Diet culture has made food cravings into the enemy. We’ve created self-imposed rules when we have the urge to eat certain foods (like the should’s/shouldn’ts) and put pressure on ourselves to behave in a certain way when they pop up.
The feelings like fear that wash over us when we sense food cravings creep in are all tied to the food that we are craving.
When our body is telling us it wants something that we would consider “bad” or “unhealthy,” we immediately might feel shameful, inadequate, anxious, or weak, and try to fight it off. But would we see it as a problem if we craved kale and broccoli? Probably not!
It can be SO tiring to always be fighting against our body if we experience cravings regularly because our body seems to usually win the fight, resulting in a binge or overeating either right away or pretty soon after.
I remember I used to get crazy cravings at night. I’d eat really healthfully all day, but then at night I’d crave anything sugary. I’d try so hard to fight the craving but what happened nearly 100% of the time, after eating everything else in the house but the kitchen sink, I’d finally cave and eat whatever it was I craved, like cookies. And it wasn’t just a couple, it was like half a package of cookies.
What exactly are cravings?
Cravings of any type (for things like food, rest, connection, pleasure, movement) are really just a signal from the body that it has need that needs to be nourished, something unfilled.
They’re totally NORMAL, everyone has them, and they have the power to give us really useful information about what our needs are at any given moment.
Some are more obvious, like if you’re dehydrated, feeling thirsty is your body’s way of urging you to drink water. If your body needs sleep, feeling tired is your body’s way of urging you to sleep. Our lives are full of different situations where our bodies have a need, which is translated into an urge to complete an action that fulfills that need.
Where do cravings come from?
Cravings can come from all kinds of reasons that stem from physical, nutritional, mental, emotional (both negative and positive, and hormonal needs and can be triggered by a number of factors.
Sometimes it is more of an obvious signal from the body like an actual physical hunger which might come from waiting too long to eat between meals. Sometimes it is sparked from something in our environment like we see someone eating something on TV that looks delicious – then we craving it. Like whenever I get into a phase of being obsessed with cake decorating shows, I crave cake like crazy!
Sometimes it stems from a habit like if you have created a routine of eating a particular thing every time you go to the movies or when you come home from a long day at work or on special occasions.
Sometimes it’s coming from emotional needs like being super stressed out at work and really just needing some pleasure. Our bodies are designed to receive pleasure and relaxation from food, so eating releases feel good chemicals in our brains and triggers our rest & digest parasympathetic nervous system to activate. And our bodies are smart, they know that they’ll get that quick hit of pleasure and relaxation if they get good, pleasurable foods, so that’s a really common cravings trigger.
A really common one I see stems from our physiology. If your body feels restricted and deprived, like maybe it’s not getting as many calories or types of nutrients as it wants and needs, our survival mechanisms activate and trigger a series of actions designed to keep us alive and healthy. One of those actions is cravings, especially for sweet and carby foods.
That happens because yes our modern brain (the part of our brain that thinks rationally and logically) knows you’re just trying to, say, cut calories and carbs to lose weight, but our primal brain (the part of our brain responsible for survival and instinct) doesn’t get that memo. That’s because when survival feels threatened, triggered by lack of calories or types of nutrients for example, our primal brain overrides our modern brain.
No amount of logic and rationale will apply. All it knows is it needs to take measures to make sure it can keep us alive, and knows food/sugar/carbs are a needed resource. So when we have cravings it can be a sign our body isn’t getting enough of what it needs.
Why motivation won’t help you (sustainably) overcome food cravings
The danger with using motivation to try and stay strong and not cave is that motivation comes from an external source, it’s a push, and it’s temporary.
It can be helpful to use in bursts, like a food craving creeping in once in a while, but if they’re showing up in your life regularly you’ll need something stronger. When I try to motivate myself, 9 times out of 10 I’m pushing myself to do something I don’t really care about or truly want to do. But if you keep digging past motivation though, you’ll hit inspiration.
Inspiration comes from an internal source, it’s a pull, and it’s way more permanent, effortless, and I’ve found effective too. Like I get asked a lot how I stay motivated to not eat not-so-nutritious foods regularly but I always tell them it’s not motivation. I’m not actively pushing myself to stay away from cookies and pizza most of the time, I’d get burnt out.
What I do have is in inspiration from within to want to put certain types of things in my body more than other things. My wakeup call came when my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Until then I thought of food as “this will make me fat” vs “this won’t make me fat.” I was relying on my motivation and willpower hardcore, constantly stressing and obsessing about food and my body, and it felt like a constant battle of needing more motivation to stay strong.
But with his diagnosis came my inspiration. I started looking at food in a whole new way, respecting my body and what I put in it, and thinking about my life and future to naturally and effortlessly move toward what was most important to me.
I developed such a big, emotionally driven inspiration or WHY for myself and my life that the thought of fast food or processed, chemical-filled foods weren’t even very appealing to me anymore most of the time.
That’s the big differentiator. Instead of trying to stay motivated day after day to follow harsh rules on what I was allowed/not allowed to eat based on trying to weigh a certain amount, I now make mindful choices coming from a place of body respect and kindness, with my inspiration, my WHY top of mind.
Why willpower won’t help you (sustainably) overcome food cravings
Willpower is another huge one I hear people say they just need more of to stay consistent with their eating habits and stay strong when temptation and cravings strike. That if they had more willpower they’d be able to behave how they wished they would instead of cave and eat – oftentimes overeating – their cravings.
If we were entirely logical, we’d be able to easily stop unwanted habits, but our logic is paired with emotion. And sometimes our emotions motivate us to make poor decisions. Willpower isn’t a trustworthy, sustainable approach to use against cravings because studies have shown it’s a finite resource.
