I brushed aside my concern over the fact that potato chip breakfasts are definitely not one of our family’s rituals and did everything I could to suppress a smile. “Luke,” I said gently, “I will remind Daddy not to eat your chips.” “OK,” he replied, “But why don’t you get Daddy his own bag?” I decided it wasn’t worth explaining that Daddy actually had his own bag of chips, but after those had vanished, he had gone scavenging for more. I just couldn’t bring myself to admit to my little boy that his father is a potato chip addict.
My husband never craves sugary treats like chocolate, cookies, cake or other desserts. But if you step between him and a bowl of potato chips, you do so at your own risk. For him, chips are like a drug. If they are around, he will eat them—even if it requires stealing from his young son.
Personally, I couldn’t care less about chips, but place a bar of chocolate or some chocolate chip cookies in my pantry, and they will quickly disappear.
We blame ourselves for not being able to resist junk food. We often berate ourselves, thinking we’re weak or lacking willpower since we cannot combat these yearnings. But there is more to our cravings than a mere lack of willpower. Most processed food is formulated in such a way that we can’t help but crave it. There’s a reason we can’t eat just one cookie or a single handful of chips, and here’s why.
There are tactics and formulations that make processed foods so instinctively appealing. Companies spend enormous amounts of money on things like bliss point, crunch factor, dynamic contrast, mouth feel and vanishing caloric density—all to get you to crave more.
So what can you do when a craving for something unhealthy hits? Try one of these three brain-based training techniques:
- Practice Mindfulness
When a craving hits, your first instinct usually entails fighting the urge. But that can make the desire even more powerful. Fortunately, there is a better way. A study published in the journal Appetite showed that simply practicing mindfulness could drastically reduce one’s cravings. Participants in the study were asked to observe their cravings without passing judgment. This simple act of being more cognizant and viewing the thought as something separate from themselves proved enough to reduce their cravings.
You can practice mindfulness by performing a three-part exercise each time a craving hits. First, stop what you are doing and take three minutes to study your environment. Second, acknowledge your craving and think about how you are feeling. At this specific moment in time, are you happy, sad, content, bored, tired, angry, etc.? Third, try and disassociate yourself from the craving; recognize that it’s a desire for a certain food rather than a negative aspect of your character. The craving doesn’t make you a bad person or render you powerless. It’s merely an urge that arrives and passes. Over time, this simple exercise can help you lessen the intensity of the craving and make better choices.
- Alter Your Environment
Your brain can associate a specific location, smell or sound with a desire or craving. Another Brian Wansink study gave secretaries jars filled with 30 Hershey’s® Kisses®. Each week during the three-week study the candy jar would be placed in a different location. The first week, the jar was placed on the corner of the secretary’s desk. The next week, it appeared in the desk drawer; during the third, it sat on a file cabinet six feet away from the subjects. Daily candy consumption went from nine pieces when the jar was on the desk to six pieces when it was in the drawer to only four pieces when it was on the file cabinet located six feet away. The convenience factor played a huge role in the amount of candy—and consequently calories—that the secretaries consumed.
Study after study has proven that we consume more items and calories when food is within our line of sight and readily available—and less food and calories when it’s out of sight or inconveniently located
Do you keep sweet treats or unhealthy snack foods on your desk or within reach at work? Does your pantry contain a host of unhealthy, processed junk food? Do you store cupcakes, cookies or other baked goods on your kitchen counter? Simply altering your environment—getting rid of unhealthy foods and replacing them with healthy alternatives—is the first step in eliminating your cravings and making smarter choices.
- Shift Your Attention
Shifting your attention from your craving to another activity, scientifically known as cognitive interference, proves another effective tool. I’m not a huge fan of video games; I’d rather my kids play outside, read a book or do crafts. I was, however, intrigued by a study that determined that playing the video game Tetris could help people manage their cravings.
According to Jackie Andrade, a professor at the School of Psychology and Cognition Institute at Plymouth University, “Playing Tetris for just 3 minutes decreased craving strength for drugs, food and activities from 70% to 56%.” She adds, “Playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support that imagery; it is hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time.”
I’m not suggesting daily video game sessions to cope with cravings, but the study does show that shifting your attention toward something other than your craving can help manage or lessen the intensity of the yearning.
For many of us, our cravings hit when we are tired or bored. When you notice one coming on, try shifting your attention to a different task. If you’re at your desk, get up and walk outside or visit with a co-worker for a few minutes. If you’re home, call a friend, read a good book or magazine, or play a game of cards with your kids. Simply shifting your attention to a more enjoyable task can be enough to curb your craving.
Next time a craving hits, give one of these proven brain-based training techniques a try!