On Nutrition

Have you ever uttered the words, “I wish I could control my food cravings”? What if your attempts to exert control are in fact the problem? Or, what if your cravings are a symptom of a larger issue? Maybe your “craving” isn’t even a true craving — it could be an impulse, it could be emotional eating, it could be a biological or psychological response to food deprivation.

A true food craving is sort of a slow burn — like when you, say, have a yen for Thai food — that will smolder until you eventually satisfy it, which could legitimately be days later when you have a chance to go to your favorite Thai restaurant. Some cravings would be better described as an urge or impulse — you’re walking down the street, you pass a bakery window, and your mind yells, “Cookie!”

Impulses happen suddenly and tend to burn out on their own if you’re able to respond thoughtfully rather than react automatically. Rather than flat-out denying the urge, actively “surf” it. Imagine the impulse as an ocean wave and watch as the urge builds gradually, getting stronger and stronger until it crests then gradually dissipates. This practice can make it easier to handle food impulses — or any uncomfortable feelings — whenever they arise.

Do you find yourself drawn to the office candy dish in the afternoon — or maybe to your own kitchen cupboards, with a vague-yet-pressing desire for something sweet? This could be a canary in the coal mine, so skip the self-judgment, get curious and dig a little deeper. Do you tend to under-eat early in the day, perhaps because you’re dieting or you’re simply “too busy” to eat? That can leave your body and brain scrambling for fuel. Are you sleeping enough? Energy from food doesn’t replace energy from adequate sleep, but that won’t stop your brain from trying to make that swap.

Has the stress of the day has been adding up? Are you bored and looking for stimulation? Are you procrastinating from an undesirable task? Are you always busy and use foraging for food as an excuse to take a break? (Hint: You don’t need an excuse.) Do you have little pleasure in your life other than food? Any “yes” answers suggest that you’re experiencing emotional eating more than cravings.

Don’t dismiss the role of habit and environmental cues. Do you grab a snack every time you relax in front of the television? If you’ve come to associate certain times, places or activities with a particular food, what might have started as a craving has morphed into pure habit. Consider experimenting with not having the food to see how it feels, with the caveat that if you still truly want it, you can have it.

Why not just try to control your cravings? Because control can lead to cravings if it creates feelings, or fears of, deprivation. Then, when you “give in” to your cravings again, you perceive yourself as being weak and lacking in willpower. This can lead to overeating (because, heck, you’ve already blown it), followed by a renewed intention to get back into control. And the cycle continues.

If your craving for, say, a cookie is genuine and not a matter of impulse or habit, get the best cookie you can find, and eat it mindfully. Don’t try to substitute foods you consider more “acceptable.” If what you truly want is a cookie and not just something sweet, a piece of fruit just won’t cut it.