There are times when we all get cravings that may lead to overeating, but for some of us, these cravings can lead us to bingeing on unhealthy, caloric-rich foods that result in feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment and frustration and possibly even weight gain. Before I offer suggestions for how to curb cravings, I do want to encourage those reading this article to talk with a mental health professional if they feel your eating is out of control. Sometimes we need the help, support and guidance of a professional, and it is better to seek out these services than to continue suffering in silence. If you feel that you can no longer control your cravings or you find yourself bingeing on foods in an unhealthy manner, it is time to seek counseling.
Cravings may come about for different reasons, and those reasons may be due to your genetics, the environment in which you were raised, emotions you experienced at the time of the craving, and/or the habits that you have unknowingly created over the years. Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has done extensive research on binge eating. She has found through her research studies that eating disorders tend to run in families. However, there are environmental influences as well. For example, if you saw your mother restrict her calories at dinner but then binge on a package of cookies late in the evening before bed or after she had an argument with your father, this may have some influence on how you view food and how you use it to deal with emotions. Or, you may seek out food for reasons other than hunger. You may have “comfort foods” when you are feeling down. Feeling anxious, bored, tired, frustrated, or overwhelmed may lead you to eating foods that, in the short-term, make you feel better. Food may be used as a reward for working hard, accomplishing a goal, celebrating a victory, or taking care of everyone else. Another reason for giving in to a craving may be because you have deprived yourself of food by skipping meals or restricting calories. Once food is finally in sight, eating can get out of control due to feelings of starvation and deprivation. Also, the reasoning such as, “I have not eaten in the past twelve hours; it will be okay for me to eat some of these M&M’s from the bag on the way home before I eat dinner” may occur and, suddenly, the entire bag is gone.
Cravings involve feelings and behaviors. Therefore, focused efforts on curbing these cravings and eliminating binge eating are important to take. Following are five (5) suggestions for how to curb those cravings, control binges and develop a healthier relationship with food.
- SELF-AWARENESS: First, take note of the foods you crave, when you crave them, where you are when the craving comes upon you, and what you are feeling at that time. Understanding what triggers you to eat junk food helps you determine the connection between your mood and the food you put in your mouth. Make a note of this in a journal so that you become more self-aware of the thoughts you have associated with the foods that may lead you to overeating or bingeing. REMEMBER: THE ONLY PROBLEM EATING CAN SOLVE IS HUNGER! Once you identify your triggers, your emotions and the situations that lead you to craving certain foods, you can start to develop skills to combat the craving.
- RIDE OUT THE WAVE OF THE CRAVE. There are a lot of ways to “ride the wave of the crave.” Keep in mind that the natural pattern of a craving is like cresting the wave; it gets strong and then it comes back down. Some strategies to help “ride out the wave” include distracting yourself by journaling, calling a friend, putting in your earbuds and dancing around the house, going for a walk, or eating a piece of fruit. Another way to ride out the crave wave is to use a mindfulness technique known as STOMP. To use this mindfulness technique:
S = STOP and bring attention to the present moment
T = TAKE a breath
O = OBSERVE what is going on
M = MAKE a decision about your behavior
P = Proceed once you make a choice about your behavior
- START EACH DAY WITH A HEALTHY BREAKFAST. Be sure to eat breakfast around the same time each morning, whether you are hungry or not. This helps regulate your blood sugar and your appetite which, in turn, will help decrease cravings and overeating. Make sure the breakfast is a healthy one with protein and complex carbohydrates (do not eat cereal, breakfast bars, pastries or other foods high in sugar).
- NEVER LET YOUR TANK GET BELOW “E.” Eat at regular times during the day to ward off feelings of deprivation. Just like it is best not to let the gas tank in your car get down to “E” for empty, it is also important to keep your stomach “tank” above “E” as well. Eating healthy meals and snacks of lean protein, vegetables, fruit and whole grains is important to keep your body and your brain functioning at peak performance. It will also help with regulating your moods. Make sure you plan ahead to have healthy snacks on hand, a nutritious lunch packed, or food in the fridge to prepare an enjoyable dinner.
- EATING NEEDS TO BE DONE AT A DINING OR KITCHEN TABLE. Finally, only eat at your kitchen or dining table (or at a table in a restaurant). Put the food on your plate, look at the portion size, tell yourself, “this is all I want to eat,” eat it and then move on to another activity. Too often we allow the foods we crave into our cars, onto the sofa, into our bedrooms, and we do not monitor how much we are eating. Regulate how much and where you eat your food, and think of what you need to say to yourself to ward off the craving. A positive statement such as “I want food to nourish my body, not deal with my emotions…I can get through this by writing down my thoughts and feelings.” As mentioned earlier in this article, we eat to resolve hunger – not emotions. Use your food for your physical health and find a way to instill good habits for your emotional health (such as exercise, talking to a counselor, journaling, or getting involved in an activity that brings you joy).
For more information about cravings and suggestions for how to deal with binge eating, I encourage you to read Dr. Cynthia Bulik’s book, “Crave: Why You Binge Eat and How to Stop.” Dr. Bulik offers practical, evidence-based guidelines on how to “curb the cravings” so that you are in control of your food intake. Remember: you are in control of your cravings – they do not control you. You can change your behavior and with some focus, effort and skill-building, you can develop a healthy relationship with food that is good for your body and mind.