A big thing that depletes our willpower is every time we tap into our self-control. I like to think of willpower as more that logical piece and self control more that emotional piece.
Willpower is the ability to do what is willed, you’re willing to do it, you’re staying with, carrying out, and acting in accordance with your will.
Self control is the deliberate act of suppressing one’s urges and desires or doing something someone would consider ‘bad.’
Every time you have a desire to do something that conflicts with your values and goals or even social norms, and you use your self control to override that desire and keep you “on track,” part of your willpower supply gets depleted.
Like if you’re craving a hot fudge sundae but know eating that doesn’t align with your value of health or goal of weight loss, you use self control to suppress your urges and desires and also tap into that willpower allotment. The stronger the desire and the harder it is to resist, the more of your willpower fuel is burned up in the struggle.
The need for self-control kicks in more times a day than most of us probably realize, and it’s not just used for trying not to eat certain foods. It’s used in all areas of our lives, but it taps into the same supply. When your willpower starts running dry, your brain defaults to the easiest, safest, most comfortable option. It gets tired and starts to seek the path of least resistance which usually isn’t what you would want it to be!
Best ways to conquer food cravings
I really believe the answer is not to figure out how to eliminate your craving foods from your life, but to honor your true cravings. When you do, you’ll be less likely to binge, more likely to stop eating when you’re full, actually enjoy the food you eat, feel in control when you eat, and make food fun again, remove the fear.
Part of the reason we find cravings so problematic is the story we tell ourselves around them. If we think of them as bad and dangerous and have a lot of fear around them, they’re going to likely more negatively affect our situation and promote destructive behaviors than diffusing their power and seeing them for what they really are.
Cravings are usually just simply the manifestation of unmet needs – so it can be helpful take a minute to assess if you’re craving something food can’t provide, such as relaxation, a mental break, a distraction, a relief from stress, or connection to something/someone.
There’s a helpful acronym tool I learned from Green Mountain at Fox Run called RISE, which stands for: Recognize, Investigate, Strategize, & Evaluate.
When we experience a food craving, before we do anything to take a pause, notice, observe (without judgment) and recognize it.
Where might this craving be coming from, what might have triggered (like some things we talked about earlier), what is at the root of this craving?
Based on that information you got from Investigate, come up with some options that will help you address it, like eat, delay, meet the need.
For eat: You might recognize that your body does actually need food and eat, or you might understand your craving is coming from a non-physical hunger source and choose to eat anyway. If you do, that’s totally ok! But own your choice. If you own it, you’ll likely feel less guilt and remorse and it’ll likely help prevent overeating.
For delay: You might want to delay taking action, especially if you’re unsure where it’s coming from. So simply notice the craving is there, maybe take a walk, do some reading, or listen to music, then check in 20 minutes later to see if it’s still there, investigate again, and come up with a plan of action.
For meet the need: This is where you take action to meet that true root cause need of where the craving is coming from. Like if you’re craving crackers and you investigate and learn you’re actually just procrastinating because you have a big project you don’t want to start (this is me like twice a week haha), maybe you make a to do list and cross some things off your list, then re-assess your craving. 9 out of 10 times when I make progress on something, my cravings vanish.
Or maybe you do a combination of these and use some food and pair it with some root-addressing activity!
After you choose a plan of action and experiment, check in with yourself and evaluate how it went. What worked, what didn’t work, how would you change it or adapt it differently next time?
Cravings are also a good indicator and reminder to check in with your self-care practices and see if that’s something missing from your day or week and where you should bring your attention.
For example, check in to see if you’ve been getting enough sleep, if you’ve been drinking enough water and eating enough food (so you’re not feeling hungry most of the day), if you’ve been moving your body in a way that makes you happy, if you’ve been taking enough rest days, if you’ve been eating a well-balanced diet and giving your body lots of ingredients like key nutrients for it to use to help you function at your best, if you’ve been making enough time for fun and joy lately, if you’ve experienced good connection with family and friends, etc. Making sure your basic needs are met can be fundamental in silencing cravings.
EAT YOUR CRAVINGS
I’ve found the more I tried to suppress the cravings that popped up for me, the stronger they became, and when I finally did get my hands on them, I’d go crazy and overindulge, like my cookie example from earlier.
I was giving that food SO much power because I was restricting myself and my body felt deprived. So I allow all foods in my life, but do so in a mindful way. Similar to that RISE acronym below, I don’t just blindly shove my face with whatever random food I want, I make an educated choice and decision and eat in a present, judgment free way. It’s amazing how this shifts things!
Before I eat whatever it is I want I serve myself a portion in a nice bowl or plate, sit at the table, take a couple deep breaths and remind myself it’s safe for me to eat whatever I want. Then I eat slowly, I focus on my food, and I get true pleasure and satisfaction from it.
Sometimes I’ll take whatever it is I’m craving and challenge myself to see if I can make healthified ingredient swaps that are more in line with my goals BUT the key is to make sure you’re not sacrificing pleasure and satisfaction. Like if I’m craving ice cream eating that Halo ice cream will not satisfy me at all, so that’s not an effective healthified swap. BUT I actually do love the frozen blended banana ice cream, I jazz it up with lots of fun toppings, add cacao powder to make it chocolatey – so I’ll sometimes do that!
If you do give in and eat something we are craving, and your immediate reaction is to self judge, criticize, and blame, it’s super important to catch yourself, and re-direct those thoughts into something more productive and constructive. Check out my post about 4 ways to go from self judgement to self compassion!