Greetings from way up high in the sky! This week I’m traveling to Palo Alto, CA because some of the patients that I counsel are based there. I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet many of them face to face and escape the hot and humid Houston weather.
This first employer-paid plane ride at this job makes me reflect on how far I’ve come with counseling. I’ve been doing it for a while now, and have gotten good at it. Previously, I had basically been consulting with small businesses about how to help get their employees healthier. Of course, I got plenty of questions about nutrition in that position but nothing compared to the daily barrage that I get with a minimum of 2 one-on-one counseling sessions daily and bi-weekly group sessions. One question that I get constantly is “How do I eliminate my food cravings?”
For everyone who is looking for a silver bullet “If you’re craving X junk food eat Y healthy food because they both contain Z nutrient”, I’ve got bad news: it’s not that simple. Fortunately, the real solution is more than just a band-aid, and will have drastic effects on other nutrition concerns.
First, we need to reframe our thinking about cravings. The cravings are not the issue to be solved; they are a symptom of something else going on. There are several reasons why a person may have food cravings, and I’ll list them in order of most common:
Poor diet quality
9 times out of 10 (I’m tempted to even say 10/10 with the patients I talk to) diet quality is the root of the problem. If your meals are sporadic and unbalanced, it’s likely that you’ll end up hungry and when that happens – especially after lunch – desires for “bad” food creep in. Fill half your plate with vegetables, with ¼ for each protein and starch. This will ensure that you 1.) Feel full after eating 2.) Stay full for several hours after eating 3.) Get the nutrients that your body requires to function optimally.
It’s true that in terms of weight loss, all you need is a calorie deficit – it doesn’t matter if you spend those calories on crap. Unfortunately, eating crap doesn’t make you feel good and perpetuates food cravings. I’ve seen this with several patients. Instead of focusing on eating balanced meals, they spend their meal calories on small portions of fast food and wonder why they’re constantly craving sweets. Newsflash: half a carton of fries isn’t going to keep you full. A happy meal won’t keep you full. A heaping pile of grilled vegetables with a moderate portion of shrimp and sweet potato will. Make good choices.
Not eating enough
Skipping meals sets you up for failure. This is even true with breakfast. For my patients who tell me that they’re not hungry for breakfast, I ask whether they are starving in mid-afternoon and hit the vending machine. Often the answer is yes. Keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day by eating a balanced breakfast, lunch, and dinner and you won’t get hangry in the afternoon and make poor snacking decisions.
Oftentimes, giving in to “cravings” is a learned behavior. Did you have cookies after school every day while growing up? It’s probably so deeply ingrained in your daily routine and associated with positive feelings from childhood that you reach for a similar sweet snack in the afternoon regularly. This isn’t to say your mom is to blame for your poor diet – this is just to make you aware. You are the boss of you now. If you’re an afternoon sweet eater, the next time 3:00 rolls around as yourself: are you actually hungry? If you’re not, you don’t need a snack at all. If you are, shoot for something that combines carbohydrate with protein, like grapes and a string cheese.
The “It’s There” Phenomenon
Guys, it happens to me too. I barely ever go out of my way to purchase candy, but when I’m in a situation where there is a surplus in the house (i.e. when I grossly overestimate trick-or-treaters) I’m powerless to stop myself from eating way too much of it a bunch of days in a row until it’s gone. I know it’s there, and it sings a sugary siren’s song Lauren, come eat me! I am so delicious! The solution is easy: DON’T KEEP THESE FOODS IN THE HOUSE!
Many people will respond “but it’s for the kids!” Newsflash #2: your kids don’t need it either! Kids can certainly eat a sweet treat every now and then, but making it omnipresent is not something that they need. Bake a batch of cookies with them, take them out to ice cream, allow them to select a treat at the bakery once a month. Make these situations meaningful, and make sure to show them how to appreciate tasty treats. For daily snacking purposes, healthy foods should be the option. Kids need to differentiate between “always” and “sometimes” foods.
Ladies, it’s for real. Definitely be mindful though – if you’re overall hungrier, increase your portions of healthy foods and treat yourself to something small that you will truly savor if the craving is still there. You’re much better off having a small piece of high quality chocolate than turning a box of cereal and a bag of Hershey’s Kisses into your dinner. Also, make sure that you actually do want chocolate or a burrito or whatever your vice may be – don’t reach for it just because it’s a habit. In the “I gave up sugar for lent” post, I touched upon how we are groomed to assume we want chocolate because the media plays up this idea of girls and chocolate. Do you really actually want it??
Severe nutrient deficiencies
There are a few rare cases where nutrient deficiencies can cause cravings, but for the most part in America we are not nutrient deficient with the exception of Vitamin D, and in women, iron. I was iron deficient at several different points in my life, and there is a phenomenon called pica – cravings for non-food items – that really does happen. For me, it was ice. There was this one ice machine on campus when I was in college and I would fill water bottles with it and take it to my dorm room to crunch on while I studied. SO. WEIRD. Of course, I didn’t know anything was wrong so I thought ice was truly just the bomb and I continued to be obsessed with it. Turns out, when the deficiency was uncovered and I began to supplement with iron, this craving subsided. Apparently I am more normal than once assumed.
Bottom line: be honest with yourself. You really are a powerful being. Cravings, no matter the cause, are something that YOU are in control of. Don’t let them dictate your actions.