Pizza, ice cream, potato chips, chocolate. We all have cravings for salty or sweet treats on occasion, but when trying to maintain a healthy diet, these yearnings can hinder weight loss efforts. What to do when “wantpower” trumps willpower? We spoke with bariatric (weight loss) social worker Nancy Velazquez, MSW, LCSW of St. Luke’s Weight Management Center about the emotional aspects of healthy eating and seven tips for supporting your diet goals.
First, let’s get clear on the term “hunger.” There’s typical physical hunger--often accompanied by growling stomach, headache, dizziness, fatigue or moodiness. And then there is head hunger. “We use the term ‘head hunger’ loosely to describe behaviors,” says Velazquez. “Head hunger is often related to emotions such as depression, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, sadness, stress, lack of sleep and anger just to name a few.” So, what are some strategies to sidestep this emotion-driven hunger?
Examine Your Triggers
“Triggers can be either physical in nature or psychological--and they’re formed through repetitive behaviors,” Velazquez says. “For example, going to the movies may equal popcorn and soda even though a person isn’t physically hungry. The experience, the smell of popcorn, people waiting in line. All of these things trigger a behavior previously practiced.”
Similarly, that never-ending workload at the office may trigger stress eating at your desk. Whatever the case, examine the moments throughout each day when you give in to cravings.
A great way to see repetitive behaviors, and work on interventions for them, is a food journal. “Use a phone app like MyFitnessPal to track food intake, physical activity and so forth,” Velazquez says. “A food journal forces the mind to slow down… once practiced the individual will see a pattern and begin to ask questions.”
With triggers and behaviors in mind, recognize that what you eat and when you eat are important. Eat three sensible meals [and] always carry water” Velazquez says, because sometimes thirst can be mistaken for hunger. Keeping hunger at bay with regular, balanced meals keeps you satiated throughout the day, so you’re less likely to go off the rails and grab that pint of ice cream when sad or stressed.
It may sound deceptively simple, but sometimes asking yourself, “Am I physically hungry? Or am just I angry, bored, anxious…” This halt in the process allows you to pause, consider your choices, and make an informed decision about how to proceed.
Find A New Perspective
“Good health is a mind, body and spirit connection. Once that connection is made then changes will follow,” Velazquez says. “The focus should be on proper nutrition, physical activity and positive mental health.” Try nurturing yourself with mindful behaviors such as meditation, yoga, walks in nature, deep breathing and visualization as an alternative to food.
If you still struggle with head hunger “consider outside professional help such as a support group, counselor, therapist or life coach,” Velazquez says. “Often, we’re unaware of our behaviors and need someone to help us identify [them] and develop interventions.”