Dieting doesn't work, but for those of us who often eat in response to stress, boredom, sadness - or even happiness - it's good to have some tricks in your toolbox to deal with constant cravings. Try these!
BY TORI RODRIGUEZ
You know that stress and feeling down can make food cravings soar, but a good mood can trigger overeating just as much as a bad one. In both states, "people tend to consume tasty, high-caloric foods," says researcher Peg Bongers, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. "Few—if any—people will eat a carrot when they feel sad or have something to celebrate." All the more reason you need an arsenal of options to avoid overdoing it. Try these 10 surprising ones, whether you're in the throes of the blues or bliss.
1. Take a whiff of something else. Studies show that sniffing peppermint or jasmine extract dampens desire for chocolate and other high-calorie faves. "When people crave a particular food, they have vivid images not only of how delicious it looks but also of how good it smells," says Eva Kemps, PhD, a professor at Flinders University in Australia. Inhaling an unrelated scent "reduces the vividness and clarity of these imagined smells, and reduces the craving for that food." Keep some jasmine or peppermint essential oil handy, and indulge your nose when temptation strikes.
2. Tune into your body. In one study, an exercise called "body scan" kept cravings in check. "When people crave something, they see it in their mind's eye, and the stronger and more vivid this imagery is, the worse the craving becomes," says Jon May, PhD, of Plymouth University's Cognition Institute in the U.K. Envisioning something else weakens the craving imagery—and the craving itself. Settle into a quiet spot and mentally "scan" your body from toes to head, noticing sensations as you go. As other thoughts arise, acknowledge them, then return your attention to your body.
3. Take a mental vacation. Dr. May's study also found that visualizing a 10-minute walk through the forest helped head off food urges…if you tap into multiple senses. So imagine seeing colorful birds, smelling pine trees and feeling the ground beneath your feet as you walk. If the forest isn't your thing, try the beach or mountains. The imagery doesn't just provide distraction, says Dr. May: "It uses mental processes also used by cravings, so it's particularly good at making them easier to resist."
4. Take on a challenging task. According to recent research, it doesn't just reduce cravings; it increases more nutritious food choices too. "Humans can only maintain a limited amount of information simultaneously," says Lotte van Dillen, PhD, a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In situations that require a lot of brainpower, "there simply is not enough mental capacity available for cravings to persist, so people will be less vulnerable to temptation." When the snack machine beckons, tackle advanced Sudoku instead.
5. Don't react to your thoughts. Just because you think something ("Must have candy now!") doesn't mean you have to follow it (by devouring any sweet treat within reach). In a 2012 study, one group of people who noticed their thoughts but recognized that they didn't have to do anything about them had a big dip in their desire for chocolate—and the amount they ate. In fact, it was a more effective craving cutter than using a relaxation technique.
6. Play games. Dust off the Nintendo. A new study found that people who played Tetris for just three minutes had significantly weaker cravings than participants who didn't play, perhaps because the game loads down working memory and crowds out tempting thoughts. Good thing there are several ways to get your game fix: If you don't have a gaming system, you can play Tetris on your computer or smart phone.
7. Hit the pavement. A brisk 15-minute walk helped reduce women's chocolate cravings in a recent study. It could be because exercise slashes the tension, boredom and fatigue that can lead to unhealthy food choices. More possible reasons: "Short bouts of physical activity throughout the day may help regulate mood and reduce focus on snacks," points out Hwajung Oh, PhD, a professor at Seoul National University in South Korea.
8. Work with clay. Maybe they were onto something in Ghost. Making shapes out of modeling clay can reduce the strength of cravings and the frequency of thoughts about the desired food, according to a 2012 study. The simple reason: The task competes with the craving for our attention, according to experts. Don't worry about making a masterpiece: Study participants made as many pyramids and cubes as they could within 10 minutes.
9. Remember your last meal. Hunger is the strongest cue to eat, of course, but when we don't have a clear sense of what we most recently ate, we can think we're hungry when we're not. Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. found that people felt fuller when they recalled having eaten a large meal, but when they thought the meal was smaller than it was, they felt hungrier. Try writing down details of your meals to refer to later, or take a mental (or real) snapshot so there's no wondering what you last ate.
10. Do what works for you. Simply using tips from a self-help book about dealing with cravings decreased them in a recent study, while trying to suppress food thoughts had the opposite effect. The self-help approach may have worked because participants chose strategies they preferred, and people are more likely to rely on a technique if they like it, says researcher Boris C. Rodríguez Martín, PhD. The takeaway: Pick out the tips above that appeal most to you, and count on just them when cravings arise.
~This article by Tori Rodriguez originally appeared on WomansDay.com; intro language has been slightly modified to reflect author's views.~