To Beat Food Cravings, Get OUT of the Present Moment
The Anti-Zen Guide to Improving your Impulse Control
My first disclaimer is that I am all for mindfulness.
But something to remember is that mindfulness is a skill – and if you don’t have the skill (or if it’s a very new habit that hasn’t had a chance to flex its muscles very much yet), getting centered in the moment is not a life raft that will save you from overeating.
Food cravings are part of a powerful biological and mental drive, and I have extremely nuanced feelings on this topic. But I can summarize it in this way: intuitive eating and mindful eating practices favor those who already have very good impulse control.
But we all know that not everyone has that kind of dietary restraint. And many who seem to have that kind of willpower are using habits, not willpower.
Intuitive eating gets better and better with time. It is a skill you learn and then refine.
But if you have difficulty making positive decisions about food, or if you frequently experience regret/shame about your overeating or food choices, OR if you feel that you eat “pretty healthy” but have trouble seeing fitness results, then intuitive overeating may be an advanced skill that’s still coming down the road ahead.
In the meantime, you need life rafts – skills that will get you out of situations that provoke your worst habits.
What is a Craving?
Keep in mind that cravings are a normal human experience. The word has a negative connotation, as if you have to be a furtive, muffin-crazed, pathological, closeted binge eater. This is simply not true, and to relegate cravings to this stereotype is unfair to everyone. And it prevents average people who struggle with food choices from implementing the appropriate strategies that could help them manage their natural cravings.
A food craving isn’t necessarily limited to obsessing about chocolate all day. Here’s an example of a food craving experience that I know we all can relate to: You’re at the restaurant, genuinely and sincerely planning on ordering one of the healthier menu items. But when the server reaches your seat, you spontaneously order something else that you wouldn’t love to tell your trainer about.
A craving is simply the urge to eat something specific. While hunger can set you up for craving, it’s not the same thing as hunger.
But let me ask you something:
Have you ever had an unbeatable craving for broccoli? Have you ever watched an entire bag of celery disappear because your hand wandered into the bag while you finished a report at work? Have you ever gone out of your way to hit the grocery store for a bag of shredded brussel sprouts because you couldn’t stop thinking about treating yourself at the end of the day?
Or if you have, did you feel a deep sense of shame about any of this?
A craving is a biological impulse for a calorie-dense, highly-rewarding food. This can vary in terms of taste, but generally low-calorie (non-starchy) vegetables don’t make the list. This is because our bodies are not wired to crave low-calorie foods. Caveman brain is wired for survival, and we have a predilection for cheese, sugar in any form, carbs, fatty meats, fried foods, and more.
Our sense of smell, our memories of food, and our habits can all play a role in driving us to crave rewarding foods, and to indulge those cravings.
Why is this a problem?
Enjoying food is a good thing, right? Shouldn’t we all indulge a little sometimes?
Our desire for rich foods was biologically advantageous when food was scarce. Gorging on an infrequent feast, eating a ton of nuts, binging on fruit, and eating an entire animal insured survival for our ancestors. But now… we have too much food, and many of us have no brakes on those impulses that drive us to eat an entire wildebeest. Every day is a feast day, and caveman brain can grab the wheel, even though we can have rich foods all day, every day.
But there’s more…
A Relationship with Food
While there is that biological wiring that causes us to desire, seek out, and consume foods that aren’t necessarily good for us, there’s an extra layer that’s possibly even more powerful.
We also develop – sometimes unconsciously – mental and emotional relationships with foods.
It’s not just the hit of starch, sugar, and salt that makes us momentarily giddy. It’s also the association that we have with that food.
Maybe you use it to relax. Maybe it signifies time with friends. Maybe eating food that tastes good is literally one of the only nice things you do for yourself on a regular basis. Maybe it’s a rebellious impulse that says, “I can do what I want.”
But the problem is that sometimes we don’t want it. If we can’t learn to put the brakes on these natural, normal impulses to both crave rewarding foods and develop associations with certain food rituals, then we lose control of our ability to craft a long-term healthy lifestyle where you are in the driver’s seat of your food choices.
The consequences are typically weight gain (or the inability to lose weight or keep it off), and eventual health conditions that tend to accrue over a lifetime of overweight.
But even more significantly, if you struggle with a loss of control over cravings (and frequently find yourself saying, “Why did I do that again??”), you can lose your sense of self-efficacy, freedom, and self-respect. You can get down on yourself for “failing” over and over again to control yourself. You lose confidence in yourself. And you don’t have to be overweight to feel this way.
And the mental game of health and fitness is even more important than the physical results. The ability to trust yourself, feel confident in your decisions, and move freely through life is key to long-term health as whole person.
Get Out of the Present Moment
When you confront cravings, the absolute best thing you can do is get out of the present moment.
First of all, the present moment is where those cravings live, and it’s hard to make peace with something when you’re actively battling it.
