You hear the food sirens calling you about that leftover slice of cake in the fridge. Or the doggie bag you brought home from dinner out. You’re not even particularly hungry, but before you know it, you’re in front of the fridge, opening the container and inhaling the contents.
Many people have those annoying inner voices that tell them to go eat something they shouldn’t, even though they know that they’ll regret it almost immediately. Wouldn’t it be nice if eliminating those food thoughts were as easy as hitting the delete button or hanging up the phone? Well, it can be almost that easy, according to Stephen P. Gullo, PhD, a health psychologist who has specialized in weight control for four decades. Here are his creative—and surprisingly effective—strategies to silence food cravings.
When your brain is buzzing about food…
Knock out your senses of taste and smell. The aroma of someone else’s food can trigger a powerful urge to eat even if you are not hungry. Solution: Pop a peppermint breath strip or sugar-free menthol cough drop into your mouth. It will overwhelm your taste buds and blot out other scents, ending the food craving immediately. You might love pizza—but after you use a breath strip, the pizza can be right in front of you and you won’t indulge.
Ask yourself whether you are really hungry—or just bored. People tend to gain the most weight when they have the least amount to do. So, when you’re tempted to eat because it seems like there’s no better way to amuse yourself, replace the idle food thoughts and mindless munching with a purposeful activity. Run an errand or make that long overdue wellness appointment with your doctor.
Think of calories as dollars. Each person has a fixed number of calories in his/her “budget”—the amount you can indulge in without gaining weight. The goal of this “calorienomics” strategy is to consume more food while lessening the calories—but without sacrificing the pleasure of eating. You wouldn’t blow a whole paycheck on an outfit when the mortgage was due. Apply that same mature budgeting approach to food by asking yourself, “Is this pasta something my daily calorie budget can afford? If so, how much can I have? If not, what can I enjoy eating instead?”
“Pre-prepare” healthful afternoon snacks. The reason you can’t stop thinking about food at 4 pm is that you ate your lunch hours ago and now your blood sugar level is crashing. When you go too long without food, it’s hard to resist the urge to grab whatever is handiest even if it’s a bad-for-you bag of potato chips. To do better: Set up a structured eating plan that includes a scheduled snack time, then prepare those snack foods in advance. For instance, to eliminate unfocused afternoon grazing, keep single-serving bags of nuts in the pantry and stock the refrigerator with raw veggies that are already cut up and ready to crunch. Don’t wait until you’re hungry to cut up veggies—they need to be ready to go when you are. (You can cut them up when you’re feeling bored!)
Find something fun to do with your hands. Learn to knit, play a video game, do needlepoint, build a model or fix the wobbly legs on your favorite chair. Though these activities are not mentally draining, they do make you focus on what you’re doing just enough so that you can’t obsess about food. Handcrafts ease stress, too, which in turn reduces stress-induced eating. Also, when your hands are busy, you can’t easily keep reaching for food. What if you simply are not inclined to work with your hands? Chew gum—it won’t keep your hands busy, but it will keep your mouth busy and thus halt the mindless nibbling.
Don’t romanticize food or use food as therapy. Are you more likely to eat when you’re angry, tense or sad? Separate your mood from your food. To do this, reframe the way you think about food. Terms such as goody, treat and comfort food empower food by making it seem like the antidote to life’s problems. Remind yourself that food is not your therapist, your lover or an instant happiness pill—far from it! To reduce its power to control your thoughts, feelings and actions, call it just food.