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It’s Friday afternoon.
You’ve had a long week. You had some important meetings, a late night out with clients, took the kids to hockey and even squeezed a few chores in on top of that. It’s almost time for the weekend and you’re craving something…
Something that you deserve for getting through such a rough week.
It’ll help to soothe the stress right?
Maybe something sweet like an Oreo, or maybe something salty like a bag of Doritos.
You whip out and grab a bag of Oreos from the corner store.
“I’ll just have one or two and keep the rest in my drawer for the next time I’m craving something!”
You have one but it doesn’t quite hit the spot…
Half the bag later, you’re thinking.
“I really should stop but I just can’t help myself.”
Begrudgingly, you put the bag away or try to pawn the rest off on your coworkers. You try to hide the bag from yourself. You want to bury the evidence.
And then comes the guilt…
“I know this is wrong but I still do it anyway. Don’t I care about myself? I’ll never lose this weight. I’m just a no-good human. How can I even be a role model for my kids if I can’t look after myself. I’m a failure…”
Does that scenario sound familiar to you?
If it does, you’re not alone.
One of the hardest hurdles in weight loss is overcoming cravings.
When you crave something, you feel almost out of control.
Cravings can cause you to:
- Eat way more calories than your body needs – meaning you store them as fat
- Give you stomach aches, gastrointestinal distress, and other digestive issues – which, aside from the acute pain, can be the start of chronic diseases
- Slay you with emotional guilt after the fact – just to add insult to injury, you don’t even feel good after you’ve over-indulged a craving
It might seem like it’s impossible to get past your cravings sometimes but in this post we’re going to cover everything there is to know about cravings and give you some resources and strategies to get past them.
Great, grab a pen and paper or take some notes on your smartphone. We will to cover some basic psychology and nutrition on our way to conquering cravings. Don’t worry, I promise it won’t take long and it’ll help you get past this whole “craving” thing.
So what’s the first step? Well, you need to be mindful of…
When and Where Do You Get Cravings?
Right now, it might feel random. Cravings just seem to pop up out of nowhere.
Or maybe you’ve started to notice certain times of day when you get that craving. Perhaps having to talk to a certain person like your boss or an annoying coworker sparks a craving.
This is pretty common as well.
Regardless, one of the first steps to getting past cravings is to figure out when and where you get them.
You know the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer?”
That’s just what we’re going to do here. Right now you probably see cravings as your enemy. An opponent that you’ve got to fight to the death with. And one who’s most likely whooping your ass most days. We’re going to change that dialogue.
This is going to sound a little crazy but if you want to beat cravings for good, please bear with me.
You’re going to get to know your cravings as well as you can.
Notice them when they come up.
Listen to them.
Hear what they’re saying.
And how are we going to do that?
- Practice Mindfulness
- Keep a journal
So what is mindfulness?
It’s pretty simple. In Susan Albers’ book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, she describes mindfulness as a way of thinking. She says:
“[Being mindful] is being very aware of the present moment in an open and non-judgemental way.”
And that’s all you have to do to get started. Start paying attention to things like:
- When do my cravings happen? What time of day? After a certain event? When you go out for the evening? When you get home from work?
- What am I craving? Is it a particular food? Or just a void you want to fill with food. Is it really hunger that you’re feeling? Or is it just an emotion masked as hunger.
- Where am I? What’s going on around you? What are the sights, smells, and sounds that you’re sensing?
- How do I feel? Are you stressed out? Anxious? Happy? Depressed? Angry?
Don’t judge the craving or the feelings you’re having.
Don’t say the craving is bad or it’s good.
Just listen to it and try to understand it.
Right now, we’re just trying to get to know your cravings.
And remember, knowledge is power.
To help you practice mindfulness, I recommend keeping a journal. This isn’t any “dear diary” sort of thing, just a quick way of checking in on your day.
Personally, I like to do this with pen and paper at the end of the day. Think about the food you ate and the cravings you had. What did you notice about them? When did they happen? What came up? Jot it down quickly and try not to judge yourself.
We’re just gathering information.
By practicing mindfulness and recording when and what you crave, you’re building your arsenal to deal with cravings and end them for good.
How Can You Use Mindfulness to Beat a Craving in the Moment?
Susan Albers suggests when you experience an uncontrollable craving or urge to eat, that you take a walk.
Not just any walk but a mindful walk.
“How does a mindful walk differ from an ordinary walk? Well, as you stroll, notice the scenery. Look around. Don’t power walk. Bring your attention to the feeling of your feet hitting the ground. Close your eyes for a moment. Turn your attention to what you hear. Then open your eyes and look closely at everything around you. Use all of your senses. Observe what you see as if you were describing the scene to someone who was blindfolded. Tune in to your body and what it does during this walk. Can you feel your heartbeat? How is your breathing? When you quiet the chatter of your mind and focus on your sensations, you will become a little calmer. The next time you have the urge to emotionally eat, don’t just go for a stroll – go for a mindful walk.”
She suggests this and 49 other ways to avoid cravings and emotional eating in her book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food.
But you can’t always get up and take a walk which is why it’s important to get some more information about your cravings like…
What Are You Craving?
