How to curb cravings for good.

Regardless of where you sit at the table of nutritional ambiguity, one thing we can all unanimously agree on is processed junk food will not assist any weight-loss effort. This should come as no surprise although I'm sure if you search hard enough you'll find a diet which involves only drinking processed meal supplements. Oh, wait...

Now you've tried what must be the dullest, most unpalatable 'weight-loss' fad EVER and hold all such practices in total disdain, the time has arrived to apply common sense and cut out the crap. But how? 

Food vices are weird and wonderful. At school, I had a mild addiction to the Cadbury Boost Bar, a hyper-sweet confectionery containing no less than 51g of sugar. On arriving home from school one day, Mum presented me with an industrial size box of these borderline psychotic sweets. 2-hours and 5 bars later I vowed never to eat another. All was not lost though, I made a reasonable margin on the surplus stock to the eager Year 6's at school. To this day, I could count the number of Boosts I've had since on 1 hand. This experience taught me 2 things; consuming 5 Boosts in 2 hours morphs a shy, gangly child into a wild banshee and that bulk purchases can not only save you money but also make it. 

We could infer that this may be a way to crack cravings? 'Flooding' is a technique used by therapists to help people overcome phobias.  Suddenly exposing yourself to the very thing you are afraid of with hope this will 'break' the phobia and rationalise it. The difficulty in taking this approach with cravings is most people have more than one. Having a 'sweet tooth' could cover a plethora of foods and I'd guess there would be considerable weight gain before the cravings are curbed. 'Flooding with Chicken Nuggets' sounds more like a challenge on a game show hosted by Noel Edmonds than a legitimate technique for ending a craving.

Looking at smokers, the latest 'best' advice is to go cold-turkey (with additional help from talking therapy and/or drugs), and practically, this makes sense. Tapering off an addictive substance is notoriously difficult. Despite gradually reducing your intake of the addictive substance, you continue to feed the addiction and simply require less of the bad thing. 

I find craving and addictions fascinating. Most of the food-related stories written by tabloid papers simply aim to tell us what we should or should not eat (which changes weekly), without addressing how. The fact that most of the people I work with have a self-confessed addiction and understand what constitutes healthy eating tells me that the basic knowledge usually exists, but actually making the change is the hard part.

I enjoy keeping at the sharp end of lifestyle intervention research as this information underpins my work and ultimately the success of the people I help. The important part is this: the science simply makes the picture clearer; it provides depth, detail and colour. Each person is unique and with their own problems. And the reality is a lot of this stuff is much simpler than we are initially led to believe. I teach more 'how' instead of 'what'. And this is probably why you are reading this on my website and not in the Daily Mail.

It isn't uncommon for people to confuse hunger and cravings. There is no doubt that the two are linked, but the mechanisms are subtly different. When energy intake from food is drastically cut, as in a severe calorie reduction diet (c.1200 calories/day), hunger (eventually) reduces accordingly. The notion that not eating anything means you will feel hungry and induce cravings is incorrect. Cravings will slowly subside due to the fact they have been removed (though virtue of the diet) but weight-loss will quickly grind to a halt as your metabolism adjusts to the new, low energy intake. Hunger is a normal hormonal response. It can be manipulated and indeed controlled by eating a diet of real food (but that is for another post). Cravings are different. If you remove sugar from your life, eventually you will no longer crave it. There is an element of perseverance here. Prolonged very-low-calorie-diets (VLCD) that are bound by a rule-book or assigned a colour are neither helpful nor healthy. They will no doubt lead to an initial small weight-loss and feeling of victory but sustainability is unrealistic and likely to result in an almighty binge at (insert fast-food outlet). 

If you've arrived here ready to act on your cravings the good news is you're 9/10th's of the way there.  The next stage is to equip yourself with the information so you can go forward with the battle already won. 

6 simple steps to take you from contemplation to action.

Step 1: Correctly identify your addiction. 

Oreo's? Pringles? Cookies? Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. Write a list of the foods you feel you are addicted to. Be honest and thorough. Can these be grouped into a category? Sweet food in packets? Fast food from takeaways? Chocolate bars? Baked goods? Most people crave foods that hit what manufacturers call the 'Bliss Point'. A chemically attained blend of sugar and fat which lights the brain up, makes you feel great (for all of 3 minutes) followed by a wave of guilt and eventual weight gain. 

Step 2: Remove all these food from your environment:

Begin with your home. Strip it bare and take it to a food bank or bin it (or sell it). Don't hide it or take it to work; remove it from your life. Then get it out of your workplace. Don't sit near the biscuit tin in the staff room. Don't keep 'emergency supplies' in your drawer. If possible, take only your lunch to work and no money. 

Step 3: Tell people what you are doing and justify it.

If you are going to stop eating crunchy-nut, you'll need to explain this and explain why. “I'll be eating omelettes for breakfast now, guys. Crunchy nut makes me fall asleep on my keyboard by 10am”.

Step 4: Go shopping.

If you are serious about kicking these craving, expect to put some work in. Simply saying it does not cut it. You'll need to invest. I recently met someone who spends £200/month on lunch. And they weren't even nice lunches. The main problem was that this worked out at 12% of their monthly income: on rubbish, fast-food lunches. If this sounds familiar, I challenge you to save your lunch receipts for a week, add them up and then spend the same amount in a supermarket (or better, a butcher, veg stall and fishmonger) and see what you get. You'll be eating rib-eye steak from a Tupperware. Winner!

Step 5: Decide what you want to replace these foods with? 

Simply cutting these foods out will leave a hole in your day. Unlike smoking, foods are required to repair the body and if you just cut meals, things will come unstuck, and quickly. Be smart and create a plan to swap. As a guide, aim to swap your addicted food for something whole and in its real form. 

Example: Unhealthy addiction: Crunchy Nut Cornflakes with milk. Replace with a healthy: 3 egg omelette and cheddar cheese. 

Step 6: Stay focused. 

Don't expect everything to be plain sailing. It's an addiction after all! You need to be prepared to be consciously replacing unhealthy foods, trying new foods and having slip ups.
Always think ahead. The most common reason for falling down are:

- When you have time off, eg: the weekend/holiday/long drive. Tip: Keep busy and take good food with you.
- With friends. Be courageous and explain what and why you are doing. There is nothing wrong with looking after yourself. 
 - Illness. If you fall ill, put only the best foods into your body. This will give you the best chance of getting better sooner. 
- Alcohol. Hangover = sofa + pizza. WRONG. Get outdoors, take a walk and eat some good, nutritious food. Don't wallow. Unhealthy behaviours drive unhealthy behaviours. Be aware of the trap. 

To be clear, if you have a specific addiction to a certain food then my advice is to go cold-turkey using the steps above. The caveat is you MUST have a plan AND support beforehand. Don't be the 'I'm starting my new diet on Monday' person. If you need a week or a month to prepare, take the week the time. The key is when you decide to do it, do it properly. Finally, I would not recommend eating 5 tubs of Haagen Dazs in an evening to crack your ice-cream addiction. Although if anyone does try this, please let me know how you get on.