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How To Stop Cravings And Emotional Eating To Lose Weight

Here's a handy guide to explain some of the psychological reasons behind emotional eating and cravings, and what you can do to control it.

01/02/2017 04:53 SAST | Updated 01/02/2017 04:53 SAST
Betsie Van Der Meer

Emotional eating and food cravings are the main reasons for quitting any diet. To successfully lose weight, you must have a plan to deal with this psychological component of dieting. This is an explanation of the two major forms of psychological eating and the seven strategies that you can add to any diet to help you overcome cravings and emotional eating.

Cravings and Emotional Eating Explained

Each time we eat a great tasting food high in sugar and fat, our brain rewards us by releasing the "feel good" hormone, dopamine. This "feel good" effect is highly addictive and creates those irresistible cravings that prompt us to seek and consume unhealthy fattening foods. Emotional eating is the second type of psychological eating that hampers our diet efforts and makes us fat. Emotional eating is how many of us eat in response to our emotions. It can involve both positive and negative emotions, as a celebratory moment is often a perfect excuse to indulge.

However, when we eat to counter a negative emotion, like sadness, stress, fear, or anger, food becomes a dangerous form of self-medication, leading to rapid weight gain that is difficult to stop. A recent study showed 43% of Americans manage their stress with food. These two acts of eating for non-nutritional reasons add up to overloading our diets with unnecessary calorie causing weight gain.

7 Strategies to Stop Cravings and Emotional Eating

1. The Cold Turkey Method

The cold turkey approach requires that we immediately stop reinforcing a negative eating behaviour. Whenever we experience a craving, we do our best to ignore it and not respond. Over time, the refusal to respond to a craving desensitises it, and the craving loses its power to influence you to eat more. A 2013 poll showed 92% of successful ex-smokers attribute their success to the cold turkey method. If this can work to quit smoking, it will certainly work to stop cravings and emotional eating.

The cold turkey approach is an effective tool for stopping unwanted behaviours; however, going cold turkey is difficult. Cravings often put up a good fight for survival. When we resist cravings, these cravings respond by increasing their intensity until we experience a final effort, where it throws everything it has towards getting us to give in.

This final effort by a craving is the most intense and is usually the last hurdle before we attain success. It is also the most likely place for failure. We must be aware of this to apply the cold turkey approach successfully. The cold turkey approach is also susceptible to resurgence, where cravings may reappear many weeks after you have thought you had overcome it. Cravings play dead, and when you least expect it, they sneak up on you, setting the entire process in motion again.

Always be prepared for weeks after attempting to break a bad habit. The official period for a complete withdrawal is 30 days, but many experts believe strong cravings and addictions are with us for life, so never let your guard down. Remember that giving in to a craving during a resurgence is a guaranteed way to give it strength and begin a new cycle. The cold turkey approach is very effective, but difficult, as it comes with significant discomfort.

When we feel a strong craving for chocolate, we could drink a glass of water or go for a walk around the block. Research has shown a 15-minute walk can significantly reduce cravings and emotional eating.

2. The Delayed Response Method

When you experience a craving or an emotion that prompts you to eat, simply use a secondary requirement to delay your response. This secondary requirement can be a specified time or responding or requirement, such as only eating chocolate if you are seated in the kitchen or only eating a chocolate after 10 minutes of waiting. Gradually increase your response timeframes or add more requirements until the power of those cravings and emotions diminish.

When we train ourselves only to respond after the added requirement, the unwanted response will extinguish itself. This means, if we train ourselves only to eat chocolates while seated in our kitchen, our ability to resist a chocolate outside the kitchen will increase dramatically. You would have effectively deconditioned your response to the cravings and emotions that prompted you to eat chocolates.

A recent study showed deconditioning strategies, like the delayed response method, can help reduce your weight by 7.5%. Shockingly, the control group in this same study that was not taught the deconditioning strategy put on 6.5% of weight.

3. Alternate Conditioning

Alternate conditioning involves using an alternate response when exposed to cravings or emotions that prompt you to eat. When we feel a strong craving for chocolate, we could drink a glass of water or go for a walk around the block. Research has shown a 15-minute walk can significantly reduce cravings and emotional eating.

Alternate conditioning is an easy strategy to use if planned correctly. The critical success factor with this method is to have your alternate activities planned well in advance. Alternative conditioning works so well that it is commonly used for drug addicts and can be transferred to almost any craving or bad habit. With practice, the alternate response will eventually replace the craved response.

4. The Law of Diminishing Returns

Even the tastiest foods become boring if we have too much of it in close succession. Use this law of diminishing returns to stop cravings and emotional eating through repeated exposure.

This can be done in two ways:

First, we can decrease our liking of an unhealthy food by eating so much of it we can't stand it anymore. This is best done on a cheat day for minimal impact to your waistline.

Second, we can use cue exposure therapy, where we excessively expose ourselves to the cues that prompt cravings and hunger. This diminishes the power of that cue to exert an effect on us. For example, if a song makes you sad, try listening to it on repeat for an hour. Its ability to make you sad will eventually diminish.

The same can be applied to food cues. If a cue makes you desire an unhealthy food, try exposing yourself to that cue in abundance until its effect diminishes. Cue exposure therapy studies have been proven to decrease cravings by up to 26%. Another method that employs the same theory is using an over abundant imagination to decrease cravings. If you get a craving, imagine yourself eating abundant amounts of that food. Imagine force feeding yourself the craved food, and the power of the craving will eventually diminish.

Interestingly, there is evidence that certain smells also can disrupt the mental processes responsible for cravings and hunger. Researchers say vanilla and menthol smells can disrupt cravings and even decrease your appetite.

5. Kill your Hunger

When you master this practice, it will become your most powerful weight loss tool. The reason behind poor food choices is hunger and its overwhelming power to get you to eat anything as fast as possible. By eating at specific times and not in response to hunger, we can decrease this powerful effect that hunger has on us.

If you feel hungry, wait for the hunger signals to subside before eating. These two steps will, to some extent, disassociate the act of eating as a solution to stop your hunger. Success with this strategy requires planning to ensure you eat enough food at the right times, so you never get to a state of hunger. You must also know the signs of preceding hunger, such as stomach pangs and increasing thoughts of food.

6. Disrupting Mental Imagery

Disrupting a craving with an alternate thought is a useful method to overcoming those irresistible urges to consume fattening foods. Any task that involves rapid eye movement can assist with disrupting cravings. A game of Tetris, Mine craft, or even looking at a 3d picture can disrupt the same areas of the brain that are responsible for creating and driving cravings. These disruptions can decrease cravings by up to 14%. Keep a few of these games or pictures loaded on your phone and get into them when you feel those irresistible urges.

Interestingly, there is evidence that certain smells also can disrupt the mental processes responsible for cravings and hunger. Researchers say vanilla and menthol smells can disrupt cravings and even decrease your appetite.

7. Decrease your Daily Food Decisions

Every day, we make hundreds of conscious and subconscious decisions when it comes to food. In addition, we make thousands of decisions in other areas of our lives. This overload of decision making takes its toll, and by the end of the day, we are so mentally exhausted we give into the simplest of cravings and emotions that prompt us to eat junk.

To tip the scales in your favour, you must decrease the number of food decisions you make in a day. This is done by making sure you are well-stocked with all the right foods and you pre-cook or pre-buy as many meals and snacks as possible. By eliminating all your food decisions, you leave no room for cravings and emotions to make any food choices for you.

Your decision-making power is finite, so besides eliminating food decisions, you should also eliminate as many other small decisions as possible, like deciding what to wear in the mornings, shopping without a list, or unscheduled work days. The goal is to save your decision-making power for those difficult, unexpected food decisions that so easily destroy our best diet efforts.

This technique is so powerful that Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and even Steve Jobs used it to save their decision-making power for their most important decisions.

Now Make It Happen...

Add these 7 strategies to any diet plan to boost your chances of weight loss success.