You know how this goes: you decide that next Monday you will begin your healthy eating journey, for real! As God is your witness, you will finally kick all the unhealthy food from your life and live the life of a clean, plant-based eater. You’re inspired, motivated and committed to begin.
Then Monday arrives, and you start off hot. Fresh produce in the fridge, healthy meals planned out. But by hump day your body is telling you you’ve earned a reward for your efforts. A cheezy pizza and a big glass of wine – that eventually turns into a bottle. And then – because your week’s goals have been missed – you tell yourself you may as well enjoy the rest of the week and start again next Monday.
For real this time.
I know this cycle all too well after struggling with my weight from my teens to my late 20’s. I would make all the promises to myself (and others) and then feel like a total failure when I couldn’t keep going after only a few short days in.
I had to giggle when I once heard Oprah Winfrey say that she had started dieting on Mondays so often and failed, that she thought it was a problem with Mondays! So she started planning to begin on Tuesdays instead! This was so relatable to me because I had thought the exact same thing.
Spoiler alert: Tuesdays didn’t work for me (or her) either.
Every time I gave in to my cravings and broke the agreements I had made with myself, I started doubting what was possible for me. Why was this so damn hard?! I needed to understand what was going on if I was ever going to improve my health. I went into deep research mode and what I learned I implemented and conquered my own battle with cravings. I’ve put those learnings into this article and I hope you can use it to achieve the same success – because it is 100% possible!
Why you want to eat what you don’t want to eat
This article aims to give you an understanding of food cravings: what they are, why they happen, and what you can do about them! After reading it I hope you will have a clearer understanding of why food cravings are hampering your health goals, and I hope to leave you with a plan you can action to conquer yours.
Before we continue it’s perhaps worth mentioning that this article does NOT deal with pregnancy cravings. If that’s why you’re reading this book then go tell your partner that I said you’re allowed to eat ALL the treats while you’re pregnant! 😉
We evolved to be lazy. That ancient part of our primal lizard brain wants to get as many calories as possible for as little effort as possible. This behaviour used to work well back when we used to live in caves and food was scarce, but nowadays (most of us) are privileged that food isn’t scarce anymore. But the desire remains, and this desire just creates a vicious cycle of wanting more than we need. Doctor Douglas J. Lisle calls this cycle The Pleasure Trap.
There are two main types of cravings (beside pregnancy cravings). Both of these types of cravings are your body trying to tell you that it needs something.
First, non-selective cravings are when you feel like eating something, anything. It is your body simply telling you that it wants nourishment! Second, selective cravings are when you feel like eating something vaguely specific, like chocolate or ice cream. These cravings usually mean you are looking for emotional comfort. Sounds odd right? Let’s delve into both in a bit more detail…
(It might just be hunger)
When you have to eat something, anything! The most commonly experienced type of food craving is called a non-selective craving, when you feel like eating or drinking something without really caring exactly what it is you eat or drink.
You may have guessed that non-selective cravings are often caused by hunger or thirst, and are pretty easy to manage.
When you feel a non-selective episode approaching, have a drink of water and wait ten minutes – thirst is often confused with hunger, so a drink might just fix the craving!
Second, and this might sound obvious, but ensure you are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet! Eating high protein and low GI meals will ensure your body stays full for longer and will prevent nasty sugar crashes which have you reaching for a mid-afternoon snack.
Pavlov says hi
A selective craving is when your body has a strong desire to eat something specific. “I could kill a pizza right now”, or “if only I had some chocolate”.
Contrary to what many may think, selective cravings are usually triggered by a negative emotion. Anxiety, stress, sadness, boredom – any negative emotion you experience can create an impulse to reach for that tub of ice cream, as a form of self-soothing.
When you eat unhealthy food your body will release a tiny dose of “happy hormones” (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin or endorphins). Over time your mind will realise that these foods improve your emotional state, and will create a link between the naughty food and an improved mood similar to how Pavlov’s dog would start drooling when he rang a bell.
Once that link is established in your mind, when you’re feeling a bit low your subconscious will search for ways it can lift your mood and may settle on something it knows has worked in the past: unhealthy food!
This “programming” usually starts with our parents long before we can walk, but luckily it is possible – with time and discipline – to undo it.
Answering these cravings regularly will create another issue, aside from the obvious problems like obesity and bad skin. Every time you act on a craving impulse your tolerance will increase. Each time you act on this impulse your body will need more unhealthy food to feel the same boost in mood, so what starts out (as a child) with a handful of chips may eventually lead to a whole family pack of regret!
Find your why
A number of scientific studies have confirmed that selective cravings are usually caused by negative emotion. Anxiety, stress, sadness, even boredom – any negative emotion can create a desire to reach for a slab of chocolate as a form of self-soothing.
