Even the world's healthiest eaters feel pangs for chocolate at 3 p.m., or fixate on a bag of chips in the vending machine like it's the last food on earth. The difference between them and us: They somehow resist, while we're left scrounging for change and tearing into a bag of Cheetos Flamin' Hot.
Before you get down on yourself and your faltering willpower, consider this: The secret to withstanding a craving isn't a steely reserve, it's about identifying the underlying reason you're hankering for a Snickers bar, and then responding accordingly.
"Sometimes it's emotional and you reach for those foods that you love for comfort," says Molly Morgan, RD, owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions in Vestal, New York, and author of The Skinny Rules. "Other times, it may be that you're tired, which lowers blood sugar and triggers the release of hormones linked to hunger."
Sometimes you simply haven't eaten enough calories and you really do need energy.
So what's a hungry person to do? We asked top nutritionists how they stop themselves from overindulging, and they shared the following strategies for kicking cravings to the curb.
"I make it a rule to wait at least 15 minutes before I indulge any craving, and keep busy with an activity that occupies my hands so I can't reach for a treat," says Marjorie Nolan, RD, CPT and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "I psych myself out by washing dishes, brushing my teeth, or vacuuming. The craving usually passes by the time 15 minutes are up. Sometimes you just have to wait it out."
"Hunger, fatigue, and dehydration all lower blood sugar levels, which increases appetite," says Nolan. Take a moment to close your eyes, mentally scan your body, and ask yourself if you're really hungry — or if it's tiredness or thirst that's making you want to eat.
"If I know I didn't get a lot of sleep the night before, I take a 10-minute nap to help me feel better without reaching for comfort food."
Or, if you haven't had enough liquids, try drinking a cup of passion fruit-flavored tea to quench sweet cravings, or V-8 or tomato juice if you're yearning for something salty.
Whether you want sweet, salty, crunchy, savory, or a combination, there are times when your body simply needs an energy boost. Fiber-rich or nutrient-dense snacks are longer-lasting pick-me-ups than the sugar- and fat-filled treats we tend to yearn for. Try one of these healthier alternatives based on your craving type for a longer-lasting appetite tamer.
Sweet: Warm up half a ripe banana, one square chocolate, 1 cup oats and a drizzle honey; mash together.
Salty: 1/2 cup shelled edamame with sea salt
Savory: 2 ounces water-packed tuna with 2 tbsp Dijion mustard
Crunchy: Dip carrots, sliced peppers, and sugar snap peas in 2 tbsp hummus or guacamole
Sweet and Salty: Make trail mix popcorn by mixing together 1 cup air-popped popcorn; 1/8 cup pretzels; 1/8 cup dried cranberries; 1/8 cup chocolate chips
"If you're having cravings regularly, such as at 3 p.m., it could be because you're not getting what your body needs earlier on, such as protein. Or, if your cravings start after dinner at 8 p.m., it's probably more emotional, such as stress," says Morgan.
Once you know your trigger times, arm yourself with pre-portioned snacks that you package at the start of the day so you don't overdo it when your cravings inevitably strike.
Try an apple with a single-serve packet of almond butter. Or, depending on your specific cravings, fill plastic baggies with an ounce of tortilla chips, 48 pistachios or 1 cup dried fruit such as mango.
"Often when we forbid ourselves certain foods, we end up eating everything but that food before giving in and overindulging anyway," says Morgan.
Sometimes a low-fat cheese stick won't ease your pizza fix, and dried fruit can't replace peach cobbler. Ditching the diet mentality and allowing yourself small portions of decadent foods can help prevent cravings all together.
You can scoop half a cup of ice cream into a Tupperware container and store in your freezer if you know that's what you'll reach for at 8 p.m. That way, you can eat what you really want without consuming a lot of extra calories. "I plan my splurges at the beginning of the day. Since I know it's coming, it's so much easier for me to keep portions in check."