I eyed that perfect union of mouth-watering rich chocolate, smooth cream and moist cake. That slice of Boston cream pie donated to the soup kitchen by Two Fat Cats was calling out to me. Lunch was over and there were several luscious generously-portioned slices sitting on the pan available to the volunteers. I had been eying them all morning and I was hungry and tired. Not the best set-up for building willpower.
Impact of visual cues on eating
In a meta-analysis of over 45 studies on almost 3300 participants, researchers found that there was a direct correlation between food cues and cravings to eating behavior and weight gain. Whether the food cue was real, on TV or a picture study participants who saw the food image experienced increased cravings and overeating.
The researchers report environmental food cues cause a conditioned response to overeat. Like Pavlov’s dog, who learned to salivate at the sound of the bell in anticipation of food, seeing or smelling a certain food elicits a strong desire to eat that food. There are also internal cues such as stress and hormonal changes that act like food cues and lead to overeating. The researchers proved that cues can induce cravings and increase the likelihood of overeating.
I know cravings
We are constantly bombarded throughout the day by external food cues that induce cravings, and some aren’t even intentional. My last job was near The Holy Donut – the best donut shop in the entire world. I love the maple ginger donut. It’s has just the right amount of sugary glaze on top of a lightly spiced, moist potato flour cake. I discovered its proximity to my last job when I went home a different way. From that moment on I had to ask myself one question at the end of each work day:
“Do I go left or do I go right?”
It got to the point that just knowing the work day was winding down would cause a Pavlov reaction. By 4 pm the store was often either out of donuts or there were slim pickings leaving me with a combination of despair, guilt for turning left in the first place, and gratitude that I hadn’t indulged. Occasionally my favorite donut was still available. When I left that job, there was a sense of relief that I wouldn’t be tormented by The Decision anymore.
Environmental and intrinsic cues
Every day we are confronted with cues that tempt us. It makes living off the grid sound like utopia – the simplicity of just nature, the household and no Holy Donut signs. For those on the grid and on the road each day there are triggers from sun up to sun down:
- The fast food restaurants or quick stops
- The candy bowl on a coworker’s desk
- The let’s-celebrate-getting-through-the-week Friday pizza
- The kind coworker who makes homemade treats “to share” (but somehow isn’t tempted by them as they sit on their desk)
- The lovely goodies on the end caps and in the aisle at the grocery store
- The food commercials on TV that lead to an evening binge
- The stressful day that leads to a take-out gorge
- The holiday, birthday, mother’s day food frenzy
No wonder nearly 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. We’re either exhausted by the end of the day trying to be strong or we give in and get fat. And the irony is that the heavier you get, the more tired you feel which makes it even harder to have willpower. How does one get through the day without becoming exhausted or gaining weight?
- Know yourself. Are you someone who gets the 100 calorie pack snacks and just eats one or does the wrapper boundary disappear? Are you tempted by visual cues? Are you an out-of-sight, out-of-mind individual or do you hear certain delectables in the kitchen whisper in your ear at night? Most people eventually realize that reducing food cravings means keeping trigger foods out of the house.
- Develop a mantra. Develop a saying to help you overcome temptation. It might be something like “I am strong” or “that will only lead to regret later” or even “I’m worth it”. As you slowly master your triggers it might change to “that will undo the weight I’ve lost” or “I’ll save it for Sunday”.
- DVR it or stream your shows. The more you can either not watch TV or limit your exposure to food commercials, the less your mind will react.
- Eat three evenly spaced meals to avoid extreme hunger. Keep foods in your house that you can grab and go. Peanut butter, whole grain crackers, individual low-fat Greek yogurts, fruit, cut up celery and carrots come to mind.
- Get your coworkers on board. Have a conversation about what goodies come into work. A bowl full of M & M’s or a plate of homemade cookies is just trouble. No other word for it. Just as tempting is some nice fresh in-season fruit. Who doesn’t like a delicious, red plump strawberry or a freshly picked apple or a juicy navel orange? Taking care of each other is really about supporting healthy habits.
- Never go shopping when you’re hungry. There’s a simple solution – keep a bottle of water and a piece of fruit or a small bag of nuts in your car or purse at all times and eat them about 20 minutes before you enter the store. It takes about 15-20 minutes for your stomach to register fullness.
- Keep frozen meals or a quick fix meal available for stressful days. Come up with a couple of quick meals either ready in the freezer or one you keep stocked with all the ingredients. One of my favorite quick meals is chicken wraps made with shredded chicken, cole slaw, black beans and salsa. I always keep a can of beans and salsa in the closet, tortilla wraps, cooked chicken and grated cheese in the freezer and a head of cabbage in the fridge. It takes seconds to throw together and it’s a tasty, balanced meal.
- Plan your splurges. There’s a difference between an urge splurge and a planned splurge. The first controls you and the other you control. It’s ok to have some planned splurges so that you don’t feel deprived.
- Take a different route home to bypass tempting stores. The key is to have the conversation with yourself when you leave work. As I went down the hill towards the intersection near Holy Donut I would mentally visualize myself going right and put all thoughts of going left out of my mind. Nine times out of ten it worked. The other times I planned for my splurge.
- Plan your celebrations. Holidays, parties, vacations are all opportunities to fun, tasty foods. You can loosen the reins, but don’t let go. There are some strategies that really work. Don’t stand near the food when you are talking. Don’t keep extra food on the table – get up to get seconds if you really want them. Be the one to bring a nice veggie platter with some different veggies – like jicama, radishes, cauliflower, scallions, and cucumbers. Eat some of those first before heading for the chex mix, cheese and crackers or chips and dip.
If you want to better manage cravings, manage the cues. You are in control. Also know that the urge to act on cravings passes once the visual stimuli is gone. Cues may be all around you but they don’t have to take over your brain. If you have strategies to mitigate temptation you will have success at not caving-in to cravings. By the way, that Boston cream pie… I turned my head and walked away. I decided, not today.