Navigating Cravings with Mindfulness

Published in Institute for Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Training Program Curriculum. 

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There are many causes of strong cravings for particular foods or flavors (refer back to Eight Causes of Cravings to review a few!). This may make navigating them seem tricky, but gaining a deeper understanding of how cravings work allows you to best respond to your bio-individual cravings.   

Navigating cravings with mindfulness means to:

1. acknowledge cravings as they arise

2. explore  the origin of cravings  with non-judgmental curiosity, and,

3. proceed from a place of empowerment.

Whether you choose to move forward with fulfilling that particular food craving or if you decide to explore another option to nourish yourself,  the point is that you want to do your best to make educated, empowered decisions that work for you.  

Before diving in, let’s get something clear: having craving isn’t a bad thing – in fact, they are sometimes a good barometer for when you’re not getting the nourishment you’re seeking, which you may find sometimes doesn’t have anything to do with food at all.  

A craving might be a message from your body that it is seeking a particular food to promote health and wellbeing (e.g. craving nourishing soups if you’re not feeling well), but cravings can be precipitated by our emotional state, our physiological state, our diets, our routines, and even our surroundings - when they arise they can be a symptom indicating imbalance that is occurring elsewhere. This is why investigating cravings is a great opportunity to treat the cause, not the symptom.

Being aware of the different factors that may contribute to cravings can help you to explore the choices that are best for you – if that’s ordering an ice cream, great – if that’s opting for carrot sticks, that’s also great – maybe it’s even setting aside time unwind, which after some investigating, you might learn is what your body ultimately is seeking. Keep reading to learn how to navigate cravings with mindfulness!   

Steps to Approach Cravings with Mindfulness

To navigate your cravings mindfully and help determine which choices are best for you, there are a few steps you can take to help. 

1. Acknowledge Cravings

If cravings arise, acknowledge them and give them space. Ignoring cravings often makes them seem even stronger and more powerful. When you put foods that you want to eat off limits, it usually has the opposite effect that you intend it to have. Rather than leading you to forget the “off-limit” foods, you end up more preoccupied by them and less equipped to control yourself when you’re around them.1,2

In this case, mindfully acknowledging and fulfilling a craving may be more productive than actively trying to avoid it. The simple act of acknowledging your craving also may help to reduce its power and allow you to dis-identify with or dissociate from it.

2. Explore the Origin of Cravings with Non-judgmental Curiosity

In exploring the origin of your cravings, there are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:

1. Is this craving occurring alongside a particular emotion or physical feeling?

2. Is this craving for a highly palatable food?

3. Is this craving tied up in a habit?

4. Is this craving guiding me towards a food that would support my health or wellbeing?

Let’s look at each of those questions one by one and explore  their role in the origin of cravings.

Is this craving occurring alongside a particular emotion or physical feeling?

Stress, fatigue, loneliness, and even boredom can all lead us to crave particular foods. In these cases, food won’t solve the problem – it would be treating a symptom; which works in the short-term, but probably isn’t in our best interest in the long-term. Making this distinction can be an empowering feeling.  It allows you to pinpoint and treat the actual cause which is likely to promote the balance you’re seeking.

Although there are many physical and emotional feelings that may lead us to crave particular foods, here’s what the research says about two very common feelings, stress and fatigue, and how they affect our diets.

When people are tired, they not only eat more, but are also more likely to make poor dietary choices. Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to crave snacks and consume more calories over the course of the day. Lack of sleep has been shown to increase the preference (or cravings) for calorie-dense foods, in particular. Frequent cravings for these sorts of foods may be a symptom of lack of sleep. 3,4

The more stressed people are, the more they tend to look for comfort in food – this is just one of the mechanisms in which stress leads to weight gain. 5 During stressful times, cravings for energy-dense, less nutritious foods are common.6  Including an activity that helps you manage stress efficiently can have a major impact on your dietary choices.

Is this craving for a highly palatable food?

When it comes to exploring the origin of your cravings, there is another important aspect to consider in terms of which foods you’re craving. In this sense, not all foods are created equal. In order to make an empowered choice about these foods, it’s important to know that certain foods, called highly palatable foods, are designed to be craved. It’s, of course, fine to enjoy these foods, but part of being empowered in navigating your cravings, is being aware of the power that some of these foods may hold.

Let’s take a look at what might be playing a role in frequent cravings for high-sugar or processed foods.

If it feels like you’re craving sugar, you may be seeking a quick source of energy (it could actually be another symptom of lack of sleep), but research has shown that the more sugar people consume, the more they prefer it.7,8 In a way, you build up a tolerance to sugar – requiring you to seek out more concentrated sources or consume larger amounts of it to create the same pleasurable eating experience that it originally produced.

