Have you experienced someone putting a plate of your favorite dessert in front of you and it was in your mouth before you could even think about it?
Have you ever experienced someone putting a plate of your favorite dessert in front of you and you felt like you could take it or leave it?
What was the difference?
Or maybe you were somewhere in between: you had the thought of wanting it but you could easily resist it.
Cravings are a dieter’s worst enemy, because they can sabotage your weight loss plan and leave you feeling hopeless. There is plenty of advice on dealing with cravings when they strike, but I prefer to avoid them altogether, and there are several reasons why.
When Distracting Yourself or Eating Substitute Foods Doesn’t Work
The advice on cravings ranges from drinkingwater to distracting yourself or eating a different, healthier food as a substitute.
Let’s look at a couple of them: Distract yourself for a few minutes and the craving will go away.
I don’t know about you, but my cravings tend to last a lot longer than ten or fifteen minutes. I can “ignore them” for hours and then at 5 or 6 o’clock, there I am shoveling the cookies in my mouth, after I thought had won the battle for that day.
And the idea of a substitute food hasn’t really worked for me either. If I’m wanting chocolate, the only substitute that’s going to make that craving go away is some other form of sugar! When I try this strategy, I end up eating the healthier food, and then later on the food I was craving.
Here’s the deal. Cravings can be related to many issues: nutritional deficiencies, yeast overgrowth or an imbalance in your gut bacteria, stress, unmet emotional needs, hormone imbalance, fatigue, low moods, low blood sugar, lack of enough high quality sleep. There are probably more, but you get the idea.
You need to discover and address the real issue to get control of your cravings. If your blood sugar is low, there is no amount of distraction or breathing that is going to satisfy a body that knows it needs food, RIGHT NOW. Whatever is fastest, closest, and will fix that blood sugar fast, is what your body is going to go for. If you think your mind is in control here, you are mistaken. This is survival-driven. You can’t fool it or think your way out of it.
Brain chemistry and Cravings
The brain processes that contribute to cravings and our behavior around them are complex.
Omar Manejwala, M.D. addresses this in depth in his outstanding book, Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough.
He mentions a study in which students who were craving chocolate had a reduced ability “to perform certain tasks that require visuospatial memory. In other words, cravings actually affected what these students were capable of remembering.”
This is why you find yourself in the middle of eating something you didn’t intend to eat, wondering why you didn’t distract yourself or eat something healthy. Your memory was compromised.
Don’t Depend on Willpower
Do you know that your supply of willpower is limited, and that you can use it up, so that when a plate of cookies is set in front of you, you may not have enough left to resist the cookies?
That’s right. In the book, Willpower, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, the authors explore the latest research on self-control and how to make the most of it.
Specifically, they note how women following diets will use up their limited supply of willpower resisting temptation when dessert is put in front of them , but when the willpower is used up, they will end up unable to continue the resistance.
They need to refuel their willpower, which, ironically, requires food, specifically glucose!
Strategy #1: Implementation Intention
One strategy is to keep the tempting food out of sight and out of reach, but that is not always possible.
Another strategy the Baumeister & Tierney recommend is an “implementation intention.” An example of this would be to come up with a rule that you follow in certain situations, such as, “If someone brings donuts to work, I will not eat them.” It may sound simple, but it can work surprisingly well.
Strategy #2: Never Say Never
And, although this strategy seems the opposite of the one just mentioned, Baumeister and Tierney also recommend never saying “never.”
When faced with that plate of donuts, tell yourself that you can eat as many as you want, but you will not eat them now. I know one of the factors in my decision to eat one or more of those donuts, when I do, is that I say to myself that I don’t know when I will get another chance (because I don’t EVER buy donuts), so I have to take advantage of it now. But if I tell myself, I can buy donuts after work, then I don’t need to eat them right now.
Strategy #3: Avoid Fatigue
Are you getting enough sleep? (if it’s less than 7.5 hours, the answer is definitely not). If not, can you take a nap during the day? Even 10 minutes can be enough sometimes, to get up feeling refreshed, and you will be less more resistant to cravings.
If you are having trouble with getting to sleep, staying asleep, or sleeping deeply (and who doesn’t at our age), you will need to do some research and make some changes to your nighttime routine. You may need to get outside for 10 minutes in the middle of the day (to help your circadian rhythms reset).
You may need to shut off the computer or tv an hour before turning out the lights. You need to sleep in total darkness. There are other things you can do as well to improve your sleep, once you have determined that as the problem.
Do whatever you have to do to get better sleep and you will be amazed at how much easier it is to stick with your food plan.
Maybe it’s not sleep that is the problem. Are you tired all the time, with that feeling that you just don’t have any “get up and go?”
If you’re always tired, get your thyroid and adrenal function tested. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to get control of cravings if these two areas are not functioning well.
For adrenal testing, you will probably have to find a non-traditional doctor, for example, a naturopath or a functional medicine practitioner. For thyroid testing, you may need more than just a TSH test (see this article on hypothyroidism)
If you are tired for any reason, you will crave sugar, salt, caffeine, and anything else that will stimulate you, or has stimulated you in the past. You will be much more vulnerable to cravings if you are tired.
Strategy #4: Find New Ways to Deal with Stress
Stress will decrease your ability to resist cravings, at the same time that it will increase your cravings. Stress will deplete nutrients, which will increase cravings.
Stress makes you uncomfortable, which drives the behavior to get relief. If you want to succeed with your food plan, you will need to deal with excess stress in your life.
