Nutrition, Psychology

Making Your New Year’s Resolution Stick – The Curse of Cravings

It has become somewhat of a health professional lore that 95% of dieters will either fail or regain lost weight.  Whilst this is barely based on any data, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest it wouldn’t be far off the mark; leaving little optimism to be found for anyone looking to shred some extra kilo’s in the new year.

Why such a high failure rate?  An ignorant view would put the onus on dieters and their lack of determination, discipline, and follow through.  However, the reality is that motivation and determination are finite things, and at some point, cravings will usually win out.

Why? A phenomenon Psychologists call ego fatigue, which has been tested in numerous studies since the 1990’s.  The basic premise is that forgoing cravings depletes some sort of mental “resource”.  Sapping that resource reduces cognitive performance – ego fatigue – and increases the likelihood of giving in to further cravings or biological urges.

Such research suggests that dieting failure is mostly due to poor planning and/or poor programs.  If there is a way to reduce cravings and “the pull of the present”, then we decrease the load on the aforementioned mental “resource”, thus increasing the chance of dieters sticking to their plan.  Whilst this is only one of numerous aspects of a fat loss program that requires due attention, it has a pretty large impact on success; so that’s what this piece will focus on.

So how can one decrease cravings to increase the likelihood of diet adherence?

Firstly, it’s important to accept the fact that biology has the odds stacked against us.  We’ve evolved to suit an environment where calorie dense foods are scarce, and as such, cravings and the drive for food have historically provided an adaptive advantage.  We now inhabit an environment quite the opposite to our ancestors.  As you reduce calorie intake (a necessity for fat loss), cravings increase.  This is normal.  However, there are many ways we can control their intensity:

The Size of the Calorie Deficit

A greater reduction in calories typically results in a greater increase in cravings.  Your body is a survival machine.  As soon as you drop calories below the rate your burn them, its homeostatic processors kick into gear, attempting to conserve calories and drive your desire for more.  These desires will be more pronounced when calorie intake is severely less than what you need (as will changes to your muscle mass and metabolic rate, but that is for another day).

A severe drop in calorie intake is usually preceded by a desire for rapid weight-loss.  It’s important to remember this will only spell your inevitable downfall.

A small, consistent calorie deficit over an extended period of time will yield the greatest long term results.  Gradual fat loss goes against the desire of most dieters, however it really is the best – and sometimes only – way forward.

NB: acute dieting or fasting will not impact metabolic rate, however over an extended period of time it will.

Food Quantity vs Calorie Quantity

The act of chewing and filling up your stomach both contribute to your satiety and subsequent cravings for food.  It’s important to remember that food quantity (the amount or weight of the food you eat) is not equal to calorie quantity (the amount of energy in a particular food or meal).

For example, a punnet of strawberries has a relatively similar calorie content as a typical “snake” lolly.  The former will fill you up much more than the latter whilst hopefully adding to satiety; the latter is more likely to increase cravings for further sweet food (we’ll discuss this next).

The hack is to look for foods that are higher in fibre and water.  Such foods take longer to eat and fill up your stomach.  Needless to say, you shouldn’t rely on them for all of your nutrition, but they are an important tool in any “dieters” box of tricks.

Stopping the Reward Circuit

Ever allowed yourself a small treat only to have your cravings increase?  A typical case might be hoping to abstain from consuming a favourite snack – let’s use chocolate in this scenario – for an extended period of time.  It’s often the case that doing such only increases the cravings for the chocolate.  At some point, many dieters will justify a small portion of the chocolate, only to find their cravings for it increase, and their propensity to eat the whole block sky-rocket.

As mentioned earlier, research on ego fatigue – along with the common experience of dieters – suggests that soon enough, cravings will win out.  And what happens once an individual allows themselves a small serving of the chocolate?  The brains reward circuit is triggered, releasing a wave of dopamine that only increases cravings for the chocolate.  The typical end result is that more than one row of chocolate is consumed.  It’s a fairly observable reality that restricting often leads to bingeing; which is usually followed by guilt.

How should one approach “treats” then?  Research on ego fatigue suggests that altering how one views a food can reduce its impact on the brains “resources”.  Don’t make the food a “treat”.  Instead, include small portions regularly, whilst still remaining in a calorie deficit.  Over time, this tends to lead to a change in the way we perceive the food.  It’s no longer a matter of “wanting what you can’t have”; the food becomes “just food” again, and an integral part of one’s diet.

 

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