Cravings are best fought off with a stick. Preferably a big one, with metal spikes all over it.
The dictionary says a craving is, "an intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing."
That doesn't necessarily sound like a bad thing. I like intensity; I love to long. But your questions have been about the food-related cravings – the ones that possess your brain and make you want to eat way more than you need to.
Personally I've found that prevention is the best cure. As with many things, the key is to know thyself and be prepared…
(You know I really squirm writing this stuff sometimes. I mean what a lucky western world dilemma to have; the struggle not to eat too much food. Crikey.)
… It's much easier if I don't give the cravings a chance to start. This takes a lot of planning and forethought.
My appetite is a demanding toddler; it's first words were I want. It likes to throw itself down on a supermarket floor and make a scene. My brain is the appetite's weary mother. She carries a Handbag of Anticipation, bulging with tricks and treats and distractions. She tries to be ready for any stunt the little monkey might pull.
It all starts with breakfast. If I don't get that right I screw up the whole day. During the week I don't eat until I feel the first rumbles of hunger; between 10-11 AM. If I eat first thing as convention dictates, I'm munchy again by 10. So I figured I may as well wait until I'm properly hungry in the first place. A nice bonus is that this is the time when colleagues tend to make tea and open the biscuit tin. If I'm tucking into my breakfast then that's one Biscuit Battle that I don't have to worry about.
The breakfast itself must be good and satisfying. Right now I'm running on porridge/oatmeal. I zap it in the microwave before I leave the house and put it in a wee Thermos flask, so it's still hot when I eat it a couple of hours later. I pour it into the lid/cup with some tinned pears then sprinkle it with 10g muscovado sugar and 20g of almond butter, then stir it all up so it's nice and melty and dessert-y.
I could be sensible and just have the porridge and pears, but the extra 160 calories for the sugar and almond butter are well spent. That "hit" of caramelly sweetness and crunchy saltiness, is enough to keep me happy. I can get on with my work and ignore those chocolates sitting three feet from my desk that someone bought back from vacation.
I generally eat a late lunch, around 2 – 2.30PM, that way I've only got 2.5 – 3 hours to get through until home time (how bloody sad does that sound!?). If I make it a good one – last nights leftovers, a really interesting salad, or a baked potato with yummy toppings – then I'll cruise through with no urge to visit the biscuit tin or vending machine.
But as another layer of prevention I've always got snacks if I need them in a range of tastes and textures – savoury (a Babybel cheese), sweet (fruit or a cereal bar), crunchy/sweet (oatcakes with banana) and so on. So if I do start hankering for something I have all these levels of negotiation at my fingertips.
Dinner requires just as much thought. It works best if I plan a week in advance – what's happening this week? What evenings will I be out or working late? How energetic will I feel?
If I know I'm going to be tired and crabbit (which is 95% of the time at present) then I pick the easiest yet most satisfying meals. For example, tonight we are having these lovely huevos rancheros a la Smitten Kitchen. Easy to make, healthy enough with sufficient Delicious Factor to be looked forward to throughout the day.
If you don't have Food Issues that must sound so pathetic, but today sometime between 3 and 5PM I know I will think, "I can't be arsed going to Spinning, maybe I'll go straight home and stop into the shop for a wee bag of Kettle Chips". But since I am organised for once, I will be able to talk to myself: "Whoa there! You have huevos rancheros coming up! Melty cheesy goodness awaits. Go forth and spin!"
Evenings are another tough cookie; the post-dinner wilderness hours. Again, planning a satisfying dinner helps kill that off. If I make a "Communist dinner" as Gareth calls them – you know the more diet-y kind of dinners like stir fries that are very light and vegetabley – I try to make sure I've got something ready for when the kitchen-roaming feeling kicks in – a small chocolate bar, an individual portion of Nutella, etc etc. Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate.
If I think about it honestly, aside from when I'm pre-menstrual, most of my "cravings" are because I've let myself go too long between meals; or I'm stressed or cranky and convinced that food will make it better. It's when I've pulled back too far on calories and/or flavour in my general everyday eating, so it feels like I'm missing out on something. When I take the time to plan meals that soothe and satisfy my many teeth (sweet tooth, savoury tooth, sour tooth etc etc etc) and plan yummy things into my calories, then I don't feel so obsessed by food. The cravings don't have a chance to build.
So in summary this is what I find helpful:
- Know your moods and vulnerable times and try to anticipate/plan around them
- Plan meals that focus on satisfaction just as much as nutrition
- When a craving hits, try to listen to your body and figure out what's really going on
- Talk to yourself like a loony, all day long
- Accept that some days none of the above will work and you'll scoff everything…
(Like last week there were Viscount biscuits at work [the UK's noble attempt at a Mint Slice]. I did the talking to myself thing and chose the Healthy Option oatcakes on my desk. But then I ate three sodding Viscounts as well. Why oh why. Reboot computer, try again tomorrow. Pfft.)
… but that's cool as long as you move on as soon as possible.
As always the key is getting to know yourself and finding out what works for you. A spoonful of sugar in the morning might prevent my cravings, but it might trigger you to eat rubbish all day. It's taken me eight years to realise what works for me, with lots of failure along the way. And now that I reckon I've figured it out, I struggle every single day to actually put it into practice.
But it's worth the effort and almost fun putting yourself under the microscope, studying your habits and patterns. Once you know the beast you're dealing with, it's easier to work out how to tame it.
See also: Tricks and Treats – Guest post on Limes & Lycopene from last year