Processed foods are designed to make consumers crave them. In fact, the food industry created what has been described as the “bliss point” – the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat that makes processed foods difficult to resist. Often, this combination is created mathematically to appeal to the most people.

These products may take years to be fully developed and a team of researchers, flavor specialists, engineers and even statisticians may be involved in creating a food with optimal flavor, texture, and mouthfeel.  Frequent exposure to these types of foods is likely to increase our desire for them.9 These craved foods tend to be higher in calories and fat and lower in protein and fiber – they usually don’t offer a ton of nutritional value aside from energy.

Is this craving tied up in a habit?

Sometimes people simply desire a food or snack because they’re used to having it at a certain time or place. In other words, you may gravitate towards a particular food out of routine.10 For example, it’s common for people to feel a drop of energy in the late afternoon – this is often when people reach for sugary snacks or drinks. Eventually, you may start craving snacks during this time of day simply based out of habit.

Rather than going on auto-pilot, take a moment to tune into your body. A brief moment of mindfulness may be enough to help you distinguish between craving something out of habit versus craving due to actual hunger or a desire to mindfully and intentionally enjoy a particular food.

Is this craving guiding me towards a food that would support my health or wellbeing?

Have you ever come home from a trip where you enjoyed frequently dining out and eating rich foods and then you came home and craved something highly nourishing like a big salad with tons of fresh, colorful vegetables? This is your body’s attempt to return to balance. In this scenario, food treats both the symptoms and their cause.

Fulfilling a craving may also contribute to your well-being. For example, craving a piece of cake to enjoy among friends and family might provide a strong feeling of connection and love. This may be a powerful form of primary food nourishment for some.

3. Proceed from a Place of Empowerment

Once you acknowledge your craving and have determined its origin, you give yourself the power to dis-identify with it and determine how to proceed in a way that is best for you. Listen to what your body is telling you and enjoy exploring the deeper message that may exist in some of your cravings. Rather than feeling controlled by cravings, the empowered approach allows you to be a curious investigator seeking out the best choice for you at the time – don’t forget we’re always changing.

Consider cravings as a barometer for if something is out of balance – so whether food will ease that craving or if there is another form of nourishment your body is seeking, respect and acknowledge your bio-individual cravings as they come up. 

Cravings are something we all experience from time to time. These tips can help you to better navigate them when they arise. Pay attention when cravings arise and explore what your body might be trying to tell you. Acknowledge them, non-judgmentally explore their origin, and proceed from a place of empowerment.

 

References

1. Massey, A., Hill, A.J. (2012). Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite. 58 (3): 781-785. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020

2. Polivy, J., Coleman, J., Herman, C.P. (2005). The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. 38(4): 301-309. DOI: 10.1002/eat.20195 

3. Greer, S.M., Goldsteine, A.N., Walker, M.P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature Communications. 4(2259): 1-7. doi:10.1038/ncomms3259

4. Hogenkamp, P.S., Nilsson, E., Nilsson, V.C., Chapman, C.D., Vogel, H., Lundberg, L.S., Zarei, S., Schioth, H.B. (2013). Acute Sleep deprivation increases portion size and affects food choice in young men. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 38(9): 1668-1674.

5. Chao, A., Grilo, C.M., White, M.A., Sinha, R. 2015. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. Journal of Health Psychology. 20(6):721-729. 10.1177/1359105315573448

6. Groesz, L.M., McVoy, S., Carl, J., Saslow, L., Stewart, J., Adler, N., Laraia, B., Epel, E. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite. 58(2): 717-721. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.11.028

7. Lustig, R.H., Schmidt, L.A., Brindis, C.D. 2012. Public Health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature. 482: 27-29. doi:10.1038/482027a

8. Wise, P.M., Nattress, L., Flammer, L.J., Beauchamp, G,K. (2016). Reduced dietary intake of simple sugars alters perceived sweet taste intensity but not perceived pleasantness. Am J Clin Nutr. 103(1): 50-60. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.112300

9. Gilhooly, C.H., Das, S.K., Golden, J.K., McCrory, M.A., Dallal, G.E., Saltzman, E., Kramer, F.M., Roberts, S.B. 2007. Food cravings and energy regulation: the characteristics of craved foods and their relationship with eating behaviors and weight change during 6 months of dietary energy restriction. International Journal of Obesity. 31: 1849-1858. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803672

10. van’t Riet J., Sijtsema, S.J., Dagevos, H., De Bruijn, G..J. (2011). The importance of habits in eating behavior. An overview and recommendations for future research. Appetite. 57(3): 585-596. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.07.010