Stop Food Cravings: Three Steps
Do you find some food irresistibly attractive? Maybe chips, chocolate, and cookies? Do you find it difficult to say NO once you see, smell, or even start thinking about them?
Rarely do I get through a speaking engagement without at least one question from the audience about how to control these food cravings. And, since I suffered for years with an eating disorder, I know first-hand how overwhelming these cravings can be.
Three Steps to Control the Cravings
While there are some people who overeat on meats and other proteins, let's face it, most of the cravings (and overeating episodes) that people report have to do with carbohydrates such as sodas, chips and crackers, desserts, and even cereal.
After reviewing the science about how the body works, I found that these three steps offer powerful strategies that have worked for me - and for my clients - who crave carbs.
1. Know the Facts: What's Normal and What's Not
First of all, let me share that it's absolutely normal to overeat - on occasion. Nearly everyone has done it.
I love Ellen Satter's definition of what's normal. She writes, "normal eating is overeating at times and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable and undereating at times, and wishing you had more."
And, second, it's absolutely normal to like the taste of carbohydrates and even sugar and other sweets. There's nothing wrong with you.
In fact, babies are born with sweet taste receptors on their tongue and tend to suck harder when drinking something that's sweet. And guess what? Breast milk actually contains more (natural) sugars than cow's milk.
But, don't blame those sweet taste receptors on your cravings and overeating. Have you noticed that while young kids do indeed like sweet flavors, they don't tend to go overboard until they get older?
Not only is it normal to like them, carbohydrates are essential for life. Carbohydrates break down into simple sugars such as glucose, which the body uses for half of the fuel we need to stay alive. The other 50% comes from fat, in case you were wondering.
The brain, weighing in at just two percent of our body weight, requires about one quarter of all the fuel our body needs to survive...and it uses glucose almost exclusively. Of course, the body needs other things, too. Like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants...which you're not going to find much in most of the foods we tend to crave.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. While beans, fruit, oats, and whole grains contain nutrients essential for health, there's nothing to brag about in sugar-sweetened sodas and most desserts. And, let me ask you, have you overeaten fruit or beans? Probably not.
Perhaps you're wondering..."If I overeat sugar, do I have an eating disorder?"
Do I Have an Eating Disorder?
While it's normal to like carbs and even overeat them on occasion, if you find yourself overeating them on a regular basis and feel out of control, or spending too much time thinking about eating, it's a good idea to visit with a mental health professional. Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, body weights, and genders.
You can learn more about eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder) HERE. Binge eating disorder symptoms include:
- Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as a 2-hour period
- Eating even when you're full or not hungry
- Eating fast during binge episodes
- Eating until you're uncomfortably full
- Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
- Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about your eating
- Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss
Eating disorders are NOT (directly) about food. In the same way that people that use drugs or alcohol to numb their pan, those with eating disorders use food.
Eating disorders are mental disorders so the usual treatments are psychotherapy and possibly medications.
There's a good chance that you don't have an eating disorder. But rather than you're experiencing disordered eating, which will benefit by seeing a mental health professional. Those signs include:
- Frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific foods or meal skipping
- Chronic weight fluctuations
- Rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise
- Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating
- Preoccupation with food, weight and body image that negatively impacts quality of life
- A feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits
- Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to "make up for bad foods" consumed
2. Set Yourself Up for Success
If you don't have an eating disorder, but still find yourself overeating or spending too much time thinking or restricting your intake, it will help for you to consider these strategies for success.
Take Good Care of Yourself
You'll notice fewer cravings when you get enough sleep, eat healthy, fit in exercise, and manage your stress. But don't take good care of yourself only when the cravings are out of control. Take good care of yourself to help prevent those cravings! Here's how self-care works.
When people don't get enough quality sleep, they tend to eat more. And it's often carbohydrates they crave. Perhaps to get a short burst of energy.
In addition, not getting enough sleep can mess with our hunger/satiety hormones so we either feel hungrier or we feel less full. Either way, these hormones prompt us to eat more than we would if we were well-rested.
Do you have more food cravings when life is more stressful? Daily exercise, even a slow walk, can help you manage your stress.
And don't forget to eat three well-balanced meals a day. These meals will not only help us to keep our energy up but will also ward off extreme hunger which can set off a craving.
Don't Get Overly Hungry
How many times have you gone into a restaurant with all good intentions of eating healthy, but then find yourself ordering all the wrong goods and then eating too much? This is much more likely to happen when we allow ourselves to get too hungry.
This extreme hunger we experience is really just our body's way to "save" us. When our blood glucose (aka blood sugar) gets too low, cravings increase to encourage us to eat - in order to bring our blood sugar back to normal.
In my book, REBOOT, I encourage people to eat small amounts of food throughout the day to keep hunger at bay. For me, this was the most important change I made to recover from my eating disorder.
Yes, eating disorders are a mental disorder, but without the "energy" I needed, I wasn't able to work on the mental piece. Once I managed my energy (using REBOOT techniques) I had the energy to focus on the head piece of this craving issue.
Start a Craving Journal
There's a good chance that the foods you crave are connected with experiences from your past. I used to binge on ice cream, likely because our large family splurged on ice cream during vacations and holidays.
