action as “something to do more of”.
This auto-reinforcement makes a lot of sense from a primal, survival in harsh-natural environment type of perspective. Paleolithic man (a.k.a. us before we invented “civilization”) had to work hard and overcome many obstacles to find food and survive. It is unlikely we would have persisted without this internal reward system. It served to solidify the actions and behaviors that allowed us to find food and water, regardless of the distance, weather, and other potential hazards that were present. Thus this built-in reward system was integral to our species success. However, in an artificial environment where rewards are abundant and accessible, this system can work against us. That lean game animal you tracked, killed, and dragged back to your settlement is now a fattened, pre-fried, salted, sugar-coated pile of chicken wings. That cool stream of water you found after trudging through the forest is now a sweetened tea, or cola (probably in your fridge). That milk that didn’t really exist is now the base for ice cream, yogurt, and cheese. The excess sugar, fat, and salt engineered into our foods specifically target that reward system, increasing the response beyond what it was originally evolved for. The result? These foods become virtually irresistible.
Beating the cravings
Though we can be conditioned to seek out and devour foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, fighting urges and cravings for these junk foods doesn’t always have to be a losing battle. As these foods target our desires and cravings, we can also dial down these desires. To do this takes planning, discipline, employed incrementally in a step wise fashion. Employing some of the suggestions from my previous blog can help. Becoming aware of the foods that send you “out of control”, as well as the situations you encounter them, is necessary. Sometimes advanced planning fails us and we need to act quickly, in-the-moment. When the urge hits, some in-the-moment actions you can take to immediately curb these cravings are:
Go zero cal
Reenact that mountain stream and fix yourself a cool glass of water. Not enough you think? You can add some flavor without calories (or artificial sweeteners). Try infusing a slice of lemon, lime, orange, or cucumber. Another idea, use frozen berries, or other fruit in place of ice cubes to add a bit of flavor. Unsweetened iced tea or seltzer are other options.
Go for a walk
Walking, or exercising in general, may alter brain chemicals that regulate cravings. Taking a walk also changes the environment, thus removing yourself from the sight, smell, and even thought patterns brought about by the actual food you are craving. It need not be long (15 minutes should do it), nor particularly brisk (moderate pace is fine) to be effective.
Phone a friend
Tap into your support system! A friend can support you and keep you distracted long enough to overcome the craving.
Make a swap
Try redirecting your hand to a more nutrient dense food. Popcorn, fruit, some veggies and hummus? Here are some more ideas.
Cravings for highly palatable foods are insidious. Its best to avoid having them around at all. Though under certain circumstances they end up in our fridge, cupboard, or even at the office. That doesn’t mean you always have to give in. Try using some of these strategies when that craving hits, if you do it consistently enough, your new habit will override those cravings and allow you to continue on with the life you want.
Did I miss any? Is there an in-the-moment action you have used successfully to curb your cravings? Please share below, thanks!
Ready to make a change in your diet/eating habits? Better yet, ready to improve your life? Check out my remote, holistic, Nutrition Coaching program!
Published by mattktraining
I am currently the Owner of my soloprenuerial company Matt K Training. Through my fitness and nutrition programs I help adults develop skills and practices that help them eat, move, and recover well. Over the past 20 years, in various roles such as a Personal trainer, Exercise Physiologist, Clinical Researcher, and Health Coach I have helped hundreds of adults reach their health and physical performance goals. When not working, I enjoy active pursuits such as playing right field for the Charlton Giants (in a 38+ competitive baseball league), playing tennis, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. I also enjoy indoor activities such as playing strategy board games, reading and discussing science fiction literature, dabbling with my guitar, finding creative ways to eat oatmeal, and being a good dad.