As an occasional coping aide it can’t do much harm (if you’re otherwise healthy), but if you are regularly reaching for a tub of ice cream you need to look for the pattern.
Spotting a craving pattern is important for two reasons. First, cycles of negative emotion can cause many issues beyond just the negative effects of eating unhealthy food (weight gain, diabetes, etc). They could even lead eventually to depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and more. Secondly, patterns create habits, and when you get to a point where you’re having a pint of ice cream every Friday night (for example), you could find yourself one day wanting the ice cream even without an emotional trigger!
Once a pattern has been identified you can then look to address the cause of it.
Spot the Pattern
You will find it if you look
Do you reach for an unhealthy treat on a Friday night after a hard week of work? Swing by a drive-through on the way home from visiting your parents? Whether it’s looking for a new job, or husband, or parents – it’s not always practically possible to “fix” the emotional triggers, though that would be great. What you can do is try and insulate yourself from them by building your emotional resilience.
Building emotional resilience is of course a massively complex topic in its own right, and not something I wish to trivialise or diminish, but activities like physical exercise, good quality sleep, and meditation can help stabilise moods and can alleviate anxiety, for example. And ten minutes chanting “Om” doesn’t stick to the hips quite like a pint of ice cream does!
The important part to stress here is that an occasional blip in your eating habits doesn’t do much harm. What you should try to address is when you see a pattern of behavior forming negative habits. To this end, a mood and food journal can be really helpful to keep track!
More, more, more…
Every time you eat a piece of chocolate and your brain releases its tiny dose of happy hormones your body will become a tiny little bit more resistant to it.
Similar to how excess sugar will increase insulin resistance over time, acting on cravings will raise your “happy hormone” resistance. This means you’ll have to up your “dose” (of chocolate) over time to guarantee the same “happy hormone” effect.
This gradual increase over years can build up your tolerance and lead to you needing large amounts of unhealthy food to feel any kind of “happy hormone” effect at all.
After long enough you may even find yourself needing the unhealthy food just to feel normal. When tolerance has built up this high it can be a pretty miserable (and overweight) existence. Luckily there is something you can do about it!
Knock down your tolerance
Luckily the tolerance problem can be corrected! It is possible to trick your taste buds into sending an “oh my god I just had a whole bag of chips” message to your brain when you have in fact only given it a small bowl of fruit salad, for example.
It can be rather tricky to do, and do right. You can “reset” your palate by starving your taste buds completely for a set period of time.
A liquid fast – when you consume only liquid (and no solid food) for a few days – is the most effective way to accomplish this. It can be challenging and is not recommended for everyone, so certainly see your doctor before you undertake it! Generally speaking the longer you fast the stronger the craving tolerance “fix”, but you don’t want to fast for six weeks! In my experience the best approach to resetting your taste buds is to do a three day juice fast, because it has the best balance of results, timing, and achievability.
Remember the last time you were really sick, and had to stay in bed without an appetite? Remember how amazing that first bite of food was when you were able to eat again?
If so, then you’ve already felt the benefits of a liquid fast! Our taste buds become desensitized over time when we abuse them, and then by starving them of attention – by giving them only juice for a few days, for example – you can restore your taste receptor sensitivity, meaning simple flavours will taste much, much better than before.
After recovering from an illness you probably treated yourself to ALL the yummy foods, undoing the good reset work you had done. The trick to ensuring a reset has a lasting effect is to ensure you ease back into eating in a very specific way. Go slow, and – at least initially – eat food that is under seasoned or even bland. This will allow the reset to “take”, and over time become habit.
It’s simple but not easy
If you read this article hoping that I had one skinny tea to tell you to drink or one miracle pill to pop, you’re probably feeling a little disappointed. The sad reality is you can’t simply magic your way out of nasty cravings.
That said, the reset method is actually quite rewarding. The process of drinking and eating clean not only makes the good stuff delicious afterwards, but it’ll cut belly bloat, make you feel lighter on your feet and improve your energy levels.
There’s more good news. Although it takes a gruelling three days of juices to eliminate cravings, the principles I’ve explained to you, and the strategies I teach you in my Taste Bud Reset will affect you on a deeper level. It’ll bring to your awareness the habits you had before the fast, and you’ll discover just how much you were needlessly eating or using food to soothe, or to celebrate or to escape. When you become aware of exactly why you do what you do, only then can you fundamentally change.
Gabrielle is an evidence-based vegan coach who believes that health transformation begins when you switch to a plant-based diet. Her mission is to help midlife women eat in alignment with who they are and what they value so that they can lead a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
Sign up for a weekly dose of evidence-based info + free recipes
Written by Gabrielle (hi!), these e-mails will help you on your plant-based journey with useful tips, tricks, facts and inspiration – and perhaps the occasional inappropriate joke thrown in for good measure.