Raise your hand if this has happened to you: you make a well-thought out decision to share a dessert with a friend and then a few days later, you start craving something similar and before you realize what’s going on, you’ve eaten way more sweets, desserts and other not-so-good for you foods than you have in the last few months! Can you all see me waving my hand in the air like Hermione Granger in class? Except my answer is actually the wrong answer! No one wants to be in that situation, like a car skidding out of control before sliding into the ditch. It’s a disaster waiting to happen!
You would think that the problem was that well-considered decision to share a dessert: “if only I hadn’t had those three bites of cheesecake!” That may be one way of dealing with it. I know there are lots of people who just say no to things they consider triggers. They choose to view it as an addiction and anyone who knows addicts knows “you can’t have just one [fill in the blank here.] If you were okay with never having cheesecake or chips or whatever your particular weakness is ever again, that would solve your problem. If you don’t want cravings for bread, just don’t ever eat bread again. Never ever.
For some people, that can be a pretty bleak view, looking at the rest of your life without ever eating things you like, such as cheesecake, brownies, bread or cookies along with a host of other things! On one hand, it’s just food. It isn’t like you’re giving up electricity for the rest of your life! There are thousands of people who’ve lived their entire lives without ever tasting a brownie or cheesecake! (Come to think of it, there are thousands of people who live their lives now without electricity!) Seriously, it’s not the end of the world, but it is something that brings a little bit of happiness into your life. At least it does for those few minutes you are eating it!
If we are being truthful, it also brings a lot of pain into our lives too. I remember in college there were times I’d come home from the store with a frozen cheesecake and as soon as it was thawed out, I’d eat the whole thing. Of course, I didn’t intend to, but…. We all know how that story ends: “I just couldn’t stop once I started eating it!” And once I was stuck holding the empty tray for a seven inch cheesecake, I’d feel awful. Not only did I feel horrible emotionally, but physically, I felt like a beached whale because obviously I wasn’t hungry when I ate it! I ate it because it was there!
This is what most of us are afraid of when it comes to cravings: once we start, we can’t stop, so it’s easier just never ‘starting.’ The problem is that we blame our cravings on self-control and that’s only a small part of the problem. When we don’t have cookies in the house and we start craving cookies, how many of us are going to leave the house to buy cookies? But, if the cookies are in the house already, it’s all too easy to ‘wander’ into the kitchen and grab one or two. Or three or four. If they’re small, maybe five… And that’s where we blame our lack of self-control or we blame the cookies for being so good or we blame the family member who brought them home!
Part of the problem is the craving, especially if it’s something sweet. Sugar really is addictive (Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar is a great resource!) Foods like bread (my own private weakness) are simple carbs, which the body metabolizes like sugar, so even if it’s garlic bread, to my body, it’s a ‘sugar’ and just a leetle bit addictive! So blaming self-control for not being able to stop ourselves eating a whole bread basket or cheesecake can be a legitimate defense.
However, the plain simple truth is that we knew better when we ate the cheesecake or bread that started our latest sugar binge! If you know that you’re going to be craving sugar within a week of sharing that dessert at lunch with your friend, is it really so difficult to tell your friend “no thanks” when she offers? A friend will understand when you say no to the dessert and you are under no obligation to indulge in something that will cause problems later. So not starting is one way of dealing with the cravings: no trigger = no craving = no binge. Problem solved! Yeah…riiighhhttt!
However a trigger food like that shared dessert is not the only reason we develop cravings. In my case, a lot of the cravings come from boredom. How many of us binge in the evenings? (Hermione Granger here again!) I’m watching tv and I’ve got nothing to do with my hands, so let’s wander into the kitchen and see if there’s anything to snack on! Danger, Will Robinson! Believe me, if I had a robot, it’d be stationed in the kitchen door each night after dinner! I’m obviously not hungry because I just finished dinner; my problem is I’m feeling bored! Somehow my brain equates boredom with the need to eat something, preferably sweet! “Find something sweet to eat and eat it until it’s gone or you feel like you’re going to throw up!” Really, that was my evening operation for most of my life! In the event I had nothing sweet in the house, Plan B substituted ‘salty’ for ‘sweet’ and the Last Ditch Back Up Plan was substitute ‘salty’ for ‘anything in the house!’ I really really wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I’m not.
