The eternal struggle. One one hand you are trying your best to follow your nutrition plan or your diet so that you can finally achieve that weight loss goal you have set for yourself five years ago.
On the other hand, you are getting these intense late night cravings for all the food that you know can derail and sabotage your hard work.
What is one to do? First thing that comes to mind is, “You gotta hang in there man, tough it out! The craving will pass!”
Please! Sometimes these craving lasts for DAYS and you WILL GIVE IN. Relying on willpower is a battle that you are destined to lose since it only comes in finite amounts. It is just a matter of time.
What about just having a little bit of that ice cream and get it out of your system? The last time I tried that approach, a little bit turned into, well, A LOT.
Once the floodgate opens, there is no stopping it.
So does that mean it is not meant to be? That becoming fit, healthy, more energetic is out of reach?
Luckily you are not completely out of luck. You will just have to take a more purposeful approach and figure out what truly is going on.
Determine if it is actual physical hunger VS psychological craving
It could very well be actual hunger that is causing the craving. Maybe you have been severely restricting your calorie intake and your body is telling you that you need to eat more.
The problem is that the signal can be misinterpreted by your brain and become this craving for potato chips and ice cream.
This usually happens when you are on a “clean” diet of just protein and veggies. What happens is that protein and veggies can be very quickly digested by the body leaving you feeling hungry and empty at night.
To really know if that is the case, add some slow digesting carbs (low on the Glycemic Index) to your last meal of the day. I personally find quinoa works really well for that. But there are other great choices as well.
Also make sure you have the right amount of healthy dietary fat with your last meal of the day. Fats take a long time for our body to digest and really gives you that sense of satiety. Some great choices are almonds, avocado, cashews, and peanut butter.
Another thing to look out for is the time between your last meal of the day and your bedtime. If you eat your last meal at 5pm but don’t go to sleep until 1am, then that would be a space of 8 hours between food and bedtime. You will be starving and hungry for food after not having anything for 8 hours, period!
Instead time your last meal of the day for anywhere between 2 and half hours to 4 hours before bedtime to resolve that issue.
If after implementing the above strategy and the late night craving goes away, then congratulations.
If you are still craving for junk food despite implementing the above strategy, then the issue could be more psychological than physical. And that would require a little bit more detective work to get to the bottom of it.
A psychological craving for junk food would be a habit that was created at some point in your life. Since habits can be such a powerful thing, it will take some work to break an unwanted habit.
One method that worked really well for me was what I learned from reading Charles Duhiggs book, “The Power of Habit” (it is a great read, highly recommended.)
In his book, he identified 4 things that needed to be done in order to be the most effective in changing your habits:
Identify the routine
Experiment with rewards
Isolate the cue
Have a plan
Not too long ago, I fell into the habit of having a beer (or two) after I get home from work while relaxing on my rocking chair. Let’s just say that over the few months of that, I started to feel a dip in performance during my training sessions. Not to mention the pointed comments from my wife regarding my “disappearing abs”.
Coming across the book, I decided to put it into practice.
Step 1: Identify the Routine
I first of all did the best to identify my routine. I found that it mostly happens when I stayed late the the gym and get home after 9PM. My daughter would be asleep and my wife would be cleaning up the house, taking a shower etc…
I then walk to the fridge, grab an ice cold one, sit in my comfortable rocking chair, and down the beer while watching a documentary on Netflix.
Step 2: What is the Reward?
Since a habit loop in reinforced by the reward you receive, you will have to know exactly what that reward is in order to fix it.
For my beer craving, is it because I am thirsty and the reward is a quenched thirst? Is it because I am thinking about how to help our awesome clients too much that the alcohol creates a distraction for my mind to take a break? Is it because I have been drinking water all day and needs the stimulation of the carbonated liquid to create a different sensation?
To test it out, I have to experiment and change the rewards to see if it satisfies my craving for beer. If it is thirst that needs to be quenched, then drinking water should curb the craving.
If it is distraction that I seek, then playing the guitar or taking my dog for a walk should do the same thing.
If is that sparkly carbonated sensation that I crave, then drinking sparkly water should achieve the same goal.
Now, after trying out the different rewards, then I would wait for 15 minutes and then see if the craving is still there.
After drinking water and quenching the thirst, I still find the urge to have a beer.
After playing guitar and distracting myself, I ended up having a beer while playing guitar.
After substituting beer with carbonated sparkly water, I find the urge gone. Bingo!
I have found the reward that I was seeking.
Step 3: Identify the cue
So now we have almost got all the puzzle pieces figured out! The last thing we need to do is identify the cue that triggers this whole damn habit loop and we are golden!
There is always so much going on all around us that it can be difficult to really pinpoint what the cue might be.
Here is a scientifically proven way to categorize all the possible cues to help you narrow it down:
Immediately preceding action
So as soon as you feel the urge hits, you right it down. For my beer urge, here is what my notes looked like over 3 days.
Where are you? (At Home)
What time is it? (9:24 pm)
What’s your emotional state? (tired and relaxed)
Who else is around? (my wife and daughter)
What action preceded the urge? (Turned on the TV)
Where are you? (At Home)
What time is it? (9:31 pm)
What’s your emotional state? (excited)
Who else is around? (no one, daughter already asleep and wife busy with her own thing)
What action preceded the urge? (answered a couple urgent e-mails)
Where are you? (At Home)
What time is it? (9:17 pm)
What’s your emotional state? (Happy)
Who else is around? (wife, daughter is already in bed)
What action preceded the urge? (chatting with wife about how our day went)
After 3 days, it is pretty clear that the cue for my beer craving is me coming home after 9PM. I also know from the previous step that the urge is caused by wanting to have something sparkly and cold.
Step 4: Coming up with a plan
Now that I know all three of the elements of my habit loop. I know what triggers it, I know what kind of reward I am looking for, and I know of the routine itself in detail. Now it is time to have plan to shift the habit towards a better behavior.
Remember that it would not work if I simply try to will myself to just stop drinking beer.
Instead I need to make a new choice to shift the beer drinking habit towards something better but still gives me the same reward.
So I wrote down a plan:
Buy a few cases of sparkly water and make sure the fridge is always stocked with a few bottles when I get home at after 9PM.
In some cases it might take a few different tries to come up with the best plan in order to change the habit.
In my case, this plan worked out perfectly.
It was a seamless transition. Almost every single step of the habit loop remained the same, all that was changed was the beverage of choice.
Now instead of consuming an alcoholic drink with all that unwanted calorie, I am able to receive the same rewards without all the alcohol and calories.
Some habits are harder than others to change. Just remember to be aware of how a habit loop is created and keep on experimenting. Identify the cue, identify the rewards, understand the routine, and gain power over your own behaviors.
Let me know how this method works for you, I am interested in hearing about your experience!