CRAVINGS - What they really are, why we have them, and what we can do about themAug 25, 2021
Cravings, we know what they are...that very strong seemingly uncontrollable urge to eat or drink or do something that is bad but feels good...but ultimately doesn't help us and so we feel badly when we indulge.
Why we have them and can’t seem to control them is complicated! It is the intersection of genetic and other physiological factors, our emotions, our environment, and our thought processes.
It really comes down to the fact that as humans, we evolved to do many things but two big ones are:
- Find food!
- Avoid being food!
So our brains are wired to seek out food, and when we find it, if it tastes good, our brain releases dopamine and helps forge the mental pathway of remembering where that food is.
Then, at that point, our brain moved on, made it automatic, because it’s got a lot of important things to do to keep us alive.
The way this has played out in our modern lives often starts in our childhood. We are rewarded with ice cream after a game, good grades, wanted behavior, or to bribe us to do/not do something. So of course we associate those foods with reward and celebration.
We form habits around these associations and they work for us…until they don't!
So this brings me to what to do about it. Here is a big secret...
IT'S. NOT. ABOUT. WILLPOWER.
(read that again)
Willpower: the will or desire to have power over something? That’s just like restrictive dieting or removing entire food groups to lose weight - it doesn’t work long term. We end up "white knukle-ing" it and eventually break down because it's too much. And then again, we feel badly. Like if only we had enough willpower....UGH!
I have tons of strategies to share for what to do in the moment but the biggest thing we can do about cravings – and science backs this up – is have AWARENESS.
Awareness is a great thing because once you’re aware, you can’t become unaware. You can choose to ignore, but you are still aware.
Have you heard of the acronym HALT?
These are the 4 main things found to contribute to overeating and/or giving in to a craving. Two of these are physiological, and 2 are emotional. Awareness helps with all of it.
You can use an awareness approach when a craving hits by pausing for a minute and asking yourself these questions:
- Am I hungry? Being aware of hunger and satiety cues is a whole other topic, but for now, just make note of whether you are hungry or not. Or what level of hunger you are (0 = not hungry, 10= super f'in hangry).
- What is the trigger? Who am I with, what was I doing, where was I and what was I thinking when the craving came on? Maybe having a stressful interaction with someone or driving past your favorite ice cream place?
- What am I actually going to get out of this? Joy? Nutrients? Even an "I don't know" helps with awareness.
- If you indulge, bring and keep awareness throughout the experience by asking if each bite is better than next. Also ask if you like the treat better than the last time you had it.
You will get better at this each time if you practice it. What have you got to lose? Try it.
TAKEAWAY: Awareness is a muscle you can build – willpower is NOT.
Other great tips for what to do when cravings hit:
- Pause 5 minutes. Do 3 rounds of box breath or any other breathing technique to re-focus and get calm.
- Movement for 15-20 minutes. This is the amount of time it takes for a feeling to go away (not trauma-based, just our regular emotions) so getting out and moving around can re-direct you.
- Drink water – as much as you can, like a full 8-ounce glass. Being dehydrated does signal to the brain there isn’t enough energy to do what it needs to do.
- Have a healthy snack at your fingertips to eat instead, or at least make an agreement to eat that first, and then indulge if you still feel you need to.
- Change your environment – if it’s there, you’ll eat it. If you can, keep trigger foods out of your house/workplace and if you cannot do that, ask family/co-workers for help. Asking for help is a whole other health and wellness topic...
- Make it difficult to get to, make it not obvious. Back of the fridge, back of the highest cabinet, not at home so you have to drive to go get it.
- Get enough sleep. Even small sleep shortages lead to a decrease in decision making power, lowers your mood, and dramatically increases carb cravings because the brain needs more energy than on a good night sleep to do all of its trillions of other jobs.
- Eat satiating, balanced meals. Eating a little at a time is not as satisfying as having meals, and doesn’t usually go well with regulating blood sugar long term ( this does not apply to diabetics or pre-diabetics), so you are always wanting something every couple hours. Meals with adequate protein, fiber and nutrients from veggies and whole grains, and healthy fats will satiate you. Balanced meals also promote a healthy gut microbiome because you will be feeding the bacteria that help you and starving the ones that love the sugar/processed foods.
I hope you found this helpful - please share with someone you think will benefit from this information.
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If you would like help with cravings or any other nutrition endeavor, you can book a free 30-minute consult with me where you will get tips you can implement right away.
Thanks for reading!