Dealing with food cravings is a complex and multi-layered topic, and like most things in nutrition, it’s got to be looked at from a number of different perspectives.
There are both physical and psychological reasons why we crave certain foods, but there are also impacts from our environment, learned responses to cues, and the impact of our own personal attitudes, self perception and conscious awareness.
To simply say, “eat more fruits and vegetables and lean proteins, and just wait it out,” whilst true in it’s own right, is too simplistic and ignores most of the above challenges.
Whilst this blog post is far too short to address everything in the detail it deserves, I can give you a few things to be conscious of that may start the ball rolling when it comes to dealing with food cravings.
I have identified three different areas we need to look at, and all three have to be implemented at once for you to really see some long term changes to your capacity to manage your cravings better.
I’ve also suggested some reading material and 5 things you can do today to change your eating habits. All of these I found very helpful in my journey to overcome disordered binging habits, because this blog barely scratches the surface.
There are two main physical reasons why we have food cravings, and fortunately, the physical can be the fastest aspect which can change. Within just a few short weeks, your taste buds should adapt to a lowered sugar, sugar and fat, or fat and salt based diet, and the taste of healthier food will become more appealing.
When we eat a diet which is comprised of mostly highly processed, highly palatable foods, we have two-fold stimulus of our desire to eat more of them;
First, because of the lack of nutrient density and fibre, these foods are not filling, even if they are highly dense in calories. Processed carbs in particular are very quickly broken down in the stomach, as the surface area of the carbohydrates has been reduced, meaning that it takes far less time for our stomach acids to get to work on breaking up those carbohydrates into sugar, and thus, far less time for the sugar to reach the bloodstream. The speed of this process is helped further by the lack of fibre, which helps creates bulk and elicits a stretch response in the gut. This stretch response is one of the reasons you’re often told to wait 20 minutes after a meal to make sure you’re full – as peptides such as peptide YY is secreted within the gastrointestinal tract, and works with dietary fibre to stimulate satiety, and a lack of bulk in your diet will impact the amount of PYY released after a meal.
Second, because processed foods are made specifically to keep us eating more of them. You may be familiar with the term “bliss point,” which is a very strategically manufactured combination of fat, sugar and salt, which causes us to keep going back. Combine these two aspects of junk food together, and it’s pretty clear that not only does the food we eat provide a dopamine reward, but it prevents us feeling the kind of fullness we need to know when it’s time to stop going back for more.
Eating less of these foods, means we will start eating less of these foods.
But we can’t do that without looking at two other elements.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned about helping people to change their dietary habits, is that improving dietary habits has nothing to do with nutrition. Please read that sentence again.
An inability to avoid junk food and overeating can be a result of very deeply held coping mechanisms and emotional responses, and by seeking to change these by just changing your habits is a lesson in futility. Your diet is the symptom, not the cause.
We can understand this when we consider that for every single emotion there is a food, and this is perpetuated in our popular culture.
Just broke up with someone? Ice cream. Wine.
Bored? Chocolate biscuits.
Tired? Uber eats, sugary coffees, energy drinks.
Celebrating? Champagne, pizza and beer.
Family gatherings? Barbecues.
Every time you are driven to eat some junk, ask yourself how am I feeling?
Are you eating because you’re bored, tired or upset?
Then if your “hunger” didn’t come from your stomach, no amount of eating is going to satisfy it. Promise yourself another 20 minutes. Go for a walk, play a game, clean the house, do anything else for twenty minutes and if you still want the food – sit down and eat it at a table.
This is a HUGE area to get into, but it should be reserved for people far better than me at unlocking things such as childhood and past traumas, emotional coping strategies and just general life un-fuckery. Chat to someone if this is something you’re struggling with on a daily basis, and especially if it’s impacting your quality of life.
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” This quote stands out to me because it perfectly summarises what we now know about locus of control and its impact not only upon our ability to change our behaviour, but also on our assessment of our success. To put it very simply, locus of control is the perception of your ability to change outcomes in your life, an internal locus of control puts the power and responsibility upon your shoulders, whereas an external locus implies that you can be thwarted and derailed by others, or that luck plays a part in your success.
I would argue that both and neither are true, depending upon your perspective!
So if you can, take responsibility and internalise your control. Try to avoid having junk in the house, have backup plans if you get stuck, try to keep mindful of your emotions and your drives to eat – and if they are really physical hunger or you’re seeking to fulfill an emotional need.
You might also need to dig deep into your own self-identity, and establish if you have a perception of yourself which you find hard to shake. This often comes to the fore in the form of self sabotage.
For example, do you often make a few weeks of progress and then revert back to old habits? Instead of berating ourselves and shaming ourselves as we usually do, we should probably acknowledge that in a way, we’re scared of the unknown just seeking comfort. Even if what we were doing previously was uncomfortable, it’s what we know.
Have you ever noticed that your cravings occur at the same time of day, in the same place, or after getting the same cues? That’s because we’re basically Pavlov’s dog, and over time we have created habitual responses which stimulate the desire for food.
For example, do you often eat in front of the television?
Not only does this speed up the eating process, reduce how thoroughly we chew, but we also don’t notice how much we eat, either. Consider also that if you usually eat dinner in front of the TV, any other time you sit in front of the TV you may find the urge to snack. Being conscious of this can make a huge difference to your snacking over time.
I will often ask clients not to reduce, or change their snacks in any way, but to eat ALL their meals, bites, licks and tastes while sitting down at a table.
This one change alone makes you more conscious of what you’re eating, how often you’re eating throughout the day, and can also make the psychological reasons behind your behaviour more apparent.
You might also overeat at a particular time of the week or day. Maybe you binge at night because the kids are finally asleep and you can indulge in “me time?” I know I tend to drink on weekends because I can celebrate not having to be conscious of work, and feeling “free.” The truth is, I can celebrate feeling free by doing other things aside drinking – just as others can indulge and comfort themselves by having a relaxing bath, reading a good book on a cosy chair or starting a hobby that allows them to mentally escape, be creative or learn a new skill.
Other behavioural elements can be the way in which close friends and family members eat. The best example most can relate to is the concept of never leaving your plate empty, which is drilled into us by our parents as children and then manifested in eating past a point of fullness as adults. Research has shown that when we dine with someone who eats poorly, we tend to follow suit, because we not only have the desire to be involved in something, we tend to assume the other person won’t judge us for our food choices. This can work in the opposite way also, where someone who usually eats healthy may succumb to poor choices for fear of being singled out.
There is also another huge aspect I haven’t even touched on, which is economics and distribution. Shit food is cheaper and easier to find. It’s more pervasive, we don’t even have to leave our house to be bombarded with imagery of it – and marketers have become very very good at linking our emotions to foods and playing upon our drives to eat.
There is some really fascinating research into a lot of aspects of our behaviour surrounding food, which has found for example that we eat less when surrounded by strangers, but more when surrounded by friends, we eat less when we’re dining somewhere “fancy,” and eat more when we’re eating somewhere less exciting. Even the colour and size of our plate and the music playing during our meal can impact how much, and what we eat.
Top 5 ways to change your cravings
1. Increase the amount of whole foods in your diet
2. Limit all your meals to a table, with no television or other distractions
3. Check in with yourself and analyse your emotional state
4. BELIEVE YOU CAN CHANGE
5. Don’t bring junk into your house
“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg
“The End of Overeating” by David Kessler
“Why We Eat What We Eat” by Rachel Herz
“Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss