Research has shown that mindless eating contributes to weight gain in Americans. This is especially true due to the serving sizes that can be found when ordering restaurants. Those who order extra-large popcorns at the movies, for example, eat almost 50 percent more than those who order a large, because with the extra-large, the size and shape of the container can trick the eyes.
Doctors have been studying why we have cravings for certain foods, in order to learn how to curb cravings and make better food choices. We talked to Alexandra Miller, RDN, LDN and Corporate Dietitian at Medifast to get some tips on ways to curb mindless munching and develop healthy habits.
Women’s Running (WR): Why do we have cravings—especially leaning toward junk food?
Alexandra Miller (AM): Thoughts, feelings and urges arise naturally; it’s something we all experience at one time or another. That’s because we are biologically wired to respond to and seek out rewards. When we eat foods—especially ones high in sugar and fat—we experience a pleasant feeling; one might describe it as a peaceful, calming and comforting type of feeling. We are biologically drawn towards these pleasurable experiences and will naturally continue to seek out similar experiences in the future. Living in an environment that promotes unhealthy behaviors, including frequent consumption of fast food, large portions, skipping meals, etc., only makes things harder. It is often a trigger, which is why creating a healthy environment is so important for long term success.
WR: Is there a way to recognize cravings so we don’t find ourselves mindlessly eating?
AM: Avoid trying to suppress or eliminate your cravings; it often makes it more intense and distressing. Instead, learn to accept that you will have cravings from time to time and utilize the Stop-Challenge-Choose technique to help manage them. Here’s how it works:
- Stop: Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and center yourself. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Think of it as an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm. Notice what is happening in the present moment. What thoughts, feelings, and urges are you experiencing? Acknowledge them and accept that they are there.
- Challenge: Remind yourself that no matter how intense the thought, it’s simply a thought and nothing else. We have millions of thoughts each day, many of which we do not listen to (i.e. sleeping in on a work day, hitting someone who makes you angry, etc…)! All of these thoughts come and go, just like waves in the ocean. Your craving is nothing more; it has no power over you.
Now ask yourself:
- What is my emotional state right now? Am I truly hungry or experiencing something different, like fatigue, stress, or boredom?
- What would happen if I do what my thoughts, feelings, and urges are directing me to?
- Choose: Ask yourself what’s truly important to you. Remember your long term goals and ask yourself what action you want to take based on that. Whatever your choice, accept it, then continue on your healthy path. Observe how you feel as you make your choice; would you choose to feel this way again?
WR: How long does it take to get out of the habit of mindless eating?
AM: Always expect to experience a craving from time to time. Cravings are like waves in the ocean; they constantly come and go and you can’t stop them. What you can do, however, is learn to ride out the wave by practicing the technique described above. Don’t expect to try it once and perfect it; it’s going to take some practice. Next time you walk past the vending machine or get up to grab a snack before the movie starts, work through the exercise.
WR: What are some healthy options you recommend people try should they be craving something sweet or salty?
AM: Here are a few options to help satisfy cravings:
- Medifast Soft Bakes (brownie, chocolate chip, blueberry muffin, or gingerbread): These soft and tasty treats are perfect for any baked good craving. For only 110 calories, you’ll get 11 grams of protein, 20% of the daily value for 24 vitamins and minerals, 4g fiber, and only 8g of sugar.
- Non-fat Greek yogurt: Enjoy it plain with fresh fruit or enjoy one with fruit already in it. Just make sure it doesn’t have too much added sugar; aim for ≤12g per serving. For a frozen treat, place your yogurt in the freezer.
- Fresh fruit: Also known as nature’s candy. Enjoy fresh cubes of watermelon, frozen grapes, apple slices, orange segments, sweet cherries—the list goes on and on. Fruit is naturally sweet and rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Nuts: They’re rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats; just make sure they are lightly salted and pre-portioned to control how much you eat.
- Air-popped Popcorn: Popcorn is a whole grain that is naturally low in calories and a good source of fiber. Of course, you want to avoid popcorn that has a lot of salt, butter, and other things added to it. Make your own plain air-popped popcorn and jazz it up with a little chili powder and lime juice or parmesan cheese and fresh rosemary. Or purchase a pre-portioned low-fat option, like the Medifast popcorn. It contains no artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives and has only 70 calories per serving.