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When a Craving is All in Your Mind

Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

Take control when solace-seeking sends you off the dietary deep end.

Can you recall the last time you had a craving and reached for ... an apple? No? Was it more like an apple pie? There's a reason for that, according to Pamela Peeke, MD, author of The Hunger Fix and senior science advisor for Elements Behavioral Health.

"When you're using food to soothe stressed, tired, or sad feelings and you feel simultaneously out of control, you begin to correlate certain foods with loss of control," Peeke says. That makes you more likely to reach for them as a panacea and produces a negative association with foods that should bring pleasure.

Crave control is particularly vexing when it comes to dieting because you're already restricting and trigger foods tend to be higher in calories. The key to keeping a craving from delivering a blow to your calorie budget may be to avoid it until you get to a place of control and you feel you can eat that food in healthier portions.

You can also assert power over these cravings by identifying cues when a trigger food appears. "Go to the HAALT place," Peeke advises. "Ask yourself, 'What am I really hungry for?' Are you truly Hungry, or are you Angry, Anxious, Lonely, or Tired?" This mindfulness helps you get to the bottom of what's really happening.

Once you've regained control over your feelings—and realized that bingeing on an entire apple pie is a false fix—you begin to redefine your relationship with trigger foods, Peeke says. Doing this helps you feel empowered and avoids caloric self-sabotage. Being back in the dietary driver's seat also means you can enjoy these craved foods in a state of mindful moderation instead of being a slave to a sense of loss of control.