The ability to distinguish psychological cravings from physiological hunger is one of the keys to maintaining a lean, attractive body. The following seven hypothetical situations are examples of eating temptations. Can you tell which are cravings (psychological), and which are hunger (physiological)?

  1. You have eaten a large meal but still want desert.
  2. You have a gnawing feeling in your stomach.
  3. Someone mentions cake and you feel like eating.
  4. You feel lightheaded after not eating for hours.
  5. You drive by a favorite restaurant and feel like eating.
  6. There is a time of day when you are always hungry.
  7. You go to the kitchen in search of food and can't quite decide what would taste good.

Situations 1, 3, 5, and 7 usually indicate psychological cravings. Eating in response to a craving almost always insures overeating. Situations 2 and 4 signal physiological hunger. Situation 6 could be either.

Analyze your next temptation. Is it the body that needs nourishment, or is it the mind that needs some feeling to be assuaged?

One clue in identifying cravings is to pay careful attention to when you want to eat. Has someone just offered you food? If you didn't feel hungry prior to the suggestion, you're probably not.

There are several methods that can be effective in countering cravings, hopefully leading to the conquering of them.

Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., patriarch of the LEARN system of weight control, recommends two: distraction and confrontation. Another method, one borrowed from Geneen Roth, the author of two books dealing with compulsive eating, focuses on pampering yourself with something other than food. Still other authorities will advise you to create a diversion, to get involved in another activity.

As you can see, numerous strategies are available. After reviewing what's involved in each, you'll be able to select the one that best suits your capabilities.

Drown It

Whether trying to lose weight or not, you should be drinking at least eight glasses of water per day. Ellington Darden, Ph.D., author of more than four dozen fitness-related books, has fat-loss groups drinking as many as 18 glasses of water daily -- with outstanding results.

"Many times their cravings could be satisfied with water," explained Dr. Darden. "It was actually water that their bodies wanted."

Distract It

Dr. Brownell's distraction approach involves ignoring the cravings. It works well for the person who has a vivid imagination or can change activities or thoughts at an instant's notice, according to Dr. Brownell.

When you feel a craving starting to surge, do something else. Think wonderful thoughts, plan a dream vacation, fantasize about winning the lottery -- do anything to take your attention away from the urge to eat.

You have to dream something wonderful for only a few moments because cravings generally pass within minutes or even seconds.

Confront It

If you are bombarded by cravings throughout the day, Dr. Brownell suggests meeting the challenge head on; yes, confrontation. It's you against the craving, in a test of wills.

Let's say you want to raid the cookie jar. Pretend the urge is another person trying to convince you to eat the cookies. Argue with this person and refuse to give in to the urge, thus standing up to the person with whom you are arguing.

Another confrontation approach is to visualize the cookie jar beckoning to you and tempting you with promises of fulfillment. Imagine how silly it is to let cookies get the better of you.

In another example, let's suppose you get the urge to stop for a snack while driving home from work. You recognize the craving and decide to confront it. You say, "You nasty craving! You want me to stop for Peanut Butter Cups when I'm not really hungry. I'll show you who's boss. I am in charge of my own life and my weight."

Pamper Yourself

In Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating, Geneen Roth recommends pampering yourself with something other than food. The pampering could take the form of watching a TV soap opera, reading a trashy novel, taking a bubble bath -- anything that you enjoy but would not ordinarily take the time to do for yourself.

Ms. Roth contends that compulsive eating is used for pampering without the social stigma of wasting time. It can be much better, especially in the long term, to spend time on seemingly less productive pursuits. And do not feel guilty about it!

Divert Attention

Diversion involves taking your mind off food. This is especially effective if you can do an activity that raises core body temperature, such as taking a walk, going up and down stairs or some light calisthenics. The reason for this is that cravings can be satisfied merely by raising body temperature. Even putting on warmer clothes can help.

Contemplate these various approaches now and decide which one or ones will work for you. If you are in doubt, experiment with all three.

Delay Decision

If you really want something, say your favorite snack food, delay your gratification. Wait 30 minutes, using the time to become involved in an activity that takes your mind off the craving.

Perhaps you can use this delay to implement confrontation, diversion, distraction or pampering.

But at the end of the 30 minutes, if you still want it, go ahead and eat it. Sometimes you'll outlast the craving, and sometimes you won't. But at least you won't feel excruciating deprivation.

Decide Strategy

Try to arrive at a strategy as soon as possible, be it distraction, confrontation, pampering, drowning, diversion, or delay. This will prepare you for the inevitable cravings you will face.

If all else fails, have a noncaloric beverage (seltzer, Perrier, diet soda). If you still haven't beaten the urge, a snack such as raw vegetables, or a piece of fruit should get you through to your next meal.

Yes, cravings can be conquered. Take control now.

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