Managing Food Cravings: Changing Eating Habits

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Developing Healthier Food Habits

healthy eating articles

One of the classes we teach at Green Mountain focuses on the various types of food cravings people have: physical cravings, those due to food exposure, and habit-based cravings.  Wanting to eat out of habit is usually a response to an event, location, activity, time of day, or routine of some sort.  We’ve formed associations in our minds between eating and an event, location, etc.

Common examples are eating while watching TV, snacking on long car trips, or eating candy at the movies.

I like to talk about habits being like coming to a fork in a road, and always taking the same path. It’s like we’re not aware of the other paths. We’ve got neural pathways formed in our brain that keep us going in the same direction. 

The key to changing habits, then, is to become aware of the different paths — or choices — we have. Then make decisions about what we really want. Over time, you form new neural pathways and begin automatically consider your choices in the moment — what path you want to head down — instead of being driven by an unconscious habit.

Not all habit-based cravings are frequent enough to be a problem. Enjoying popcorn at the movies, for example, doesn’t have to be a problem, as most of us usually don’t go to the movies every day.  

If they are more frequent, and aren’t the result of physical hunger, I’m a fan of using strategies that address the what, why, when, and where of what’s going on.

Consider these questions:

  • What do you find yourself doing when cravings strike?
  • What purpose do you think the food serves in this situation?
  • Why do you think you reach for food at this time or in this environment?
  • When is this most problematic?
  • Where is this most likely to occur?
  • Where is the food that you crave at this time?

There are more questions that could be helpful, too, such as e “how” or “who” questions, that can increase understanding of what’s at the root of a craving, which then equips us to come up with effective strategies to address it.  

Example:  Snacking at night

What are you usually doing when cravings strike?  A typical answer is “watching tv.” There may not be anything more to this than a habit you’ve formed of eating in front of the tube. You go on autopilot when you sit down: On comes the tv, out come the snacks. Effective strategies to decrease snacking could be as simple as changing the chair you always sit in while watching tv. Doing that helps set an intention of changing your habits; just the act of doing something different increases your awareness of your habit and sometimes that’s all we need to make a different choice. 

What purpose do you think the food serves in this situation? “I’m bored; I eat just to do something besides watch tv.” Mix up your evenings with more entertaining activities — are there any adult ed classes you’ve been wanting to take? Is it a good time to devote to starting that novel you’ve always wanted to write? You might also keep your hands or mind busy while watching TV — try knitting, crossword puzzles, petting dog/cat — activities that are incompatible with eating.

Why do you reach for food at this time or in this environment?  “The evening is when I like to wind down.  I look forward to food at this point since I don’t eat much earlier in the day.” This is another question to investigate the purpose the food serves. Is food the major — or only — thing you look forward to in the evening? Try making a list of other things that interest you or help you relax, then plug them into your nightly routine. 

If you’re reaching for food because you don’t eat much during the day, it could be physical hunger that’s driving you to eat. One of the most common reasons for night eating is not eating enough during the day.

When is this most problematic?  The answer to that question is inherent in this example — it’s the evening. So maybe thinking about when isn’t going to provide you any deep insight into strategies. Unless your snacking occurs very late at night. Then physical hunger could be at play again. If you eat dinner at 6 PM, but don’t go to bed until midnight, it’s normal to need a snack. An effective strategy could be to plan an evening snack and plan to eat it at the kitchen table, not in front of the tv. 

Where is this most likely to occur? “In the living room.”  Like the example above where you change the chair you sit it, you could change the room you watch tv in to remind yourself of your intention to change. Or you could instead focus on changing where you eat, such as setting an intention to eat at the kitchen table the majority of the time.

Where is the food that you crave at this time? “My husband/partner/daughter/son/etc. usually brings it into the living room. If they don’t, I grab it myself from the kitchen — we always have lots of snack foods around.”  Exposure sounds like the problem here. You could ask family members for their support by not bringing food into the living room in the evenings; if they need snacks, they could enjoy  them in the kitchen. Or you might choose to watch tv in another room if they feel they need to snack while watching.  You could also keep fewer snack foods in the house to manage their pull. 

If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It takes awareness and intention and attention to change habits. The good news is, once they’re changed, they no longer have the pull they used to have. You can find yourself sitting in front of the television while everyone else snacks, think about whether you really want to or not, and make your choice from there. It’s no longer automatic pilot. You’re in charge. 

Can you identify a “what, why, when, or where” you could change to reduce habit-based eating?

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