With the holiday season quickly approaching, often starting with the abundance of candy around Halloween and culminating in a sea of bubbly on New Year’s Eve, I hear from a lot of clients that they’re afraid of their cravings. Even those who are already on the journey to intuitive eating, they’re afraid that the season of sweets and treats means they will be constantly craving foods they deem to be bad, and either need to use intense willpower, or go overboard, and gain a ton of ‘winter weight’. The fight against cravings feels futile, and they succumb to eating all of the things, feeling bloated, exhausted and guilt-ridden, typically ending up back in the familiar pattern of on-again, off-again dieting (or cleansing/restricting/super clean eating- you name your word for unnecessary restriction) once again, come January. I get it friend, this was SO me. Back in the days of restricting, following by bingeing (the restriction-rebellion cycle, as I like to call it), I used to ‘save up my calories’ all day long to allow myself to eat whatever I wanted (so I wouldn’t gain weight, of course) around holidays and special occasions. I couldn’t deal with the idea of living with or working through my cravings, so I gave myself an ‘out’- only to end up feeling heavy and defeated come New Year’s day. This was my pattern for years.
If I can give you one piece of encouragement, today, it’s this: combatting cravings has nothing to do with willpower.
Combatting cravings has nothing to do with willpower.
What I’m really hearing, from these women and my former self, is that they don’t trust themselves around food- especially around food they might find really delicious, and they don’t trust their bodies, either-– which is why we end up in a cycle of ignoring our bodies, ending in guilt and eventually, shame, around our on-again, off-again relationship with food.
Here’s the truth: there is nothing wrong with having cravings. But having cravings doesn’t mean you need to indulge in every one. It also means you don’t need to feel shame when you do.
Here are three tips for combatting cravings, without willpower:
1. Allow yourself permission. Cravings are most often a result of restriction. This doesn’t mean you need to be on a diet to be restricting yourself. But if you’ve put labels around foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, even ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ it evokes a feeling in us that WE are indeed good, bad, healthy or unhealthy for eating a certain food. Humans have an innate desire to please- we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves! So we deem these foods off-limits, and as a result, crave them more- because we are wired for rebellion. As soon as we are told something is a no-no, our bodies want it MORE (the information gap theory explains this well: something significant happens when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know: curiosity hatches. As a result, we often feel the need to take action, to do whatever it takes to bridge that gap.) So the first step to combatting cravings?Remind yourself there are NO good or bad foods, food is just food. You can have that food any time you want. It’s up to you to choose if you will have it or not, not the label you’ve put on it.
The more you allow yourself permission to eat ALL foods, unconditionally, the easier it will be to work with and through your cravings, rather than fight against them.
Notice I said unconditionally– not ‘only at a party’ or ‘only outside/inside the house’ (you have a right to choose whatever foods come in your home, but you don’t need to go wild just because you’re not at home), or only from November 1-January 1. Unconditionally. This is a process (read: it doesn’t happen overnight), but it’s THE best thing you can do to fight cravings stemming from restriction– and why I can leave an entire tray of brownies on the counter for several days, eat one, and the rest go bad. True story (and I LOVE brownies, you guys).
2. Ask yourself what you’re really craving. Cravings can be physical, or emotional. They can be either for more food, because you’re restricting your intake on on ongoing basis; A good question to ask here is, “Am I honoring my hunger and fullness? Am I stopping myself from eating before I’m actually full/satisfied on a regular basis?” or for a physical need you are not meeting, nutrient or otherwise (if you find yourself consistently craving red meat, for example, when you’re committed to not eating red meat for one reason or another, it might be helpful to get your iron checked).
Emotional cravings can come from not allowing full permission to eat, therefore craving all off-limit foods (even if you don’t truly like them). It’s incredible what you learn about your food preferences when you allow yourself freedom to eat all foods. You might not actually be satisfied by some of the foods you thought you wanted because you didn’t allow them! Emotional cravings can also come from something else that’s going on in your life, that you’re searching for answers in food. A helpful question to consider is, “How have I been feeling in terms of stress, anxiety and negative emotions lately? Have I been using positive coping mechanisms to deal with these feelings, or have I been pushing them down, or turning to food, instead?” The more in touch you are with your feelings, the more you will recognize the craving isn’t actually for food.
3. Ask yourself how this food will make you feel– and if that aligns with how you WANT to feel.
There are foods that just don’t feel good in our body. These can be foods that don’t feel good digestively (sometimes we still choose to eat these foods from time to time for pleasure and that is perfectly fine, as long as you are honoring your body and are feeling good on a regular basis) or foods that won’t feel good because we’re just not hungry at all, or full already. Ask yourself: “If I eat this food, how will it make me feel?” If you know it will make you feel stuffed/overfull, maybe wait until there is an opportunity to actually enjoy that food- and explore why you were desiring to eat past fullness (this could be a sign of underlying restriction and the ‘what the heck effect’ I described above when permission to eat is conditional).
If it’s a digestive issue, or the like, as yourself, “If I eat this food and it makes me feel x, does this align with how I WANT to feel?”. You might be totally fine with a slight gluten tummyache eating your Aunt’s famous gingersnaps you only get once a year. You might decide, no, I don’t prefer to feel this way. Either answer is 100% ok.
If you are craving a food you KNOW (or believe) will make you feel fine, maybe you’re feeling hungry or neutral (not over-full already), you’ve eaten that food before… what is stopping you from enjoying that food? Is it a rule you’ve put around this food? Again, ask yourself… “If I eat this food and it makes me feel x, does this align with how I WANT to feel?”. If it’s going to make you feel guilt/shame, again, it could be worth exploring WHY it’s making you feel guilty.
Bonus tip: eat the food. It’s ok to just eat the food you’re craving. Sometimes, the best ‘cure’ for a craving is just to eat it, assess how it makes you feel, and move on.
The bottom line: you have a CHOICE. No matter what choice you make, it doesn’t change you as a person. You are not good OR bad for choosing or not choosing to eat the food you are craving. Chances are, sometimes you will choose to say yes to your craving. Sometimes you will say no. Each time that decision feels good, you will build up your confidence in leaning into cravings, without it feeling like a fight. Each time that decision doesn’t feel so great, you continue to learn what feels good in your body, and what doesn’t. Either way, it is a win-win.
Share with me: which of these scenarios resonates with you around food cravings?