What can you do about cravings?

We all know that feeling--like if we don't get a piece of candy or a brownie or a handful of chips, we will absolutely die. Sometimes it strikes after we finish a meal, or when we are stressed, or even just bored and lonely. 

Cravings can happen for a few different reasons. They can be a powerful indication that your body needs something it's missing--like more salt, some other specific nutrient, or just more energy. In this case, just eating the thing that sounds good is probably the right thing to do. 

You may find yourself cravings sweets in the middle of the afternoon or late in the evening when you're tired, which is just a natural way of trying to pick yourself back up and get a little energy boost. This kind of craving is pretty straightforward--you just need a little energy, so you could eat, or have some coffee, or take a short nap, go to bed, or go for a walk.

Things get a little more complicated when the cravings result from eating restrictively or dieting. When we mess around and ignore our body's messages about what we need, we create both physical and psychological deprivation, which can lead to strong cravings.

Physical deprivation is straightforward--your body needs something you're not eating enough of, so it's telling you to eat more of that thing. I've often heard of people on low carb diets having uncontrollable cravings for bananas or oatmeal, or some other seemingly boring food. It doesn't take a PhD in nutrition to figure out what's going on in such a scenario. This kind of craving is easily resolved if you can let go of the diet restrictions and just eat what you need.

Psychological deprivation is thornier. When you've denied yourself foods that you want, or made rules about which foods are acceptable and which aren't, you've given food an incredible amount of power. You've actually developed an emotional response to food that makes it amazingly difficult to eat according to your physiological needs. 

You understand this if you've ever had the experience of eating an entire package or Oreos, or 4 chocolate bars, or an extra large order of fries, and then feeling sick and miserable. You didn't eat those foods because you were hungry or that's what your body needed--you ate that way because those foods have meaning to you. On some level, they mean comfort, or rebellion, or self-punishment.

When all foods are equal and nothing is forbidden, eating a huge order of fries feels the same emotionally as a huge salad. When you remove the guilt and judgment from eating, you dismantle the power it wields over you and it's easier to make choices based on what you really want and what will help you feel your best. The first step in ending the psychological cravings is training yourself to feel emotionally neutral about all foods.

The Intuitive Eating principle most applicable to the process of dismantling cravings is "Make peace with food." This principle is about unconditional permission to eat all foods without judgment or guilt. Much easier said than done, right? Remembering that all foods have value, whether physical or psychological, is an important first step. Even "junk" foods have nutritional value, and may also provide the emotional benefit of comfort or security. Remembering the many ways food serves you and allowing yourself to eat without guilt can really help.