Using pure willpower to overcome cravings doesn't always work. (If it did, dieting would be easy and we'd all be at our own healthy, feel-great weights.) Guess what? You don't have to tough out an unrelenting yen to house a box of Cheez-Its, you just need to fool yourself into thinking you didn't actually want to eat the junk food in the first place. It's easier than you think; here are tips from experts and recent studies to help you stay on track.
Visualize an internal pause button
The next time you want to reach for a big bowl of Chunky Monkey, picture yourself hitting a pause button in your brain.
"If someone were to ask to borrow a lot of money, most people can stop and say, 'I'll think about it,'" said Coral Arvon, PhD, director of behavioral health and wellness at Pritikin Longevity in Miami, FL.
But when that chocolate cake or bottle of wine is in front of us at the end of day, the majority of us don't hesitate to indulge.
"Think 'pause,' and consider your decision for 10 minutes before making an actual decision," Arvon suggested.
Substitute junk food with healthy foods that resemble junk food
Find a healthy alternative that shares some of the same qualities as the fatty food you've got a craving for, says Jonathan Alpert, a New York City-based psychotherapist and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.” Craving the crunch and salt of potato chips? Make a batch of satisfyingly crispy kale chips. Eyeing the carton of ice cream in your freezer? Whip up a fruit-packed smoothie bowl instead.
"Over time your taste buds and brain will adjust and learn to like these healthier options," Alpert said.
Imagine yourself eating
Thinking about eating a bag of candy makes it more likely you'll eat less of it when you actually start eating it, according to a 2010 study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers. Study participants who visualized eating 30 M&Ms before indulging in a bowl of the candies ate fewer M&Ms than two other groups who imagined eating only three candies or no treats at all. Researchers say the key lies in thinking about eating the food versus merely thinking about or visualizing it.
Tell yourself you can have anything
When you think about going on a diet, hunger pangs, deprivation, and waving goodbye to your favorite foods probably come to mind. Problem is, denying yourself your favorite foods immediately sets you up for failure, said Amy Goodson, RD, sports dietitian for the Dallas Cowboys and co-author of “Swim, Bike, Run, Eat: The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon.”
"You want to make changes you can do for the rest of your life. The key is to eat what you want, but not everything you want," Goodson said. "You can still enjoy one to two splurges during the week as long as you stay on track the rest of the time."
Go back in time
Cut back on calories by learning to snack like a preschooler, Goodson said.
"Many people get in trouble with snacking because they eat too much. So trick your mind into eating less by portioning your snacks in small baggies. This helps you feel as if you're eating 'all' of something, which satisfies your brain."
Ideally, break out portion sizes of chips, snacks, and other goodies as soon as you bring them home from the store so you're not tempted to dip your hand in the entire 10-serving container. To further avoid temptation, keep the portioned snacks out of sight hidden in a cupboard.
Use the "apple trick"
The next time you're standing in front of the refrigerator trying to figure out what you're craving, maybe you're not really hungry, Goodson said. Here's how to figure out if you're genuinely hungry or just trying to satisfy a craving.
"When you crave a salty or sweet treat, ask yourself if you'd eat an apple," Goodson said. "If the answer is yes, you're hungry and it's okay to have a small snack. If not, drink some water, because you're not really hungry." Since thirst often masquerades as hunger, drinking a glass of water should silence your craving.
Plan your junk food
Instead of waiting for a temptation to strike and only then trying to handle it, plan to have one indulgent or "junk" food a day, preferably after dinner, said Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Philadelphia and clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's easier to resist cravings during the day if you know you are going to have your favorite food that night." And when you finish a moderate portion of that food, remind yourself that if you want more, you can have more tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next night, and so on.
Create a top 10 list of distractions
Before a craving strikes, be ready to combat it by having a ready list of alternative activities to keep you on the straight and narrow. "Play a video game, call a friend, take a walk, read to your kids, groom your dog, polish your nails," says Beck. "Watch how the craving has diminished when you firmly focus your mind on something else." Other distractions include brushing your teeth, doing a set of crunches or push-ups, deep breathing, or meditation.
Fool your eye
Use smaller plates. A moderate portion on a large dinner plate looks small, says Beck. "Part of feeling satisfied is visual satisfaction. Another part of feeling satisfied is when hunger diminishes. So pledge to eat ALL your food sitting down, slowly, while enjoying every bite." Keeping junk food out of sight and eating in only the kitchen or dining room—not in front of the TV—can also help you lose weight, according to a Cornell University study.
Train your resistance muscle
Every time you have a craving and you resist it, you build up your "resistance muscle," which makes it more likely that the next time you have a craving you'll resist it. On the other hand, each time you give in to a craving, you strengthen your "giving in muscle," says Beck, "which makes it more likely that the next time you'll give in and the time after that and the time after that."
Set your phone to send you motivational messages
Spontaneous eating is what gets almost every dieter into trouble, says Beck. One way to counteract it is by turning your phone into your conscience. She suggests setting a reminder on your smartphone so every time it goes off, you read a message that encourages you to stick to your diet: "I could eat whatever I want, OR I can lose weight and be healthier," or "If I eat food I haven't planned to eat I'll get momentary satisfaction but I'll feel bad later." You'll want to have these ideas at the forefront of your mind every time you're hit with a craving.
Stay clear of TV while eating
Turn off The Walking Dead while eating dinner and you'll eat fewer calories. Watching TV makes you overeat, according to a study published in the journal Appetite. Two groups of women were studied while they snacked with or without TV. One group was offered one type of snack, while the other group had the choice of four snacks. Everyone ate more while watching the tube. "Avoid this by never having the box or bag of snacks next to you while watching TV," says Goodson. Get a serving on a napkin or small plate and take the serving to the TV room.