Oh, I am so done with the shame game when it comes to my health, my weight, my eating habits. Who’s with me?! Along my journey, I made a powerful shift from LABELING (“I have no willpower”, “I’m an emotional eater”, “I’m simply addicted to cookies”) to LEARNING (“Hmmm, why was I craving #allthejunk today?”, “Why is my appetite different this week than last?”). I went from despising myself for eating the entire party-size bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips to instead, finally figuring out WTF my body needed to feel satiated and energized.
I realized that cravings aren’t something to beat myself up over. They are simply the body and brain’s way of shouting at us when we’re not giving ourselves what we need.
Unfortunately, our bodies can’t speak to us more directly:
“Hey Girl, you don’t need that fifth cookie, that fourteenth Netflix episode. Stop it with the 300-calorie Lean Cuisines. Balance your plate with protein, veggies, carbs, and fat, and give yourself some legit, unscheduled downtime to recharge.”
Nope, the cravings don’t come through with that kind of clarity and encouragement.
Instead, cravings are the cranky equivalent of a screaming toddler out to dinner well past bedtime. Impossible to tune out, and will. not. back. down. until needs are met.
When cravings strike, it’s NOT time to give yourself an emotional beatdown.
Put down the boxing gloves.
Instead, play detective.
Grab your magnifying glass and your thinking cap and nonjudgmentally examine and observe what’s going on.
- Objectivity instead of judgment
- Curiosity instead of shame
- Compassion instead of criticism
- Solutions instead of “screw it”
Cravings aren’t inherently good or bad. They simply are.
Cravings are our biology’s “code red” system, alerting us of risk. All of those urges are built-in protective mechanisms to save us from famine, undernourishment, physical danger, and all sorts of risks out there in the world. Which is actually a good thing. Your body is wired to help you survive.
Reframe, and try to see your cravings for the extraordinarily helpful (though crabby) tool they are. Only then can you begin to learn from your body and what it’s telling you, instead of falling into a shame spiral. Resist the urge to simply “fight” your cravings, because in doing so, you are basically fighting against your biology (which is the product of millenia of human evolution). I think you know who’s going to win that one.
Sometimes cravings guide us to obviously helpful things, like when you crave squash, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes because your body just knows you need some more carbs and beta-carotene.
Sometimes cravings steer us to junky, highly refined foods like donuts, muffins, corndogs, and whatever-other-junk-you-can-think-of.
There are plenty of causes of cravings:
Maybe you’ve been underfueling for too long. (Oh, yeah, you bet I’m bolding this one. So many of us aim to undereat at mealtime and it is possibly the number one driver of cravings. A 300-calorie “meal” isn’t your solution. It’s part of your problem.)
Maybe you’re sleep deprived.
Maybe you’re dealing with an extraordinary amount of unmanaged stress.
Maybe you’ve been eating more highly processed foods than real foods, leaving you nutrient-depleted.
These are all situations in which your body is going to compel you to seek out very quick-acting, energy-dense food sources. Your body is demanding energy, stat, and it’s going to crank up your cravings to get you to seek out those foods. And highly refined foods like donuts and Cheez-Its provide just that. They are easy for our bodies to digest, so they give us a quick, intense hit of energy. Feels great for a moment, but repeating that day in and day out leaves us feeling pretty crappy.
A better solution to prevent that kind of craving is to preemptively meet your biological needs before the “must-eat-all-the-Swedish-Fish” cravings kick in.
But first, your biology.
So, does this “listen to cravings” thing mean “Oh, my body just wants donuts all the time, so that’s clearly my biology speaking. Time for a Krispy Kreme or Dunky’s run!”. Uhm, no.
Yes, it’s true, our bodies are rather hard-wired to seek out that stuff, especially when we are shortchanging ourselves on our biological needs.
But you’ve probably learned that you can’t willpower your way out of wanting donuts every day.
Of course, it’s totally normal to desire and enjoy a donut now and then. That’s part of life, and nothing to freak out over. But if you’re seeking them out every single day 24-7/365 and feeling like your craving is totally controlling you, then maybe you’ve got some unmet biological needs.
Fortunately, real, whole or minimally refined foods, in a balance of protein, fat, and slow-acting carbs are very effective at meeting our biological needs.
Here are just a few of their superpowers:
Balance hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin), leaving you you feeling full and satisfied
Reduce brain fog
Boost fat loss, enhance muscle building
Balance blood sugar (no more “hangry” crashes)
Reduce inflammation (and along, with that, can minimize aches and pains)
Improved health markers (lipid profile, blood glucose levels, blood pressure, etc.)
Help you better meet your overall nutrient needs
And you know what else our bodies respond VERY well to?
Strength Training (at a just-right dose FOR YOU)
When we meet our true needs with our food choices and lifestyle habits, our biology is IN THE ZONE.
