Approximately 2-3 times per year I get strong cravings for Dr. Pepper. Normally I’m not much of a soda drinker (kombucha gives me my fizzy fix). But when that soda desire strikes, instead of telling myself that it’s “bad” for me or trying to ignore it, I know I need to get myself a Dr. Pepper ASAP before the craving grows to be unmanageable.
Usually, I’m able to get a Dr. Pepper to drink within a day or two (sometimes it only takes hours). It’s always an actual Dr. Pepper, too. I never try to fend off the craving with substitutes like Diet Dr. Pepper, carbonated water, etc. And when I sit down to drink it, I enjoy as much of it as tastes good to me (sometimes that’s the whole thing, sometimes it’s not) before continuing on my merry way.
In an ideal world, we would all respond to cravings in a similar way without guilt and shame. But the diet and wellness culture we live in tells us that we must curb our cravings or suffer the consequences. We’re taught that cravings are scary and even dangerous for our health. What if cravings were no longer something to be afraid of, but something to be curious about instead?
What Causes Cravings Anyway?
Cravings are our bodies’ way of trying to get our attention. Contrary to popular belief, cravings are not our bodies’ way of sabotaging us. If you can shift your mindset to think of cravings as information, you and your cravings will get along a lot better.
Cravings can be caused by many different factors, such as:
Physical hunger. When we’re hungry, we start to crave food as a signal to meet that biological need. When we allow ourselves to get overly hungry, those cravings can feel especially strong and specific. Often when our bodies know they need energy fast, we experience overwhelming cravings for carbs and sugar. That’s because our bodies know they can break those down quickly to get the needed energy faster.
Specific nutrient needs. When we are lacking something in our diet, such as sodium, Vitamin C, etc., our body may try to tell us by sending out cravings for foods that contain those nutrients.
Environmental cues. Many different things in our environments can trigger cravings, such as seeing an advertisement for a restaurant or specific food or smelling the aroma of a dish you like while walking on the street. We might also associate certain foods with different seasons or events, which can lead to cravings at those times.
Habits. Humans are creatures of habit, and our bodies respond strongly to those habits. For example, if you always eat a bowl of ice cream after dinner, your body will come to crave and expect that bowl of ice cream after dinner.
A non-food need. Many of us have learned to meet our emotional needs with food over the course of our lives. Emotional eating isn’t always a bad thing, but it can become detrimental when it’s the only coping mechanism you have. When a person is lacking other tools for dealing with their emotional needs, intense emotions can trigger cravings for certain foods.
Restriction. Contrary to popular belief, restriction causes cravings. When we deny ourselves specific foods and food groups, this increases our desire for those foods. If I ask you not to think about a pink elephant, what is the first thing that pops into your head? I’m going to guess a pink elephant. You can think of food restriction as working the same way. When you tell yourself you can’t have cookies, your cravings for cookies are going to get stronger and stronger until you eventually cave. Once you cave, you’ll likely binge on cookies, conclude that you can’t be trusted around cookies, and start restricting again, creating a continuous cycle.
How To Avoid The Whack-A-Mole Effect
As you get more familiar with your cravings and how they feel in your body, it will get easier to understand the cause behind each craving and to respond in the way that makes you feel best.
Cravings that stem from emotional or habitual reasons will need more examination. But most kinds of cravings can be dealt with by simply eating the food that you’re craving until you feel satisfied. While this probably goes against what you’ve been taught about cravings – that they are something that should be tamed – you’ll be surprised at how much more manageable cravings are when you simply listen to them and respond accordingly.
When we don’t respond to our cravings and try to push them down, they pop up elsewhere like the crafty moles in the whack-a-mole game. You may think you’ve got the craving under control, but it will not be deterred. Have an easy-to-satisfy craving for something sweet tonight? It could turn into a binge on ice cream tomorrow or later this week if it goes ignored. Your craving for hearty carbs because your body needs energy won’t be satisfied with rice cakes, but you might eat a whole sleeve of them trying to meet your need.
What if when you had a craving for pizza, you didn’t ignore it? What if you didn’t try to meet that need with a cauliflower pizza or some other substitute only to eventually scarf down a whole pizza anyway? Imagine what it would be like if you just ordered pizza and ate only as many slices as you needed to feel full and satisfied. How much simpler and more peaceful would that experience be?
[Note: For people (1) with certain medical conditions, food allergies, or food sensitivities, and (2) who have limited access to food, responding to cravings is not as simple and requires more consideration.]
Follow Your Cravings To Reconnect With Your Body
Listening and responding to your cravings is one of the many ways you can reconnect with your body and learn to eat more intuitively. Cravings are not evil or tests for your willpower. In fact, giving your body what it is asking for is a form of self-care, especially when you engage in the process mindfully.
You might be worried that if you cave to your cravings you’ll only ever eat “junk” foods that are high in calories. But a funny thing happens when you let yourself eat the foods you crave – you start experiencing cravings for all different kinds of foods! That’s right. I get cravings for salads, veggies, sandwiches, and fruits. And I also get cravings for candy, pasta, and ice cream. I crave warm, comfort foods and cold, soothing foods. And I crave spicy foods, salty foods, sweet foods, and creamy foods. Because no foods are off-limits, my cravings know no bounds.
When we’re not following external food rules, our bodies are actually quite good at regulating our food intake to make sure that we’re getting a variety of different foods and nutrients in our diets. Unfortunately, this process won’t happen overnight. At first, you probably will find yourself eating more of the foods that you’ve previously forbidden from your diet until your body trusts that you won’t restrict again.
The longer you’ve been restricting and ignoring your cravings, the more time and practice it will take for you to get the hang of responding to cravings and stopping when you feel satisfied. You may even need some outside help. But it WILL happen if you trust the process and allow all foods to fit into your life.
So the next time a craving comes on? Get curious! See where it takes you and what you can learn from it.
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