What Helps With Food Cravings When Nothing Else Does?
Are cravings to be feared or welcomed with open arms? Don't answer too fast!
Posted Aug 25, 2019
Have you ever been to a supermarket and found there was no more frozen pizza, sugary cereal, or chocolate bars? That was probably my fault. Stopped at a pizza place only to hear, "Sorry, we're all out?" Me again. Run through a doughnut shop, asked for a box of doughnut holes, only to hear, "No, sorry, we're running low?" I probably got there before you.
I struggled horrendously with food cravings for almost 30 years, and for most of that time, I felt utterly powerless to do anything about them. At one point, I was almost 280 pounds. My doctors repeatedly warned I would die young if I didn't stop, but I couldn't. Worse, I often wasn't fully present with my friends, family, and clients, because I was obsessing about the next binge.
I spent most of my mornings swearing off sugar, flour, and salt, only to find myself convinced by late afternoon that "one more time couldn't hurt," or "I could always start again tomorrow." As you probably know, tomorrow never came.
But the cravings felt like having a terrorist pointing a gun at my head, saying, "Eat this, or I'll kill you!" and I felt compelled to comply. I walked around terrified, not knowing when the next one would hit. It was awful.
A modest part of my eventual recovery came from learning to feed my body a substantial, regular course of nutrition from whole, natural foods. This softened but did not eliminate the cravings by any stretch of the imagination. I still struggled.
The bigger change came from two shifts in mindset.
First, I decided to split my thinking about food into distinct types—constructive vs. destructive. I drew clear, bright lines, like "I will never eat chocolate on a weekday again." This helped identify as my destructive food self any thought which suggested I'd ever cross the line. For example, if I had the thought, "Even though today's Wednesday, you've worked out hard enough, so you can definitely afford a little chocolate," I immediately knew it was my destructive self.
Drawing these lines provided an instantly clearer, stronger focus, which at a minimum stopped me from fooling myself. I always knew when eating the chocolate was wrong vs. right for me personally, and I could at least try to ignore it or dispute the logic of the rationalization. It gave me a few extra seconds at the moment of temptation to wake up and make the right decision.
Unfortunately, despite this awareness, I'd sometimes make the wrong decision anyway. Something was still missing.
The finishing touch was thoroughly accepting my cravings as a natural part of my being.
I had to stop cultivating a fear of them, and instead welcome them with confidence. It wasn't until I reassured myself that it was OK I had these cravings, and there was nothing "wrong" with me for feeling them so intensely, that I was able to sit with them long enough to consistently make the right decision.
Adding a reflexive voice in my head which said: "Glenn, it's OK you're craving a half dozen chocolate bars now. There must be some authentic need underneath. Maybe it's for energy, and you could try eating a bunch of fruit and greens. Or for rest, in which case you could take a 15-minute break to go breathe outside, or take a quick cat-nap. Maybe it's something else, but whatever it is, it's OK. There's nothing wrong with you for craving now, but acting on it is not the only way out."
Think about it: If you put a rabid Doberman in a cage and then walk by with a rib roast, it's definitely going to lunge at the meat. That's the dog's natural survival drive. The key thing isn't to get the dog to stop lunging; the important thing is not opening the cage.
The combination of (1) being able to recognize the destructive thoughts which previously justified my cravings more easily, and (2) the radical acceptance of the cravings themselves, was an extremely powerful, one-two punch. It made a huge difference!
Suddenly I could sit with, examine, and let the cravings pass, then feed my authentic needs instead of the corrupted survival drive which strove for a half dozen chocolate bars.
The cravings eventually diminished dramatically, because I wasn't continually reinforcing them. It seems we crave what we reinforce, and stop craving what we don't. This is consistent with the well-researched principle of neuroplasticity. Therefore, every craving is actually an opportunity to extinguish a bad habit, and should be welcomed, not feared!
Identify, accept, and substitute something healthier for your craving, and you should eventually find you crave the healthier option instead. Today I never crave chocolate. I haven't eaten it in years. I progressed from never during weekdays to never at all—a personal decision.
I do, however, crave banana-kale-celery smoothies, because that's what I regularly substituted. I never would've believed this was going to be the case if someone told me years ago. I would've simply said, "Shut up and hand over the chocolate, and nobody gets hurt!"
One last thing, and it's important...
When I refer to accepting cravings, I am not saying we should act on them!
There are approaches to overeating which say one should never "demonize" any particular food or treat—that everything has to be OK in moderation. If that approach works for you, then, by all means, don't change it!
But this approach is radically different because it works in tandem with a clear identification of specific boundaries with food. And in my experience with hundreds of clients, it often works when nothing else does.
Recognizing and then radically accepting cravings can remove the need to "get rid" of them through behavior, thus providing the extra time to wake up and remember who you are, and what your higher self originally intended with food.
When you pair this with attending to your authentic nutritional needs on a regular basis, you just might find a freedom with food you previously thought impossible.