March 2, 2022

How to fight a craving for junk food

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Try the the 3-D approach: Delay, Distract and Decide

When you’re trying to break some bad eating habits or establish some better ones, inevitably you’ll confront a craving for a food you’re trying to avoid.

Whether you’re hankering for salty foods, fried fare or sugar, the cravings can sabotage your best intentions to follow a healthy diet if you don’t think ahead about how to handle these strong desires for less-than-healthy foods and snacks.

How to deal with food cravings

Health educators offer this strategy for what to do when you’re craving junk food: the 3 Ds. This stands for Delay, Distract and Decide. Together the 3-D tactic can help manage food cravings and build healthy eating patterns.

Here’s the idea:
Delay
When a craving strikes, delay acting on it for a set time. Set a timer; tell yourself you have to wait a certain amount of time before eating the food you’re thinking about. Maybe that means a two-minute delay; maybe five minutes or more. Work up to at least 10 minutes.

Distract
Use that timed delay to go for a walk, stretch, call a friend, read a book, play with a pet or cross something off your to-do list. You may naturally forget about a craving when focused on another task.

Decide
After the set time, think of the advantages of not giving into the craving and decide what you want to do.

Some people find that having a small amount of the food they’re craving makes them feel less deprived, making it easier in the long run to establish a balanced diet. Others find that it’s too difficult to eat only a small amount of the food they’re craving, and giving in to the craving even “a little” can turn into a binge. Pay attention to your own tendency and keep that in mind when future cravings hit. It may become easier to fend off the initial craving completely than to stop eating the unhealthy food once you’ve given into a craving.

Long-term strategies to stop junk food cravings

Cravings lessen the longer you go without the desired food. Dialing way back on sugar or salt in your diet will eventually retrain your palate to enjoy foods that have less sugar or salt in them. So while it’s difficult to resist cravings the first few times they strike, it does become easier after you’ve abstained from that food for several days or weeks. The cravings are likely to become less frequent, and you will have had more practice with the 3-D steps to resist them.

Repeat the 3-D exercise as often as necessary to help you fend off junk-food cravings.

These three steps can also help you identify whether you are truly hungry. A craving may pass with time and redirection, but true hunger will be satisfied with foods rich in fiber and protein.

Health Plus provides resources to support the health of Vanderbilt University Medical Center faculty and staff.