The Struggle of Self-Control

Food cravings – we all get them. But why are some so hard to control? While the answer to this question may seemingly be that we crave the foods we love most and cannot get enough of them simply because they taste so great, the science behind cravings is actually much more complicated. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), published a study in 2002 that investigated the neurological connections between food-addiction and dopamine, one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that help to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. She found that when people were presented with their favorite foods, but not allowed to eat them, they experienced dopamine surges through the part of their brains involved with wanting and craving called the striatum area. In addition, the dopamine traveled through the areas of their brain that is involved in habit and addiction. Therefore, though you may not actually be hungry, when presented with foods that your mind views as pleasurable and satisfying, the parts of your brain that are associated with addiction may be activated and inhibit your self control to deny the cravings.

This neurological connection explains why you may catch yourself overindulging in tasty foods and treats such as ice cream or potato chips and after a while not even fully tasting each bite anymore. Your body switches into autopilot mode, driven by the dopamine to keep eating, independent of the pleasurable response from each bite that you may have gotten at first.

While you may have beaten yourself up in the past over a compulsive eating episode, it in fact has little to do with your lack of willpower and more so the physical activity occurring in your brain. While these occurrences make it more difficult for us to exert self-control and deny over-indulging in the foods we love, self-control is possible. Understanding how our minds work can help us to resist these temptations and learn how to cope with them.

Here are some of the most effective tips on how to deal with intense cravings and exert self-control over them.
1. Meditate – Meditation actually trains your brain to become a self-control machine. Even simple techniques like mindfulness, which involves taking as little as five minutes a day to focus on nothing more than your breathing and your senses, improves your self-awareness and your brain’s ability to resist destructive impulses.

2. Drink up – Sometimes when we think we are feeling hunger, our bodies are actually just thirsty. If you start to feel hungry, try drinking a few cups of water and then wait 10 – 20 minutes. If you still feel hungry after the time passes, then chances are you actually are hungry and it is time for you to eat something nutritious!

3. Eat – You are far more likely to succumb to your impulses to indulge if your blood sugar is low. However, eating sugary foods will spike your sugar levels quickly and then leave you drained and vulnerable to the cravings shortly after. The trick is to eat whole grains and or protein that will keep you fuller longer.

4. Treat yourself – Cutting out foods you love entirely will only make you want them more. Allow yourself a few treats every once in a while to satisfy your cravings while also keeping portions in mind.

5. Tire your taste buds – Your taste buds tend to tire-out after a few bites, making each mouthful a little less delicious than the last. Acknowledge this and take time to relish every bite. This will get you eating slower and focusing on the satisfaction of each bite, and in turn leave you feeling fuller after eating less.

6. Exercise – Exercising for even as little as ten minutes releases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that makes your brain feel calm and keeps your cravings and impulses to overeat under control.

7. Sleep – When you are tired, your brain’s ability to absorb glucose is inhibited and you are likely to crave sugary snacks to compensate for the low glucose levels. Getting a full night sleep will make a considerable difference in your amount of self-control and ability to fight cravings.

8. Wait it out – When an intense craving emerges, try waiting 10-20 minutes before considering giving in. If you can distract yourself and get your mind off of the craving for that long, chances are the temptation will begin to subside on its own.

9. Forgive yourself – Many times in the immediate moment, giving in to our cravings and acting upon our impulses feels more satisfying than fighting them and denying ourselves. Self-control is difficult and the mental battle between choosing to indulge in our cravings or resist them can be tiring. Humans by nature are impatient and seek instant gratification and as a result, our minds crave what will bring us more instant satisfaction. Realizing these things can help you be patient with yourself. These habits and efforts take time and everyone slips up every once in a while. If you happen to give in to temptation and over-indulge, don’t give in to self-hatred or negative thoughts about yourself. Realize you are human and forgive yourself. However, rather than ignoring the mistake entirely, acknowledge it and then focus on what you are going to differently in the future.

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