You’ve probably heard the old advice that if you’re body’s craving something, it’s because your body is deficient in that nutrient.
But what are the things we usually crave?
It’s mostly sugary, salty, starchy, and fatty foods.
We aren’t deficient in those and last I checked, none of us are craving broccoli and brussels sprouts!
Regardless, while we’re being mindful, it’s important to figure out what exactly we’re craving for a few reasons:
- We can change our environment and make the foods we crave harder to get
- We can try to find healthier substitutes for times when the craving just won’t go away
Changing your environment is an age old trick that will help you out a lot. It’s simple but simple doesn’t mean easy. Right now, your environment has all kinds of foods you crave and triggers to launch those cravings. Triggers can be anything from boredom to stress, depression, anger, or even happiness. Triggers can also be certain people (your friends who want to go for all you can eat sushi) or places (don’t like parties at your in-laws? Maybe you always find yourself at the snack table to avoid awkward conversations).
By changing our environment, we can remove ourselves by one step from the foods we crave. For example:
- Not keeping trigger foods in the house – By not having these foods on hand, they’re harder to get and thus a little easier to avoid. At least this way, you have to leave your house, go to a store, and buy the food. That’s a lot more opportunities to ask yourself if you’re sure you want to do this.
- Changing the route you take to work – Maybe you pass by your favourite cafe on the way to work. The sight of the cafe triggers your craving for a croissant and a sugary latte. By taking a different route, you may be able to short circuit your craving and avoid the temptation, at least for now.
- Changing the crowd you hang around – This is a bit tougher but it’s very important. Do you hang around people who encourage you to overeat and indulge your cravings even though they know as well as you that you’re trying to lose weight? This is a recipe for failure. I’m not suggesting you completely abandon your friends but by spending more time around people who continually tempt you to overindulge, you’re sabotaging your efforts. Try to find a supportive community of like-minded people and work together with them to overcome your cravings
Of course, environment change is hard to do, takes a long time, and sometimes just isn’t totally feasible. There may be people in your life that you need to spend time around even though you know they can have a negative influence on you. Relationships are complicated and that’s ok. Regardless, having a close friend or a supportive community goes a long way to making things better.
But what if the cravings are still persisting?
Don’t worry, there’s more. Let’s take a second to talk about healthy substitutes.
Part of the reason we’re focusing on what “specifically” you’re craving is that we want to try to find some healthier substitutes.
- Salty/starchy cravings like potato chips can sometimes be managed by healthy substitutes like pickles or sliced cucumber with salt and spices
- Sweet cravings can often be managed with a piece of fresh fruit or a sweet tasting protein smoothie
- A craving for a Big Mac and fries might be satisfied by a home-cooked beef patty and some homemade baked potato wedges
The internet has literally thousands of healthy treat alternatives. One of your first steps toward healthier nutrition can simply be substituting less healthy foods for healthier alternatives. They won’t kill cravings and overeating them can still cause trouble but at the very least it’ll be better than binging on sugar, unhealthy processed fats, and salt.
How Can You Use Environment Change and Healthy Substitutes to Beat Your Cravings?
This takes a little forethought but now that you’ve developed the mindfulness to know when and where you get cravings, you’re prepared for anything.
Here are a few great ideas for using environment change to improve your odds of beating cravings:
- Remove trigger foods from your house and your desk at work
- Pay attention to your commute. Are there places you pass by that trigger your cravings. Are there ways you can avoid them?
- Look for a gym, community group, online forum, or support group of other people who are trying to lose weight or get healthier. Get involved and try to help out. The support will come back to you and you’ll find the tough times just a little easier to bear
- Start looking up healthier substitutes for the foods you crave so that, at the very least, you end up overeating healthy foods like vegetables and protein rather than highly processed foods
Now that you’ve got a handle on when, where, and what you’re craving, let’s take a quick look at why you’re craving
Now that you’ve got a handle on when, where, and what you’re craving, we’re gonna dig a little deeper and see what’s going on in your stomach and your brain when you crave food.
Why Are You Craving?
There are usually two potential reasons for a craving
- You’re actually very hungry and just want to eat
- You’ve got some relationship struggles
Now bear with me on point number 2. We’ll get to that. For now, let’s just talk about hunger.
Fortunately, if it’s hunger causing you to crave something, this isn’t too much trouble to fix. It just means changing the way you construct your meals a bit.
Maybe you find yourself ravenously hungry and craving something around 2 or 3:00 in the afternoon. You’ve got a nagging hunger pang in your stomach. That’s pretty common. The best way to get past this is to eat more foods that will keep you feeling full for lunch.
- Lean protein
- Healthy fats
- Fibrous carbohydrates (vegetables or unprocessed whole grains)
Protein, healthy fats, and fibrous vegetables/carbohydrates are what I call the “fullness trio.” They take a lot longer for your body to digest than processed sugary foods which means they keep you feeling full for longer and your body even burns a couple of calories just by ingesting them.
Pretty cool, huh?