Whether it’s meditation, a yoga class, a friend who’s a good listener, or getting a massage, a strategy for stress reduction is a critical factor in weight loss success and relief from cravings.
If you can’t do anything about it right now, plan to take some time to make a list of actions you can take, both ongoingly and in the moment, to change your response to stress.
This may sound like a lot of work, but it is worth it, and necessary to getting control of your cravings.
Strategy #5: Craving-Proof Your Diet
Eat high quality protein at every meal. Eat good fats, such as coconut oil and avocado oil. Avoid vegetable oils. Try to get to the point where you eat only 3 meals a day. This will even out your blood sugar and insulin, leaving you less hungry and less prone to cravings.
As I said earlier, letting your blood sugar plunge (which, by the way, is what happens after you eat foods full of sugar), is a sure way to get to the point where you must eat something right now, preferably sugar.
Some Final Thoughts
You may need to develop some new skills to increase your awareness and your ability to observe yourself, to reduce stress, to determine what your body needs. EFT, also known as tapping, is an acupressure technique that is very easy to learn and can be used to reduce or eliminate cravings.
You may need to track your food intake with your moods, energy levels and ability to sleep deeply for 8 hours.
The Bad News is you are going to have to do some work to discover what you need, and maybe make some changes in your lifestyle.
The Good News is you can make peace with cravings. I am once again craving-free.
What I Did to Eliminate My Cravings
My cravings started again last October/November after at least five months of being craving-free.
When I started thinking about this in the fall, I thought it was a mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and then all the emotions and environmental stimuli that come with Christmas.
Also, over many years of struggling to have enough energy to do my very physical job, I have at times resorted to using sugar to help me get through the day. Since I was working fourteen-hour days for about a month, I began using sugar and salt to get through it (a hint that my adrenal system was under intense stress, but somehow I forgot how that works).
After it was over, in January, I had established a habit, and I was extremely stressed out.
As I looked back to see what was different about the six months I had no cravings and the five months I was in the grip of them, I realized a couple of things.
My reasons for eating healthy had changed. My blood pressure had dropped drastically, and I was able to wear clothes I hadn’t worn in years. The motivation for losing weight wasn’t there anymore, because I had achieved that goal.
And my situation had changed. My work had changed, which required working much longer hours during the busiest season of the year, and I had a different boss/co-worker.
I took a few days off, which helped. I finished grad school, which helped. In the fall I had done some research on sleep, artificial light, sunlight, and SAD, and I experimented with those ideas a bit, but didn’t really have the means to pursue them in depth.
So now it’s March, winter is over (especially here in California), so what’s the deal?
As I was digesting those ideas, I was also finding suggestions to “distract yourself.” I had also taken an EFT class and I knew that might work. The trick was, believe it or not, wanting to actually do it. Now when the craving hits, it makes sense, given what I now know about cravings, that you will forget about tapping.
But to not want to do it at all, even when you’re not having a craving, well, that speaks to a conflict of goals issue.
One thing that happened is I reached my goal weight. Really fast.
It’s like my mind needed time to catch up. And I’ve spent my whole dieting life working toward the goal of losing weight. I had no idea how to act once that was no longer the goal.
While having these ideas in the back of my head, I started trying different nutritional strategies. I started taking my adrenal support supplements again.
I started getting back to my food plan, which included drinking more water, keeping meals to 60 minutes or less, not eating after 9pm, starting each meal by eating a couple of bites of protein…
After I had several days without eating sugar or potato chips (for the first time since November), I started feeling better. And one day I added in a supplement I have used many times for many reasons – 5 HTP.
But this time I took it mid-morning instead of mid-afternoon. And it made all the difference.
I went from completely running out of steam and feeling really miserable at 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon, to feeling at peace and happy all afternoon. (To find out how to use amino acids and diet to work with cravings and other issues, I highly recommend Julia Ross’ book, The Diet Cure).
If I’m feeling well, I don’t get cravings. It’s really that simple for me.
And it could be for you too.
But you will have to discover that by paying attention to your body, and what happens right before, during, and after those cravings.
It’s a Process
I have gone months without having cravings. Then they will resurface and I have to newly discover each time what to do. Since your body and your life circumstances are always changing, your needs continue to change as well. What worked a year ago may not work now. That is why the skills I mentioned above are so important to learn. They will serve you each time you struggle with cravings.
Not Sure Where to Start?
What you can do right now, is start observing yourself when you see, smell or think about eating food you hadn’t planned on eating that day.
What is the conversation you are having with yourself?
Are you rationalizing why it’s okay to eat it?
Can you tell what is driving the behavior?
Did you get enough sleep last night?
Have you experienced some recent changes in your life that are stressful?
What is it you think eating that food will give you?
You won’t always be able to observe and ask these questions, but over time you will start to understand what the problem might be.
You may need to adjust your food plan. Eating pasta or a sandwich at lunch could be sabotaging your afternoon. So could eating just a salad, with no protein. That all depends on what your body, specifically, needs.
There IS no one-size fits all when it comes to what foods your body will do best with.
You might have conflicting goals (you want to lose weight but are worried about how that will affect your relationship, for example).
You may need to make some changes to manage stress better.
You may need to put yourself first – something many of us don’t know how to do, or we are reluctant to do, for various reasons.
But this is YOUR TIME. It’s time for something new. A new you. You can do it! And you will be glad you did.
What strategies have you used to overcome cravings? Share them in the comments.
Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Manejwala, O., M.D. (2013). Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough. Center City, MN: Hazelden.