Understanding and Beating Cravings
In our new book, we’ve talked a lot about something called the “Pareto Principle”. But don’t let the fancy-sounding name throw you. It’s basically just a useful rule of thumb to remember when it comes to your diet and lifestyle choices, especially when you are a busy dad trying to lose weight and tone up a bit.
Put simply, the rule of thumb is that 80% of your results will come from one source, and 20% will come from another. Now, if we gave you the chance to guess where the 80% of results would come from, most guys would nominate exercising or working out regularly as the main driver of success.
And there’s a really good reason why that’s the case. Most guys are wired to think in terms of what they can control, and are really good at giving short, intense bursts of energy and focus in order to accomplish a goal. So working out three to four times a week for an hour seems like a pretty achievable goal. And it is. Unfortunately, it’s just not what will drive the majority of your fitness goals.
The 80% of weight loss and results? That comes from your eating choices and diet.
Diets Are Easy
Diets are easy right? Of course they are. Apart from the hunger, the foggy brain, and the food cravings they are a total walk in the park. But we’ve got good news for you. Cravings are a real, identifiable, and studied physiological reaction in humans. And because they have been studied in settings ranging from narcotics to food to screen time, there is more knowledge than ever before on what causes them, how to manage them and ultimately, how to beat them.
Food cravings are about as primal as cravings get. Back in the early evolution of man, three meals a day were not an option. But food cravings were built into our psychology to trigger the urge to hunt, gather, and eat food. Importantly, the cravings were designed to be triggered before food was actually required. It wouldn’t have done early man much good to crave nutrition but only have that desire kick in when the hunter-gatherer was too weak to do anything about it!
That piece of knowledge has important applications in the modern world. While food cravings can feel intense and like they need to be satisfied immediately, this is just an evolutionary “echo” left over from the early days. Cravings can be safely ignored without any harm – your body is just tricking you into thinking it “needs” that food.
The other piece of knowledge that is important is that our brains are much more hard-wired to crave high-calorie, energy dense food. So it’s no coincidence that food cravings are for usually for sugar, chips, and chocolate, and never for rice crackers, low-fat milk, and fruit. When our ancestors were not sure whether their next food source was going to be available, it made sense for them to be hardwired to seek out high-energy options.
So now you know why you crave certain foods. But what can you do about it?
Practical Strategies For Managing Cravings
First piece of good news: according to recent research most food cravings only last between three and five minutes. So riding it out is much easier than it may seem. Here are some additional practical tips to help you out.
Protein punch – higher protein meal choices have the effect of making you feel fuller for longer. In turn, that makes you less hungry, and less likely to have a food craving. The reason is that protein is slower to be digested than other quickly absorbed sources of food like sugar and carbohydrates. Adding protein-rich choices to breakfast and snacks in particular pays good dividends for managing cravings.
Boiled eggs for breakfast or as a snack, hummus on rice crackers and Greek yoghurt are inexpensive, convenient ways to accomplish this goal.
Physical distraction – cravings are a thought process. That means that the more energy you spend trying to not think about the craving, the more likely you are to give in to it. But instead of thinking, try using a physical distraction to create some space between the craving and your thoughts.
This can involve going for a brief walk, standing up to stretch or even making a cup of coffee or tea. All that is required is something you can do to move your body and focus on at the same time, and the good thing about all those suggestions is that no one at work will think twice if they see you doing any of them.
Planning and prep – there is no surer way to give in to a food craving than having no good food easily available. Sometimes, food cravings are a sign of real hunger. And when that happens, it’s far more likely a trip to the local shop or office vending machine will yield a bag of chips or chocolate bar, rather than anything healthy.
Buy some good quality snack containers and prepare your snacks in advance. Any combination of cheese, biscuits, oatcakes, cut up vegetables, hummus, fruit and yoghurt will serve as a lower calorie, higher protein option than almost any other non-planned alternative.
Eat slower – when we eat, we often chew absent-mindedly while reading, scrolling on our phones, or even commuting. By simply eating more slowly and with a bit of focus, you reduce the chance of “inhaling” your food. The feeling of fullness that tells us to stop eating kicks in about 20 minutes after we begin to eat, so eating really quickly will often result in you eating far more than you actually need.
Remove temptation – plan your shopping trip and never shop hungry. That pretty much ensures that your early evolutionary brain will take over on some level and steer you toward filling your basket with those high calorie, high sugar foods. A simple tweak like not having foods that are the subject of cravings in the places where you spend the most time (home and work) goes a long way towards breaking the habit of craving those foods.