An easy way to make sure that your meal keeps you full is simply to follow Precision Nutrition’s Calorie Control Guide. If you focus on constructing your meals like that, you can say goodbye to ruthless hunger pangs at 3:00 in the afternoon. And if they still persist, hey, you’ve been looking up healthy substitutes for your cravings, haven’t you? 🙂
Now let’s get to point number 2: your relationship struggles.
And we’re not necessarily talking about your significant other.
We’re going to dig a little bit deeper with this one.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to lie on a couch and talk about your childhood.
We’re just going to take a look at what’s going on in your brain when you crave food.
Because, you see, research shows that cravings have a lot more to do with psychology than they do with biology. The pathways triggered in our brains when we crave food and eat it are the same pathways that cause drug addictions.
Your food addictions are to your body what a drug addiction is to the body of a drug addict.
Even if you’re single, you’ve got relationships coming out your ears.
Relationships with friends, family, pets, co-workers, your job, your house, your car, the things you own, the food you eat, and of course, yourself.
You probably don’t think about these relationships very much. And since you don’t think about them much, they’ve been unintentionally running on autopilot.
You eat when it’s time to eat
You make a mistake so you beat yourself up
Your boss yells at you and it hurts so you get upset
This is normal. This is how most of us live. Things happen, we react. On autopilot.
Achieving long-term fat loss and weight management will mean peeling the skin off a lot of these relationships and seeing what they truly are and how they work. It’ll mean reprogramming your autopilot.
Maybe you have a problem with binge eating. I know I did.
I binge ate for years, even as a fitness coach. Even as I helped people to stop the very same habit.
For me, it was avoidance.
When I hit a personal responsibility that was too daunting, or an assignment that scared me, I’d get anxious, procrastinate and eat instead. Eating felt like I was doing something productive. It wasn’t until I put together my motivations for the binge snacking and eating that I was able to curb it, and eventually end it.
You don’t have to sit down with a psychiatrist and analyze your childhood to figure this stuff out but it never hurts to ask yourself “why?” “Why did I do that?”
It’s super uncomfortable and sometimes it gets a little dark but hey, nothing worth achieving comes without discomfort. And if it means that you learn more about yourself and your relationship with food and your environment then it means you’ll be armed with the antidote for most things that ail you.
How Can You Use Meal Construction and Relationships to Beat Your Cravings?
Now that you’re armed with mindfulness and some basic nutrition knowledge, you can start to plan your meals for success and dig into your mind a little bit to start cutting off cravings at their root. Here’s what to do:
- As often as possible, try to make your meals replicate Precision Nutrition’s Calorie Control Guide – This will keep you feeling fuller for longer and help avoid ravenous hunger pangs when you’ve gone a few hours without food.
- Start asking yourself “why” you’re craving – Your mindfulness techniques will start to come in handy now. The more mindful you become, the more you’ll be able to connect dots and see what’s actually causing your cravings. Once you know what’s causing it, you can address that issue dead-on instead of avoiding it and eating instead.
Now you’ve got a few great tools for managing cravings but I wanna kick things up a notch for you. If you want a surefire way to kick your cravings, check this out…
How Can You End Cravings For Good?
Sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how mindful you are, and how well you know “why” your craving that food, the craving persists. It happens to everyone. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. After all, you’re only human.
If this happens, there’s only one thing you can do to get past it.
You need to act. Now.
Get engrossed in your work, go out for a walk, go play with the kids or the dog, do some household chores, go to the gym, get busy crossing things of a to-do list, start building something, learn how to repair your bike, call up a friend and have a long conversation, do some gardening, practice a sport, get moving somehow!
You see, most cravings mask our emotions, our worries, and our anxieties. And the cure for anxiety is action. When you start acting, you get things done, you feel productive, you get blood flowing in your body, you improve yourself, you feel accomplished.
If you just sit there and think about the craving or the anxiety or the emotion, you’ll stew in it and eventually you’ll have to give into it.
As much as possible, get your mind off it and start being as productive as you possibly can. Act and act until you’ve tuckered yourself out and then you’ll probably feel more like going to sleep than thinking about that craving.
If all else fails, action will help you beat your cravings.
Putting it All Together
Alright, that was a lot of information so thanks for sticking with me. I want to make sure you know everything there is to know about cravings and how to beat them. Just for your sake (and also for mine, since I have the memory of a goldfish), let’s review your strategies for beating cravings:
- Know When and Where You Get Cravings – Start developing the habit of mindfulness and use a journal to help record when and where you get cravings. When you’re caught in the moment, go on a mindful walk as Susan Albers suggests
- Know What it is You’re Craving – Start changing your environment to set yourself up for success and learn some healthier alternatives to substitute for those foods you crave
- Know Why You Get Cravings – It’ll either be genuine hunger or emotions masquerading as hunger. Get to the bottom of it by planning your meals with the “fullness trio” and using mindfulness to ask yourself “why” you get your cravings
- When All Else Fails, Get Busy – Get your mind off the craving and get engrossed in being productive. Action is the cure for anxiety and hunger is often just masked anxiety.
Cravings are a normal and difficult part of losing weight. By taking a closer look at your cravings and using the strategies we’ve given you, you’ll be armed with the tools to beat your cravings for good.
Got something that you use to beat your cravings every time? We wanna hear about it. Share it with us in the comments below.