Fortunately Dr Michelle Braud is here to give a helping hand. In her new book, The Food Effect Diet Vegan, the nutritionist reveals how you can banish cravings, avoid overeating and re-assert self-control – and it’s easier than it sounds.
From Dry January to Veganuary, January has long been considered the month of detox. After weeks of indulging throughout December, we attempt to re-assert self control (read: not eat cake for breakfast) and return to three meals a day, not seven. However, this is also the most difficult time to master healthy eating because our cravings are at an all-time high.
Tempted to reach for a pack of biscuits? Or that flaky, buttery croissant you’ve become so accustomed to on the commute to work? We hear you – the struggle is real.
1. Know your high-risk situations
These are different for each person. You might overeat socially, or perhaps only in private; you might do it during that mid-afternoon slump; or you might not be able to control late-night cravings even after you’ve had dinner. Whatever the case might be, the chances are that there is a specific time or situation when you are most likely to overeat. Once you identify which times are risky for you, it’s simple to develop strategies to manage these situations.
Focus on implementing these strategies at the times you are most vulnerable. You might find that you need to have your mid-afternoon snack close to the time you are heading out to dinner so that you don’t overeat when you’re out at a restaurant, or have a cut-off time for stopping to eat in the evening if late-night snacking is your problem. Whatever your high-risk overeating time is, the key is to implement some management strategies for it then.
2. Get in tune with your hunger and fullness signals
Many of us eat so much or so often (or both), that we can’t even remember the last time we felt really, truly hungry. I’m not suggesting that you should let yourself reach the point of feeling starving (in fact, it is a Food Effect rule that you do not do this), but if you can’t recognise true hunger, it’s also difficult to gauge when you are actually full. For many of us, it might only be at the point at which we feel stuffed or uncomfortable. If this is the case, try paying closer attention to the point at which you start to feel full and satisfied.
Usually, it’s a mouthful or two before the actual full feeling, especially as it takes the stomach at least 10–20 minutes to register true fullness, and even longer for the food you eat to reach the end of your intestine where more satiety hormones are released. Give it some time before deciding that you need seconds. Chew each mouthful slowly, and put your cutlery down between mouthfuls. This will help you to gauge how your body is feeling so that you won’t eat like a machine on autopilot – and, as I said earlier, eating slowly will also ensure that your brain actually registers when you’ve eaten enough food, before it’s too late.
3. Tailor your environment
Quite simply, if it’s not there, you won’t eat it. If you keep a steady supply of tempting treats at home or at work, it’s quite natural that when you’re feeling bored, tired, stressed or down, you’ll eat them. Keep away from the pile of sweets, crisps, biscuits or birthday cake that colleagues bring to work. Although, of course, it’s amazing that vegan food has become so much more widely available recently, it also means that many tempting treats(biscuits, cakes, doughnuts) are now vegan-friendly, so you need as much willpower and discipline as anyone else. If you tell yourself that those things are off-limits for you, you won’t be caught in the overindulgence trap. Once you start with those foods, they just trigger cravings for more unhealthy, sugary or fatty foods, so it’s easier not to start eating them in the first place.
4. Learn to compensate
Although, ideally, none of us would ever overeat or overindulge from now on, that’s highly unlikely and also unnecessary – after all, what’s life without some pizza or ice cream! One strategy for when you do overindulge is to compensate. By this I definitely don’t mean starving yourself the next day or even skipping a meal, but, you might want to choose a salad or soup for a meal, rather than a vegan burger in a bun with sweet potato wedges or a large vegan pasta dish – even though those things are allowed in the Lifestyle Phase once you’re on to that, after the first four weeks. Learning to compensate healthily will help you to feel physically better when you have overeaten and help balance your overall intake so that the occasional indulgence doesn’t hamper your weight-loss goals.
Top tips to control cravings and avoid overeating
Here are a few simple strategies to banish those cravings and avoid unnecessary overeating or snacking.
1. Avoid your triggers. You crave what you eat, so change what you’re eating to the right foods to weaken your cravings for the bad stuff.
2. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t keep it in the house.
3. Put leftovers away immediately.
4. Avoid buffet and ‘all-you-can-eat’ restaurants, especially if you find this type of scenario tempting; this is just a sure-fire ticket to overeating unnecessarily.
5. Allow yourself to indulge within limits Practise portion control or a healthier indulgence in moderation (such as a few squares of good-quality dark chocolate, or a decadent vegan dessert made with healthy ingredients . . . yes, such things do exist).
6. Plan ahead If you know there’s an upcoming situation where you are going to indulge, allocate calories and factor them into your eating plan that day (but don’t go there hungry – you’ll just set yourself up for disaster). My best advice would be: when you do go for a treat and allow yourself to indulge, make it pleasurable by choosing something you truly enjoy, and savour every bite.