But the good thing to come out of this debacle is that since I know what triggers my cravings, I can take steps to stop it before it skids wildly out of control. If bored and feeling the cravings start, I look for something to do other than eating! Even if it’s something like scrolling through Facebook or Instagram or– even better– My Fitness Pal! It can be logging my food and reminding myself how much I’ve already eaten, so how can I be hungry? It can be writing notes for this blog, playing with my dogs or doing my nails (my most recent distraction). It just needs to be something to keep my hands busy so I’m not eating to satisfy a craving that has nothing to do with hunger.
Another trigger for a lot of us is emotion. How many of us have heard and used the expression ’emotional eater’? Again, it’s a legitimate issue but once we realize it’s our trigger, we need to take steps to cut off the craving/ binge before it starts. This issue is obviously more complex than just alleviating boredom. If emotion or stress is a serious problem in your life, you might need to meet with someone to help you find constructive ways of dealing with it that don’t involve eating. For most of us who find ourselves staring into the fridge after a fight with a loved one or opening a surprise bill not in our budget or some other stressor, it can be less problematic. We have to find a way to alleviate our anxiety that doesn’t involve eating. In some ways, it’s easy and in other ways, it’s not so easy! Suppose your method of ‘coping’ with a problem is eating an entire bag of chips. While you’re eating the chips, you’re not feeling anxious or stressed (as much), but when those chips are gone, the anxiety and stress come back, usually coupled with the guilt for scarfing down a whole bag of Ruffles! Now what do you do? This is where some of us will find something else to eat and repeat the cycle while others of us will either find a way to deal with the cause of our anxiety or we find something else to soothe it. In my case, after eating a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s or the bag of Ruffles or King’s Hawaiian, I’d turn to my pets. My pets are a huge source of comfort to me! Depending on what the problem is, there is also venting on Facebook or calling a friend to share the anxiety and frustration. Most of us who have normal every day stress and anxiety in our lives have methods for dealing with it; the problem is our knee-jerk reaction to eat our emotions first! What we need to learn is to cut off that reaction to ‘soothe’ our anxiety with food.
You’re probably thinking, “Duhhh! So tell me something I don’t know!” It’s not rocket science, but it does take patience and practice. We all know the trick about not losing our temper by counting to ten and this isn’t much different. It involves taking a couple minutes to see into the future: “I’m emotional and I want to eat something, but how am I going to feel when I’m done eating?” Usually the answer will be “pretty cruddy!” or “worse than I do now!” The object is to step into those few seconds between feeling the anxiety-eating trigger and the actual eating! As I said it takes practice and it takes patience. It’s a seemingly simple behavior modification technique. The actual action is simple: stopping the knee-jerk reaction to eat by switching it with another action; it’s ‘seemingly simple’ because changing behavior can be a difficult process. This is where the patience and practice come into action.
We have to remember to ask ourselves that question when we feel like eating because of our emotions and then simply skip the eating! Instead of eating all the potato chips and then holding my dog, I just pick up the dog! Or I start venting online or to my friends or whatever I can do to relieve the anxiety and emotion without eating. The good thing about this technique is that is also works with those sugar-addiction cravings I mentioned at the beginning. When we feel the urge to eat whatever it is we’re craving, we need to remind ourselves of how cruddy we’re going to feel after we’ve eaten it. It can be we feel guilty or ashamed or physically terrible. In my case, sugar or simple carbs like bread really cause pain in my hands. When I stop eating the sugar, I can feel the improvement within a couple of days. When I start craving something either because of boredom, anxiety or just wanting that not-so-healthy forbidden food, I ask myself how I’m going to feel after eating it. Remembering how bad my hands felt is an obvious deterrent!
It still takes a lot of patience and a whole lot of practice. There are some times I really really want it and eat it anyway, and when I end up regretting it, I remind myself there’s a reason it’s on my not-to-be-eaten list, especially if my hands start hurting! The craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is followed by “is it worth your hands aching for a week? Remember how smushed and stale the last ones were? Not to mention 400 calories!” Changing our behavior takes time and we have to be patient with ourselves. Remembering to pause before grabbing the King’s Hawaiian takes practice and when we screw it up (because we will!), we have to be patient and forgive ourselves. Cravings are what kill most weight loss practices and that’s what this is: it’s a practice! We won’t get it right the first time we try it but the more we do it, the easier it is to remember and the longer that pause becomes. The knee-jerk reaction to eat our boredom, anxiety and cravings becomes less of a reaction and more of a decision. That’s what we are really looking for: the ability to make a decision instead of being out of control.