When you're trying to lose weight, cravings are the worst. They can derail your best healthy-eating efforts, maybe set you back in your progress and — most frustrating of all — mess with your mindset. So, what if you could stop cravings before they start?
Here, we outline five common mistakes that can trigger cravings when you're dieting, and how to prevent them.
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Mistake 1: Eating Boring Meals
When you put yourself in "diet jail" and fill your plate with foods that are overly bland and boring, you're setting yourself up for failure.
"If you don't enjoy your food, it can lead to feelings of restriction, which can bring on cravings," says dietitian DJ Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap.
Fix it: Instead, be sure to add what Blatner calls "feel-good ingredients" to all your healthy meals so you really feel satisfied. She green-lights items like your favorite ranch dressing, a heavy dollop of creamy guacamole and even some fries. In other words, practice moderation rather than cutting out your favorite foods completely.
Mistake 2: Not Addressing Your Stress
Stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health. But did you know that finding simple ways to manage it could potentially help you shed a few pounds?
When financially-strapped women participated in a 16-week program that raised awareness about stress, physical activity and diet, they started to eat healthier — choosing fast food and high-fat snacks less often than they did prior to the awareness program, per an August 2020 study in Appetite.
Fix it: Interestingly, though, the participants weren't told that to lower their stress they needed to solve the problem that was causing stress. Instead, the researchers advised them to shift their thinking — not to blame themselves and rein in their negative emotions. Some of their stressors (and yours, too!) aren't things we can control, so it's more valuable to focus on mindset and healthy ways to cope.
Try one (or more) of these 5-Minute Daily Rituals Therapists Do to Relieve Stress, such as scheduling "mental free time," check out these 4 Workouts to Do When You're Stressed, According to a Sports Psychologist (stretching counts!) or heed these 6 Stress-Relief Tips From Resilience Coaches.
Mistake 3: Skimping on Protein
Or, put another way: You're eating too many carbs.
Protein is such a valuable nutrient because it's quite filling — more so than carbs or fat, per a February 2015 study in Nutrition Journal. It gives you the staying power you need between meals.
Also, that same study showed that protein may help you eat less later on in the day. When women started their day with a high-protein breakfast, they reported feeling more satisfied after their meal (compared to when they ate less protein at breakfast) and they then went on to eat fewer calories at lunch.
Fix it: When you're losing weight, don't cut out protein. In fact, you should aim for a bit more than you normally eat, according to a December 2019 study in Advances in Nutrition. About 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight, to be exact.
Keep in mind that a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you should aim for about 118 grams of protein daily.
Remember, seafood, meat, poultry and eggs are all packed with protein. Plus, there are plenty of protein-rich plant foods: nuts and seeds and "butters" made from them, soy products like tofu, peas, lentils and beans, per the USDA.
Here are a few examples of protein-rich foods and exactly how many grams are in a typical serving:
- 3 ounces of beef, chicken, turkey, pork or fish: 21 grams
- 3 ounces of seafood: 18 grams
- 5 ounces of Greek yogurt: 12 to 18 grams
- 3 ounces of tofu: 9 grams
- Half-cup of kidney, black or cannellini beans: 8 grams
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: 7 grams
- 1 egg: 6 grams
Mistake 4: Nixing Meals or Food Groups
Going too long without eating or not eating all the food groups (e.g., a mix of protein, carbohydrates and fat) can leave you feeling quite hungry.
"And hungry people get cravings for fast energy like sugar and treats," Blatner says.
This is why when you're feeling famished, you reach for something quick, easy, tasty and usually prominent in refined (aka white) carbohydrates.
Fix it: One solution is to always have ingredients on hand for a few quick and balanced meals. You can even take it one step further and pre-prep a meal or snack. (Here are 10 easy-to-make, high-protein snacks you can eat on the go.)
Or, "if you're a chronic meal-skipper," says Blatner, "set an alarm to remind you when it's meal time."
Mistake 5: Using Food to Cope
"Cravings can sometimes be a 'signal' that you are having an emotion, like that you're tense, stressed, overwhelmed, annoyed or tired, bored, lonely or procrastinating," says Blatner. It's then easy to fall into the habit of emotional eating.
Fix it: Compile a list of ideas (that don't include food) of what to do when you're feeling one of those emotions, and keep it somewhere handy. For example, when you're tense, sip tea or take a bath; or if you're tired, take five minutes and close your eyes in a quiet place, or take a short, brisk walk outside.
- MDLinx: "Stress reduction as a path to eating less fast food"
- Appetite: "Mediators of intervention effects on dietary fat intake in low-income overweight or obese women with young children"
- USDA: "Protein Foods"
- Nutrition Journal: "A randomized, controlled, crossover trial to assess the acute appetitive and metabolic effects of sausage and egg-based convenience breakfast meals in overweight premenopausal women"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Protein Intake Greater than the RDA Differentially Influences Whole-Body Lean Mass Responses to Purposeful Catabolic and Anabolic Stressors: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis"