Weight Control: Ward Off Cravings, Binge Eating (cont.)

Binge eating can be triggered throughout the day, and the reasons appear to be both physiological and psychological.

People most often give into unhealthy food cravings because they are genuinely hungry -- they haven't consumed enough nutrients to sustain themselves until the next meal, says Ruth Patrick, PhD, LDN, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. The other side of that, she says, is that people often think they shouldn't be eating certain foods, or eating too much of anything. The more they think about it, the more intense their desire to have what's forbidden.

And once a craving strikes, it's oh-so-easy to get something to ease it.

"The fact is that, right now, the cost of food for anyone in this country is the lowest that it's ever been in history as a percentage of gross income," says Fergus Clydesdale, PhD, head of the food science department at the University of Massachusetts. "That makes everything available to everyone whenever they want."

To defend yourself from food cravings during the day:

  • Get rid of unhealthy foods at your home and office.
  • If co-workers or housemates have junk food, keep your own supply of nutritious, ready-to-eat snacks to help with temptation.
  • Drink water. Sometimes food cravings can be satisfied just by having something, even liquid, in your stomach.
  • Snack on something hot, such as soup or sugar-free hot chocolate, or something cold, such as a frozen fruit pop or a healthy smoothie. "The extremes in temperature signal the brain that you've had something to eat, rather than just sitting down with something that's of room temperature," says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, LMHC, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Food cravings can hit hard in the last few hours of the workday, when people are likely to become bored, tired, or stressed. "Many people seem to naturally hit a low at this time," says Tallmadge.

"For some...the munchie monster tends to come out at night. Boredom, anxiety, weariness, and habit are the
likely culprits."

Some may also feel that since they've put in a hard day of work, they deserve to reward themselves with food.

Emotions can be powerful triggers for binge eating, says Dorfman, explaining that the association between food and mood may have roots in family traditions, childhood memories, and culture: "Did you celebrate with cake and cookies on birthdays and holidays? Or when you were bad, did you run to the pantry and get yourself a treat to make yourself feel better?"

To keep your feelings from triggering an afternoon food binge:

  • Try to determine whether you're really hungry or are just trying to feed an emotion.
  • If you are hungry, dig in to your stash of healthy foods (try fruit, nuts, and yogurt). As Tallmadge notes, the late afternoon is a natural time to snack and refresh yourself. Plus, eating something nutritious now might help you eat a lighter dinner later on.
  • When snacking, choose whole instead of processed foods whenever possible. For example, fruit is better than granola bars because it can keep you feeling full longer with a lot less calories.
  • Snooze for 10-15 minutes.
  • Take a walk.
  • Wash your face and brush your teeth.
  • Every once in a while, indulge in a moderate serving of a favorite food. "Deprivation is not always good," says Patrick. "Sometimes it's psychologically better to give in to a craving."

Avoiding Evening Excess