Secondly, the key to short-circuiting cravings is to build a new habit. And if you put yourself in the same situations over and over again (destined to fail), then all you’re doing is reinforcing old – and bad – habits.
You must short-circuit the loop of cravings.
I think that physical strategies are extremely effective in preventing most craving battles.
Prevention is your most powerful tool. As I said before, the key is to get out of the loop, and to sufficiently change the tone of the situation – or simply distract yourself – so that the cravings can pass. Not setting up the situation in the first place is even better.
Mindfulness can come later. For now, focus on action.
Here are some examples:
- Change your route to work so that you don’t drive by / walk by the places that provide your go-to “comfort foods”
- Clean up your kitchen so that it is tidy, and only fruits/vegetables are visible. Everything else (even foods that you perceive as healthy, like nuts and cereals) should be put away.
- Throw away any overtly junky food that you have lingering in cabinets or the refrigerator/freezer.
- If you frequently overeat at specific restaurants, stop going to those restaurants, and find new favorites.
- Make sure that you are well-fed, eating every 3-4 hours, so that actual hunger does not play a role in the cravings game.
- Eat enough protein and fiber.
- Drink enough water.
- Replace typical unnecessary snack times with other routines, like a walk, trip to the gym, or errand run.
- If you have a co-worker who keeps candy out, start avoiding that desk or office, and find another way to get around your workplace that doesn’t involve frequent trips to your favorite cubicle.
- Know your weaknesses. If your kryptonite is vegetating during the afternoon energy slump, or nighttime binging in front of your favorite show, then you need to replace those routines. Go for a walk in the afternoon, or hit a gym class at night before watching a few episodes of your favorite TV show. Literally any change to your routine will help to short-circuit the behavior.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about actual hunger. You should always eat if you are truly hungry, especially if it’s been 3-4 hours since your last meal. Remember, cravings can be set up and strengthened by hunger, but cravings are a desire for specific, calorie-rich foods. If you’re really hungry, pretty much anything will seem great!
This is more applicable in those unavoidable situations like weddings, birthday parties, dinner with friends, and special events. You can’t avoid the situation. You’re in the middle of it.
You’re at the restaurant. You’re making your menu selection. The server is walking up to take your order. You know you should have the salmon and vegetables with a side salad, but the fried mozzarella balls and linguini with cream sauce seem more appealing.
Here’s why the present-moment mindfulness model can fail you:
If you pause and ask yourself, “Do I really want this right now…?”
…The internal answer could be a resounding “YES.”
Everything in your biology – and habit circuity – is screaming:
“LEAVE THE VEGGIES, TAKE THE FRIED MOZZARELLA BALLS!!! AND PASS THE DESSERT MENU TOO!!!”
In other words, listening to yourself is sometimes the worst thing you can do, because you’re not really listening to the best version of yourself. Instead, you’re listening to caveman brain, who wants to survive and is not sure if there’s going to be food tomorrow. If you’re not skilled at making nuanced food decisions, it’s easy to throw of all limits and say, “Hey, I’m at a wedding / at dinner with friends / at a business dinner / on a date / at a baby shower… time for a treat!”
Instead, when you’re in this situation and the server is walking up, ask yourself three questions to get yourself into a broader perspective and out of the present moment:
Have I done this before, and how did I feel then?
It is helpful to remember decisions past. It only took ordering the seafood soup two times at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station for me to remember that I never wanted to order it again because of how it made my stomach feel (blurgh, as Liz Lemon says). I will truly never order it again. But it did take two gut-wrenching walks uptown for me to put it together permanently.
How will future-me feel in about two hours?
Project into the future. If you are working on health and fitness goals, do you want to leave the restaurant patting yourself on the back for great decisions, or do you want to be feeling regretful and wishing you had one less menu item?
Am I really going to miss out?
This is crucial. Because sometimes, the answer is yes.
Here’s one example. In Italy, my typical no-pastry ban is always lifted. Because I do feel like I would be missing out. It’s truly special. The cuisine is part of the experience.
By contrast, if you have a wedding almost every weekend this summer (many of my clients do!), that situation is not truly unique or special because of the cuisine. If you skip the pasta and have the fish and vegetables instead, you’re probably not missing out on anything really spectacular, because you’re there for your friends, not for the food.
Most of the time, you’re not missing out.
Learning to Trust Yourself
Eventually, if you exercise that dietary restraint muscle on a regular basis, you will eventually be able to trust yourself and operate on an intuitive eating level. Caveman brain will always be there, but your habits will be so secure from repetition that the muffled echo of “GET THE MOZZARELLA BALLS…” will be subservient to your operative routines.
But it does take time, and nursing habits through their early stages into fully-functioning, strong, self-regulating routines is an exercise in patience, consistency, and self-discipline.
But remember – love your caveman brain. It is what allowed you to get here in the first place.
But you don’t need caveman brain anymore, and you can lovingly let it go, too.