When the clock strikes 3 p.m. and a salty-sweet craving hits hard, don’t blame your stomach. The urge to splurge is coming from a different body part. "Everything we feel and every behavior we engage in—including what and how much we choose to eat—are the results of brain activity," says neuroscientist Stephan J. Guyenet, PhD, author of The Hungry Brain ($28; amazon.com). His book is one of several new weight-loss guides that harness the power of the mind to rewire old habits. The approach is catching on in the wellness world as experts focus less on strict diets and more on creating healthy behaviors around food, which is ultimately a better way to get slim and stay that way. Read on for seven techniques to outsmart your cravings.
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You know that classic diet advice "Everything in moderation”? Well, it may be failing you, says Robb Wolf, author of Wired to Eat ($27; amazon.com). For starters, it’s an ambiguous concept; research shows we tend to have varying definitions of "moderate" portions. What’s more, some people are better than others at stopping after a few bites of an indulgence, says Wolf, a former research biochemist who has provided nutrition counseling for NASA and the U.S. Marine Corps.
In his book, he advises readers to consider whether they’re a "moderator" or an "abstainer" (a concept he borrowed from habit expert Gretchen Rubin). Moderators feel satisfied after enjoying a small amount of a favorite treat (say, one oatmeal cookie), and that helps them stay on track. But for abstainers, a taste of their so-called trigger foods can send them off the rails. (In other words, if they have one cookie, they’ll inhale the entire sleeve.) So it’s ideal for abstainers to give up trigger foods entirely. Wolf suggests getting them out of the house ASAP. And soon, thanks to your evolving neurocircuitry, you’ll likely crave those foods less.
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Just stop with the negative self-talk
Fact: Being critical of your belly (or any other body part) isn’t going to help you get healthier. "There’s this misconception that weight-shaming yourself will create motivation for positive change," says psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford, author of Brain-Powered Weight Loss ($27; amazon.com). But that kind of thinking will only keep you stuck.
We tend to follow a think-feel-do pattern, she explains. Say you have a negative thought—like "My waist will never be as tiny as that model’s waist." It will make you feel sad or hopeless, and then you’re more likely to stress-eat or take a might-as-well binge attitude toward food. The trick is to reframe your negative thoughts before they upset you, says Kingsford. One easy way? Tack on a self-compliment. For example: "She looks great, and so do I."
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Help your brain feel full
You tend to stop eating when you experience a satiated feeling. That’s obvious. What’s maybe not so obvious: You can feel full faster by eating the right foods, says Guyenet, whose research focuses on the neurobiology of obesity. Foods high in protein (like meat, eggs, and seafood) and fiber (such as fruits, beans, and vegetables) provide more satiety per calorie than foods high in sugar, salt, and simple carbs (including fro yo, pizza, and loaded nachos). That means when you choose roasted chickpeas over barbecue chips, for example, you eat less before your brain signals to your belly that your current energy need has been satisfied.
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Skip cheat days, do splurge moments
After a long week of disciplined eating, a cheat day sounds mighty tempting. But "rewarding" yourself with a boozy brunch or a trip to Krispy Kreme can backfire. "Planning a cheat day creates this anticipatory pleasure and ritual around unhealthy foods," says Wolf, which reinforces the idea that your weekday diet is a form of punishment. As a result, your brain often craves junk food even more. "I think it’s better if indulgent moments pop up organically, like if a friend has a party and you decide to enjoy the cake," says Wolf. His suggested rule of thumb: If you’re eating 21 meals a week, two can be off-plan.
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Beat the buffet effect
Also known as sensory-specific satiety, this phenomenon explains why you overeat when you have many options to choose from. It’s also why you always have room for dessert (no matter how much you ate for dinner). The neuroscience at work: When we get tired of one flavor—and can’t possibly eat another bite—we may still desire another flavor simply because it’s different. If you’re at a catered buffet or a tapas restaurant, Guyenet suggests choosing three foods that satisfy three different flavor cravings (for example, salty, sour, and bitter). You’ll probably feel just as full on fewer calories. To preempt a dessert craving, order a side of fruit or a salad dressed with a sweet vinaigrette.
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Practice urge surfing
The beauty of cravings? They always go away eventually, whether you indulge them or not. If you’re struggling to resist the pint of mint chocolate chip in your freezer, for instance, Kingsford recommends asking yourself this series of questions: Is my body actually hungry for this food? Am I craving it out of habit? Or am I just looking for a distraction from boredom, stress, or some other unpleasant emotion?
Once you understand what’s really going on, you can make an informed decision. If you have a jones to eat because you’re worried or frustrated, some fresh air might help more than a sugar rush. If you decide you really do want the ice cream, ask yourself if you need a whole bowl or if a few spoonfuls would be enough to hit the spot.
"Our biggest problem is that we often act on impulse," says Kingsford. "So the first thing to do is slow down and be mindful. The more you flex that muscle, the easier it gets to surf those urges."
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Make a mini-commitment
When you think about overhauling your eating habits—whether you want to go vegetarian or just clean up your diet—it can feel daunting. But committing to the new plan for just one month can trick your brain: With a finish line in sight, your goal will seem far more achievable, says Wolf. After four weeks, you can decide if you want to continue. Odds are you will, says Wolf: "By the end, people usually feel so much better that they want to keep going."
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Understand why cravings happen
"The brain is wired to value certain properties in food that supported survival in our ancestors," says Guyenet—think starch, sugar, fat, salt, protein, and glutamate (an umami flavor). That’s why we find bacon and brownies so irresistible. When we eat these types of foods, the brain churns out the reward chemical dopamine; the next time you see that food, it triggers a motivation process —a.k.a. a craving. The good news, says Guyenet: The less you eat this fare, the easier it is to resist it.