We have more energy.
We have more patience. (I find I yell at my kids 50% less when I meet my biological needs!)
We have more strength and stamina, less aches and pains (which makes everything else feel easier).
We feel pretty darn vibrant (due to each cell in your body finally having what it needs to do-its-thang, and do it well!).
We can think more clearly.
We can build muscle more easily.
We can burn stored fat as needed, instead of riding a spike-and-crash wave of hunger.
Maybe you’re thinking, “But, Jen, I am SUCH an emotional eater! I just know it’s my feelings driving the bus here”.
Until you are in the ballpark of meeting your biological needs consistently, avoid labeling yourself an “emotional eater”.
Is it possible that emotions might be driving some of your eating behaviors?
Yes, of course that’s possible. And some degree of emotional eating will probably always exist in your life and that’s totally normal. But you can’t totally bypass your biological needs and go straight to uncovering and examining your emotional ball of wax.
First, you need to minimize the white noise of plain-old biological cravings. Only then do you have a much clearer picture of any underlying emotional eating behaviors.
Here’s the first question to ask yourself:
AM I MEETING MY BIOLOGICAL NEEDS??
So many of us are convinced that most of our cravings are “emotional eating” and lack of willpower. That was me, too. I used to think I just sucked in the willpower department, and that I would always be in a constant wrestling match for control over my eating habits.
I was convinced that I would never be able to keep Oreos in the house without feeling the NEED to eat an entire sleeve in one sitting.
In high school, I felt guilty when I would come home from soccer practice and feel the need to eat at least half of an entire box of Cheez-Its.
When I was a sleep-deprived mama just trying to keep up with my toddler and infant, I was hungry for snacks every single hour.
And I used to label ALL of that as stress eating or emotional eating. I did not know then what I know now. Instead of LABELING, I could have been LEARNING:
I’ve learned that my insatiable appetite for Oreos was the result of not meeting my body’s needs through my overall diet. I was eating more refined foods than my body (specifically my blood sugar response!) can handle, and I wasn’t eating enough protein for my body’s needs. These nutrient inadequacies led me to crave lots of fast-acting energy dense junk foods like Oreos.
I now know that I was often underfueled in my teen years, especially during my highly active sports seasons. I didn’t know then that my monster craving for all-the-Cheez-Its wasn’t a moral failing. It was simply my body’s way of desperately doing what it needed to compel me to give myself more food, more fuel as quickly as possible.
I’ve learned that my snacking-on-the-hour habits while parenting a two-year-old and an infant wasn’t solely about stress. Yes, pure old stress was definitely a driver of my snacking habit back then (terrible twos PLUS a colicky baby, ‘nuff said). But I now know that the utter lack of sleep for months on end was also playing a huge role. As you can imagine, the chronic sleep deprivation dialed down my satiety hormones and dialed up my hunger hormones, leaving me feeling always hungry. Again, a great example of how our body is wired for survival. My body perceived lots of wakefulness and, hence, a greater need for constant energy. Right on cue, my hormones responded in a way that would encourage me to keep the fuel coming in, 24/7. Great for survival, but not the most helpful thing when you’re living in a world that’s telling you it’s time to “get your body back” (whatever that means, but that’s a NOVEL for another day, ha!).
In reality, a good chunk of what we label “emotional eating” is often driven by under-nourishment:
- Not eating enough to fuel our body and brain’s needs day in and day out (cue the weekend binge, right??)
- Depriving ourselves of entire macronutrients, entire food groups convinced they are the only obstacle getting in the way of fat loss (No, carbs and fat are not Satan.)
- Shortchanging ourselves of 7-9 hours of sleep nightly
- Not giving our body the daily dose of movement it needs to thrive. Movement has so many benefits, including regulating your blood sugar response after a meal. When your blood sugar response is less roller coaster and more even keel, you avoid those spikes and crashes that trigger cravings. Plus, a simple walk is also a great form of stress relief. Managing your stress through habits like walking (or meditation, focused breathing, knitting – whatever relaxes you) reduces your likelihood of reaching for food as a form of stress relief.
- Going for too long without time to relax and recharge (Whatever that might mean for you – alone time with a good book? A walk? Time with friends who “get you”? 30 minutes without “Mom, Mom, Mom” interruptions? )
Figuring out what your body needs is a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight. There is no quick fix, just persistence and patience in figuring out what you truly need to thrive.
Fortunately, the big rocks I’ve mentioned of real food, sleep, movement, stress relief, and self care are a very helpful starting point. If you need inspiration on getting started with those big rocks, poke around my blog for meal ideas, recipes, behavior change strategies, and more. If you’re looking for more support, shoot me a DM, send me an email, contact me however you’d like. Let’s chat about how we can work together so you can stop labeling, start learning, and start living a more energized, vibrant life.