How to Conquer Cravings
No matter how fastidious you are with your diet, how healthy you are, and attuned your body is to a healthy lifestyle, we’re all prone to cravings. I’m talking about crazy “I need a donut STAT” cravings. Even the best of us give in to them but if you’re still new at this whole healthy diet thing, those cravings can be killer. They can lead to a day of binging which can lead to a week of backsliding which turns back into old habits. If you’re having trouble saying no to those cravings, it can be discouraging. It may feel like you’re weak willed or you just don’t care. In fact, your trouble likely comes from the exact opposite – because you’re trying hard and care too much. That doesn’t solve the problem of how to conquer these cravings though. But in order to get past them, first we have to understand them. Cravings are your body’s way of telling you it needs something. A popular theory is that when your body is deficient1 in some sort of nutrient, cravings are its way of indicating what it needs. This makes sense, but there’s actually no science to substantiate this. Your body may be trying to indicate a nutritional deficiency2, but the foods that are often craved don’t actually contain enough of the specific nutrient to substantiate the deficiency. After all, we rarely, if at all crave piles of mineral rich vegetables. Instead we often crave “forbidden” foods like pastries and burgers. Although cravings are not as specific as a desire for chocolate indicating you need magnesium, they may mean something more simple: that you’re hungry. The hungrier you are the more appealing, well, everything seems. This is why diets that restrict your calories can end in disaster. A few days of apparent success can lead to a day or two or three of binging and end you right back where you started. Hunger is the most obvious reason for food cravings, but it isn’t the only one.
Cravings may be linked to psychological needs. Some people choose healthy options to relieve stress, like going for a quiet walk or listening to music. Other solutions may be habit forming, like smoking. Believe it or not, eating can also become an addition. As strange as this may seem, the reason is straightforward. When you eat carbohydrates, the brain releases a feel-good chemical3 called serotonin that makes you feel comforted if you’re sad or stressed out. The more often you answer those feelings with food, the more your brain associates comfort with eating. As a final result, you crave food even when you aren’t upset or anxious, simply for the happy feeling your brain now demands. Instead, eating for comfort ends up having the opposite effect. You become frustrated with yourself for cravings these foods that you know are unhealthy, even more so if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, or even because you know it will upset your stomach. This frustration only causes you to crave the comfort food more, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.
But how do those associations form in the first place? The idea that mac n’ cheese will relieve you of a stressful day didn’t just appear out of thin air. In fact, many of these food-related beliefs are cultural and social. Our sense of smell is a strong trigger4 for certain memories. Because smell and taste are closely linked5, this often translates to memories being triggered by eating certain foods. Snacks and meals from childhood, like brand name chocolate chip cookies or that grilled cheese your dad only made on special occasions, are associated with a simpler time, free of the responsibilities and stresses that we deal with today. Similarly, many women crave junk food when their period comes along, despite there being no clinical evidence6 to support a correlation between the two. This craving is real, but it’s cultural, not biological. The release of serotonin that comes with eating a bar of chocolate is associated with relief from the all too real symptoms of that time of the month – theoretically making those symptoms more bearable. Naturally, this emotional relief was sought out by millions, and a menstrual movement began. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or sorts, not to mention a subtle form of self-medicating. Plus it’s just an acceptable, guilt free time to indulge.
How do you break the cycle? After all this, cravings don’t sound so awful. They even sound like they could be useful. If relieving stress is as simple as eating ice cream, why not, right? With every pro comes a con, and in this case, there are quite a few cons. When that pint of ice cream is eaten every day, it becomes less satisfying (and increasingly fattening). Eventually food doesn’t hit the spot at all, but you keep eating anyway. Giving in to the temptation of cravings also tends to create negative feelings, like guilt over eating foods you aren’t “supposed” to eat and shame over lacking self-control. The more you try to restrict something, the more you may want it, and the more awful you feel when you give in. What seems like a good idea or no big deal at first may end up being a very big problem down the road. In order to break this cycle, first step back and look at what you’re eating, when you’re eating, and how you’re feeling when you do. Sometimes eating is nothing more than nourishment. Sometimes it’s a symptom of something else. It’s important to differentiate between the two. Unfortunately there’s no sure fire way to overcome cravings. There are numerous suggestions though, all of which include patience with yourself, as to not create those negative feelings that often trigger cravings in the first place. Some experts suggest embracing your cravings and giving in to them in an attempt to negate the negative connotations associated with emotional eating. Another possible solution, suggested by a study at the University College of London, is to eat what you crave in the middle of a meal, or right after. Other solutions7 include cognitive diffusion (acknowledging and accepting your cravings without acting on them), exercise, and distraction. When you experience a craving, set a timer for 30 minutes and then busy yourself doing something else. Cravings are often fleeting, and by the time the distraction is gone, your craving will be, too. The more often you stave off cravings, the less frequent they become. All that being said, sometimes a brownie is just a brownie, and sometimes you should just eat it.