We start associating these foods with good memories so that eating them stimulate pleasure areas of our brain. And now we crave them because we're trying to feel those happy emotions once again.
So, each time one of these uncontrollable cravings happen, pull out a piece of paper (or your notes app of your phone or computer) and jot down what emotion you're experiencing.
What are you FEELING? Overwhelmed? Sad? Anxious? Unworthy? Exhausted? Disappointed? Unsuccessful? Intimidated? Discouraged? Once you find out what's going on, search for a healthier solution to the emotion that's promoting the craving.
Keep a Healthy Environment
If you were recovering from an alcohol addiction, would you tempt yourself with keep alcohol in the house? Or visiting your favorite bar with friends? Likely not.
So, treat yourself with the same respect. If you can't control yourself around certain types of foods, keep them out of the house. I had to do this for many years, but eventually, as I recovered, I was able to bring them back into the house.
Realize that all the foods you crave are still likely available just down the road, but it adds more time and effort to get to them. In addition, some clients have found that it helps to change their driving routes to avoid some of these places.
Instead, keep those cravings at bay by stocking your kitchen with lots of healthy foods and planning your meals.
3. No More Deprivation
Do you have an "all or nothing" mentality when it comes to food? Do you label foods into strict categories of "good" or "bad"?
Do you then restrict your intake of these forbidden foods - and then scold yourself if you do? Or find yourself going to the opposite extreme and overeating those "bad" foods?
If that describes you, you're not alone. I did the same thing - and many other people do.
That's why it's a good idea to drop these labels - and change our behavior about how we talk to ourselves.
Get Professional Help
In my counseling sessions, I help clients to change the way they eat and the way they talk to themselves, but it's also a great idea to meet with a mental health professional.
That's because overeating often isn't about food. Sure, eating healthy and other aspects of self-care can help to reign in a overeating episode, but likely food is just your "drug" of choice that helps you to numb the pain your experiencing or the emotions you're trying to avoid.
A mental health professional can help you to address this in a healthier fashion. And, can help you to change the way you talk to yourself when you feel a certain way or when you overeat.
For me, during my eating disorder days, I identified that much of my self-abuse was coming from not feeling "good enough." So, I worked on reprogramming my brain to change those unreal expectations of myself.
Eat Your Pleasers
Back when I couldn't control myself around food, I cleaned out the cupboard, but I didn't avoid sweets FORVER. I know, you've likely said that to yourself, haven't you? "I need to avoid sugar for the rest of my life." How's that working?
Remind yourself that a little bit of sugar or whatever carb you crave isn't going to kill you. They're fun foods - something that adds some pleasure to your life. In moderation, of course.
Here's what I did while recovering from my eating disorder. One by one, I did a food testing experiment with all the foods I craved. Imagine this as how a wine connoisseur might taste a glass of wine. Or a food tasting with Guy Fieri.
Since (back then) I binged on an entire bag of Oreos or Chips Ahoy cookies, I started there.
I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of water and a plate with one Oreo. I looked at it, smelled it, touched it. Then I took a tiny bite and rolled it around my mouth.
And, you know what? I realized that I didn't like the taste at all. Very plastic-like, artificial. Same with the Chips Ahoy cookies.
But, ooooh, I DID really love the ice cream. I decided that cookies weren't "worth it" but ice cream was. Ice cream was my "pleaser" and cookies were my "teaser." What are your pleasers and teasers?
That's when I decided to go out for my favorite flavor of ice cream (chocolate chip) at my favorite ice cream parlor (back then it was Friendly's) once a week.
Back then I found it easier to eat my treat at a restaurant. That's because it's more difficult to say, "More please" when someone is serving you. Buying an ice cream cone (even if it's a triple dip...which I'm not encouraging) is still better than putting a half-gallon in the kitchen freezer when you can't control your portions.
Now I enjoy a small treat every day - like four Dove dark chocolates, rather than just once a week. Make your own rules...but please, give yourself permission to enjoy your favorites every now and then.
Did you notice that I didn't suggest that you just give yourself permission to eat your favorites? I said, "enjoy" it.
That's important. Most people who overeat or binge tend to do it in private. That's because binge eating is often done with feelings of guilt and shame. (That's something a mental health professional can help you with.)
Of course you don't have to eat your favorites in a restaurant, just give yourself permission to eat it slowly and actually enjoy it. Put that treat on a plate and sit at the table - without any other distractions such as your phone or the TV. And, enjoy it.
Remember to take good care of YOU. Get adequate quality sleep and exercise, eat three well-balanced meals a day, and maintain a healthy environment at home and at work.
Also, identify what emotion is behind that food craving and look for healthier options to deal with it. Working with a mental health professional can be invaluable.
Lastly, drop your unreasonable, unrealistic expectations of what healthy, normal eating is. It's ok to enjoy a favorite treat every now and then. And don't just eat that food, be sure to enjoy it.
I hope that this blog is of help to you. Let me know if I can help you conquer your cravings! You can schedule time to talk HERE.
Want to recharge your workforce for improved performance, productivity, and profitability?
Get "What to Do When You're Crashing" PDF
We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.