By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
When it comes to obtaining long-term fitness results, consistency is key. Small actions repeated over time lead to major changes. The potential wrench in the plan? The psychology behind food cravings.
Think about it this way: you start off your day with the perfect plan. Breakfast is an optimal blend of protein and some nutrient-dense vegetables. Lunch? prepared the night before and ready to go. You even packed the perfect snack to hold you over until you get home for dinner. Everything seems to be going according to plan—until it doesn’t.
Maybe a work meeting runs over, you get some terrible news about a project you’ve been working on, or a co-worker just annoys you to the point of no return. At this point, you hear a familiar knock on the door: your cravings are calling. That bag of chips. That cake. That sundae. Just one bite can change everything and make you feel better. At least that’s how you feel. You give in, feel better temporarily—and then beat yourself up for not being strong enough to stick to your plan.
Emotional eating is a real thing—and it has nothing to do with a lack of discipline.
We bounce from diet to diet and don’t address the root causes behind many of the cravings that derail our initial efforts to change. Physical hunger comes along gradually; you may feel your stomach growling, low energy, shakiness, or even have a headache. Emotional cravings can come on suddenly; these are specific cravings that crop up in response to certain cues, or the need to consume food to change the way you currently feel. It’s never really about the food.
We have all experienced emotional eating and have sought out comfort food to escape feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, frustration, etc. There are parts of the brain that feel rewarded when you eat high fat, high salt, and high sugar foods. The problem? The comfort is temporary. It’s usually followed by feelings of guilt and resentment. This can be a destructive cycle that prevents you from developing any real consistency with your diet.
The next time you get hit with a craving, take 3 deep breaths and ask yourself these 3 questions:
This may seem like a silly and obvious question, but it can really be an eye-opener. Use this moment to perform a body scan. Check-in with what is going on both physically and emotionally. Is your stomach growling? How are your energy levels? Any lightheadedness or discomfort? When is the last time you had something to eat? What’s your current mood? What were you doing right before the idea of eating popped into your head? If you perform this scan and come to the conclusion that you are hungry…..Feed yo self! If you aren’t hungry, move on to question number 2.
In the words of one of my wise coaching mentors: Face your stuff, don’t stuff your face!
Examining the root cause of what it is that bothers us or throws us off our equilibrium is essential to fight cravings. Instead of eating to change your situation, use this moment to isolate your thought patterns and figure out what exactly it is that you are trying to escape or feel. Meet these difficult feelings or situations head-on, instead of running away or reaching for that unnecessary snack.
Being aware is half the battle. Now that you have isolated the issue, what are some possible solutions that don’t involve food?
Looking to experience pleasure? what are some rewards that are fun and enjoyable that aren’t food orientated?
Feeling stressed out? Try meditating for 5 minutes, or calling a loved one for a calming dopamine boost. It’s really about getting creative and breaking old patterns. It may take some adjusting, but you can do it.
These 3 questions are a powerful combatant to fighting cravings. You won’t crush them overnight, but over time, developing a new process to deal with them is highly beneficial.
I’m a big fan of the saying “you manage what you monitor.” Tracking your food intake can really help you tackle the 3 questions above and establish good trends. Maybe hunger strikes around the same time each day, or the same stressful situation leads you on a downward spiral at a certain point in your day, regardless of what you had for lunch. The more information you have, the more solutions you can come up with to tackle your problems.
I love the Daily Food Journal from Peter Pauper Press. It’s an inexpensive and simple way to track meals, snacks, liquids, hunger levels, activities, and more in one discreet place. Find out more about it here.