I am having a hard time leaving sweets and junk food alone. Since Christmas I don't want to eat anything but junk. How do I stop?

Your question and dilemma are common themes that many people experience. Food cravings can really make eating healthy and staying at an optimal weight difficult. We tend to crave the foods that are not the best for our overall health (high in sugar and fat). Scientists still have not determined the exact etiology of food cravings, but suspect that they stem from emotions and biology. For example, researchers suspect that chocolate is craved because it contains a chemical released when we are in love. Eating chocolate may create a pleasurable and positive feeling for us, leading people to want more. In addition, chocolate contains many qualities that make it very stimulating to the senses (mouth feel, aroma, texture etc). Stress may also create food-seeking behavior. Researchers discovered that after activating a chronic stress system in rats, they exhibited pleasure-seeking behavior and sought out foods very high in energy (sugar and lard). A woman’s menstrual cycle may also contribute to cravings. Imbalances in the brain chemical serotonin can occur during the menstrual cycle; carbohydrates can increase serotonin levels and that is why many women may experience cravings for chocolate, potato chips, doughnuts or other sweets.

You mentioned that you were struggling to leave sweets/junk food alone. Your struggle may be related to food craving, and your day-to-day activities may also factor into your food choices. For example, if you pass by your favorite fast food restaurant on the way home it may trigger a habitual response. Your brain may immediately “remember” the delicious treat, thereby creating an obsessing feeling. You may have not even though about that particular treat if you would not have seen the restaurant. Eating various foods may be a habit for you; try to break these habit cycles by finding alternative routes home or bypassing work break rooms where sinful foods sometimes reside.

Reducing the amount of “junk” food that you are eating can begin at the grocery store. Find replacements for some of the foods that you have been eating. If it is potato chips, switch to a baked version or skip the potato chips all together and choose another “salty” treat like air popped popcorn topped with a pinch of salt. Instead of a sweet ice cream you may try fruit sorbet, low fat/sugar yogurt, or pre-portioned ice cream bars. If candy is a weakness, bypass that aisle and look for healthier sweet options like fresh or dried fruit.

You may also begin a food journal and record everything you are eating and drinking for three days. Also record the time of day that you eat and your mood before and after eating. Emotional eating can take place when you are feeling stress, loneliness, or boredom. Finding alternative activities that are just as satisfying and fulfilling as food will be an important step to helping you control what you are eating.

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