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Top 9 Tips to Combat Cravings

Does it seem like the smallest thing sends you spinning toward the fridge or pantry for comfort food? If so, circumvent the cycle with these 9 great tips:

By Dr. Nancy Tice

eDiets Contributor

Most people find themselves reaching for food at times when they clearly aren't hungry. Oftentimes we are not even aware of our emotions or stressors, or that we are eating in response to moods and emotions until we get in tune with our feelings.

Stress, blues, fears and guilt are a normal part of life. Chances are we can't fully rid ourselves of these unpleasant feelings, but we can learn to deal with them more effectively. Our objective reasoning can tell us that eating unhealthy foods isn't solving our stress or emotional problems. But, that line of thinking doesn't come in very handy when our brain is screaming, “Eat! Eat! I want to be calm!”

The study of food, appetite and neurotransmitters is still in its infancy as far as research goes. But many strong connections between what we eat and the effects of different foods on our mood have emerged. Serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine are three neurotransmitters in the brain that have a strong connection to the foods you eat, your cravings and your mood.

It's probably no coincidence that when you're stressed or sad you might turn to sweets, baked goods, desserts, and other sugary carbohydrates to help you out. Carbohydrate-rich foods increase brain concentrations of an amino acid called tryptophan, which is the building block for serotonin. In other words, eating carbohydrates can often lead to feelings of calmness, peace and satisfaction by enhancing the production of serotonin in the brain. Instant stress relief!

But eating sugary carbohydrates instead of complex carbohydrates can actually have a rebound effect. You might feel good immediately after eating them because they lead to an instant high and an energy boost. But, shortly after that your insulin levels and energy levels drop, which can actually cause a rebound depression (a "sugar low"). This can, in turn, stimulate more sugary carbohydrate cravings to get back to the initial sugar high.

It is a vicious cycle. And of course, eating does not really combat stress in a long-term or effective way. Chances are, if you overeat, you often feel more guilty than relaxed after the fact!

Things occur every day that can cause significant changes and shifts in the brain chemicals previously mentioned. Many of these moods, emotions and biological occurrences affect our cravings for foods. Remember, the brain seeks balance. It does not want to feel stressed, blue or guilty. It immediately looks for pleasure and balance from the things that you have trained it to seek when negative emotions and stressors surface.

Oftentimes we are not even aware of our what our emotions or stressors are telling us until we make a concentrated effort to listen to our feelings instead of stuffing them.

Just as you trained your brain that eating certain foods can lead to greater feelings of calm and relaxation (albeit temporarily), you can train it to seek other sources of pleasure that also increase these mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. Unlike overeating, these alternative sources of pleasure will lead to a healthier lifestyle as well.

Generally speaking, anything that brings you personal pleasure, inspiration, or a sense of well-being without harming your health is the thing you should act on when food cravings and the drive to overeat set in. Examples of such activities include:

1. Exercise.

  • Yet another reason to do a workout: activity increases endorphin levels and relieves stress. You'll feel inspired and good about yourself, and you'll naturally decrease your food cravings.

  • 2. Get a massage.

  • It may help relieve anxiety, depression and sleep problems.

  • 3. Read biographies of people who inspire you.

  • Learn from their positive influence and behavior.

  • 4. Use guided imagery.

  • Close your eyes and let yourself be whisked away to your favorite place for 10 to 15 minutes. It might be the mountains or the beach. Imagine everything you're seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling.

  • 5. Listen to relaxing music.

  • Studies have shown this can decrease the production of a substance called cortisol. Cortisol can lead to carbohydrate cravings. Music can also increase relaxation, relieve stress, and provide more clarity and vigor.

  • 6. Take a bath with aromatherapy.

  • Oils of citronella, eucalyptus, sage, lavender and chamomile added to a bath can relax you.

  • 7. Laugh.

  • See a comedy show or engage in activities that bring humor to your life. Seek ways to have more positive emotions in your life. Finding the positive always overrides the negative.

  • 8. Get a pet and love it.

  • Studies show that pets add a sense of unconditional love to our lives and can reduce blood pressure and stress.

  • 9. Find a passion.

  • Maybe it's photography, art, ceramics or football. Find something that inspires you and commit to get out there and do it.

  • Dr. Nancy Tice is a psychiatrist with extensive experience furnishing medical information and writing articles for online services. She did her medical training at The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She moderates her own support group called "Rx for Success," writes articles for the eDiets newsletters, holds online meetings and answers questions in our Expert Interaction section.


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