Back when I was a cardio addict, running upwards of 20 miles per week and training for road races, I had the hardest time controlling my cravings, specifically for sugary treats and breads. Pancakes, french fries, hero rolls, pastries, cupcakes…you name it, I wanted it. Although I don’t know what a sugar plum is, I had visions of them, along with every other sweet treat imaginable, dancing in my head!

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When your thoughts are consumed by certain foods, it’s very hard to resist the impulse to indulge a craving. The trick, therefore, is to find strategies that have you thinking less about food in general and leave you more satisfied overall.

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When I was a cardio queen, I would be so ravenous after my workouts that I would eat everything and anything in sight. Not only was my body sending me biochemical signals that it was hungry, but my mind was telling me that I had “earned” my post-workout meal. This pass I granted myself to binge would give me a high, but when scratched, the itch immediately became raw: I’d always end up feeling remorseful. As a result, I’d default to deprivation mode, swear to myself that I would exercise more willpower next time, and then further flog myself with more cardio. For the longest time, I didn’t see any possible way to extricate myself from this pattern despite the fact that I was seeing few results and yet doing more and more cardio. It was both physically and mentally exhausting, given that I blamed myself for my lack of adherence and felt completely out of my power.

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It wasn’t until I started strength training and reading up on performance nutrition that I realized that my regimen was inadvertently the cause of my symptoms. Sustained cardio has the effect of increasing appetite, making it harder to ignore the biochemical signals that the body needs to eat. Increased appetite often leads to overeating, which means that you have to do more cardio to compensate. I’m sure you can see how this cycle perpetuates itself.

When I stopped doing so much endurance cardio, my appetite decreased dramatically. As I gained muscle, I craved less sugary foods and was satisfied with far less food than before. Plus I spent much less time working out! Looking back, I can’t believe how much time I wasted doing cardio and feeling stuck as it became harder and harder to get the scale to budge. I was very reluctant to try anything new, however, because I was afraid of what would happen to my body if I suddenly stopped doing cardio: What if I blew up like a balloon? What if I suddenly gained back some weight? What if I couldn’t control my appetite? Giving up cardio meant giving up some control which was a very scary prospect. I took it slow, however, and I’m glad I did because time allowed the changes to sink in and make an impact. Adopting the philosophy “more is not better; better is better” helped me home in on what types of workouts would give me the most bang for my proverbial buck in the shortest amount of time. And the shorter and more intense my workouts, the less likely I came to experience exercise-induced hunger and cravings.

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We’ve all been down Deprivation Road: we know where it leads, and that’s straight to Binge City! In all seriousness, I can’t think of any worse way to combat cravings than to ignore them completely. When we pretend they don’t exist, we ignore reality: we are playing a losing game because reality has a funny way of catching up with us but only 100% of the time! The better bet is to set yourself up to be able to ride cravings out, and a good way to do this is by incorporating preemptive cheats.

Preemptive cheats are things that you can build into your meals throughout the day in order to take the edge off potential cravings and keep you from fighting the desire to binge later in the day. I’ve blogged about preemptive cheats before–a strategy I learned from Jill Coleman of JillFit Physiques–and they are entirely unique to the individual. It’s all about what your dietary preferences are and what keeps you both physically and psychologically satisfied. Some of my preemptive cheats are nuts, dried fruit, nut butter, and real cream in my coffee. I also operate better with a little more carbs in my diet, so I like to incorporate sprouted grain bread and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, all varieties of squash, rice and couscous. Adding a serving of nut butter to my toast, or a handful of trail mix in the mid-afternoon helps me to navigate the middle when it comes to my nutrition.

Examples of “preemptive cheats”

So even though I know that I could pick a “better” alternative, these cheats help me to stay the course over the long-term, since for me, the point is not to eat perfectly for 12 weeks only to be “off” afterwards and indulge my every nutritional whim, but rather practice eating the way that I want to eat forever…in other words, there’s no end game, and when there’s no final destination, playing close to the middle is the best-case scenario.

Keep in mind that those of us with a history of playing the “all-or-nothing” game when it comes to food will need to take time with this strategy. It requires practice because it’s difficult to release the grip that this black-or-white mentality has on us: in many ways, the fitness industry has conditioned us, women especially, to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves to follow a specific diet; hit our macros; make sure we’re getting the right ratios  of carbs, protein, and fat, etc. The list is endless, and it’s not doing us any good in terms of healing our distorted relationships with food and our bodies. Preemptive cheating gives us permission to challenge the rules that we’ve followed for so long: it allows us to grant ourselves some freedom and grace to both make choices that are aligned with our intentions and goals, and break free from the pressure to do everything “right” all the time and still–gasp!!–love ourselves and embrace our humanity. After all, what’s living if all you’ve got to look forward to is a Tupperware full of boiled chicken breast and broccoli?!

Preemptive cheats go a long way in terms of helping us ride the craving waves. In addition to these small nutritional “gimmes,” it’s important to get plenty of protein and fiber throughout the day which helps to balance blood sugar levels and increase and sustain satiety (the feeling of fullness).

Protein, veggies, and fruits, oh my!

When we experience less spikes and dips in blood sugar, we have less cravings and more stable energy. Furthermore, we know pretty conclusively from research that increasing protein intake beyond the RDA/RDI not only reduces hunger, but helps to maintain muscle mass even when in a caloric deficit/high  exercise volume-state. Fiber-rich foods (like many whole grains and green, leafy vegetables, and fruits like apples, oranges, and grapefruits) are low-glycemic and take longer to break down and digest, further contributing to satiety.

A great way to incorporate more protein and fiber is to have a big salad at least once a day: Jill Coleman calls these #BAS, for Big Ass Salads. Salads are great ways to combine protein, fiber and some tasty add-ons (preemptive cheats!) to create a well-balanced, blood sugar-stabilizing, craving-combating meal. Here’s my template for how to build the Perfect #BAS:

1) Start with your base: I like baby spinach and romaine.
2) Pick your protein: Pre-cooked, grilled chicken strips are super-easy, as are cold cuts (I love Applegate Farms products), hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna, etc.
3) Choose your “accent veggies”: These veggies add depth to your salad, and compliment with base. I like fibrous veggies like carrots and mushrooms because they had heft and volume without the additional calories. For this salad, I added cucumbers and grape tomatoes, too.
4) Dress smart: This can make or break your salad, so be careful! I like to taste a variety of flavors, so I’ll use both wine or rice vinegars and balsamic. I like a little EVOO, too. Just a dab’ll do ya!
5) Finally, add your preemptive cheats: A pinch or two of this parmesan-fontina-asiago-provolone blend ups the #satisfactionfactor of this salad, as does the addition of about 1.5 tbsp of raisins. If yuo don’t like sweet in your savory salad, don’t sweat it; try a couple slices of avocado, or sprinkle in some bacon pieces. The options are endless, and I promise you’ll never be bored by salads ever again!

3 Effective Strategies to take the Edge off Cravings

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