7. Schedule snacking. If you find yourself constantly tempted to have that bag of crisps and eventually feel so hungry that you can’t resist it, make sure that you never skip lunch or your mid-afternoon snack, and try to schedule it before the time you get ravenous. So if, say, by 4.30pm you feel ravenous every day, tell yourself that on any given day 3.30pm is your snack time. Buy a healthy snack ahead of time or have something with you (at work or in your bag) so that you don’t get the urge to go out and buy that giant bag of crisps.
8. Focus on protein and fibre for a filling snack There’s nothing wrong with having a snack in between meals: in fact it’s encouraged. Our bodies typically need something to eat about every 3–4 hours. For the most satiating and energy-boosting snacks, choose options that contain both protein and fibre; for example, an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter or a handful of almonds, or hummus with carrot sticks. Adding more fibre and protein to your snacks slows digestion and ensures better blood-sugar regulation, making you less likely to reach for unhealthy snacks and junk food.
9. Go nuts (in moderation). If, despite having eaten enough, you still have a strong urge to snack, drink two glasses of water and eat a 30g serving of nuts (around 12 walnuts, 18 cashew nuts, 20 almonds, 28 peanuts or 49 pistachio nuts), then reassess how you feel. Nuts are my all-time favourite snack, which I recommend to clients, as they fulfil the criteria of the tip above (they contain protein and fibre) in one neat package. Nuts are packed with an amazing profile of healthy fats, fibre, protein and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), while satisfying hunger cravings. If you’re out and about and suddenly feel ravenous between meals, bags of nuts are a staple in many food shops and make an extremely healthy choice. They are far better than crisps, sweets or sugar-laden chocolate.
A single serving of nuts contains only about 130 calories, but beware of those jumbo-sized bags that can contain a whopping ten servings. One solution is to pack your own nuts as single servings in a small snack bag or sealable container. One serving of nuts is about 30g, but remember that the number of pieces varies by nut, as specified above. Pistachio nuts are a great choice because not only are they lower in calories than other nuts, but also cracking each one open takes time, allowing you to enjoy them for longer.
10. Sip something steamy. If you’re craving something sweet, or if your stomach is rumbling mid-morning or afternoon and there’s no healthy food in sight, try a hot almond milk or soya milk latte instead. Caffeine in moderation has health benefits (or you can go for decaffeinated), and you’ll be getting calcium, protein (if you use soya milk), vitamins and minerals from the milk (most plant-based milks used in coffee shops are fortified), while avoiding all the calories, sugar and unhealthy fats found in vegan sweets, biscuits and processed snacks. Herbal teas are another great option for any time of the day – there are many delicious sweet flavours on the market that are perfect for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon pick-me-up, as well as in the late evening when the munchies strike.
11. Stay well hydrated. You’ve heard this one before but it deserves reiteration. Drink, drink, drink. And by this I mean water. Often when we think we’re hungry, we’re actually just thirsty, so make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day, as well as 1–2 glasses before every meal or snack you have. Symptoms of dehydration can mimic the feelings of hunger, so before you reach for a 250-calorie vegan chocolate or granola bar, drink a bottle of zero-calorie water. Water aids weight loss by helping your kidneys to flush out excess toxins and chemicals, which might be slowing down your metabolism. If you have difficulty drinking enough plain water – which should be around 2 litres a day – herbal teas, green tea and lemon in hot water are all just as good.
12. If you’re eating due to tiredness, take a power nap instead.
13. Brush your teeth and gargle with mouthwash if you’re inclined to eat unnecessarily, especially late at night. You’ll be less likely to go and eat more food with clean teeth and the taste of mint on your tongue.
14. Distract yourself and let stress go using other techniques. We all tend to snack when we are bored, so find other ways to stay busy. Keep occupied around the house, or even take up a new hobby. Taking your mind off food will help to reduce unnecessary mindless snacking. Read a book or file some papers to keep your hands and mind busy, or take a walk after dinner. Cravings usually last around ten minutes, so find a non-food-related activity to pass the time and take your mind off food. Bored?
Call a friend, read a magazine or a good book, or do some tidying or organising. Angry? Try to do some exercise to get rid of the anger in a way that empowers rather than disempowers you. The burst of activity will also release endorphins (feel-good hormones) that make you feel happy and less stressed. If you can hold off from craving-induced eating for ten minutes, you might well overcome the urge altogether.
15. Dodge the comfort food trap. This is especially pertinent when winter comes around. It’s tempting to curl up on the sofa and binge on stodgy carbs and sweet treats, but far from making you feel good, typical so-called comfort food can leave you feeling tired, lethargic and moody.
16. Get your soup on. When you crave comfort food, heat up a large bowl of soup made with lots of vegetables and beans. It’s flavourful, hearty, high in satiating protein, fibre and nutrition, and low in fat and calories – the perfect thing to keep you feeling full and satisfied.