I had a very long discussion with a young man while I was tabling recently at a health fair. He approached the two of us with the question, “What can I do about the cravings for sweets that I have after dinner?” My co-staffer responded that he could try popcorn, and she went on to explain how to make it healthy but delicious. I listened a minute, and then said, “You know, I’m going to disagree with you on that one.” I’m not convinced this substitution method works for heavy cravings.
If you are, like me, a living human being, particularly if you are a woman, you have probably had many conversations with friends about what to eat when you want to eat something naughty. We seem to go from Snackwells to 100-calorie-packs-of-whatever to fruit salad to toasted soy nuts to rice cakes to infinity, and what they all seem to have in common is that they utterly fail to be that brownie we wanted. Do these things really satisfy people, really, for the long term? If these are working for you, go for it. You don’t need me. And keep telling people what works. Maybe when you want a doughnut, a banana is just as good.
But I spent too many evenings eating item after item that just wasn’t that candy bar I wanted. And I found another way. This method works, for me, to the degree that I do not want the offending item any more.
It’s not as simple as “try popcorn.” There are a lot of possible parts to it, so you can customize it, and so it took a really long time to explain to that poor guy, glued to my words, and alternately standing and squatting in front of our table. Fortunately for you, I’ve worked out a more organized explanation, but still, be glad you’re seated comfortably.
Basically, my idea is “Pay attention, face your cravings, and take control.” (Disclaimer – maybe someone else has thought of this before me, maybe there are lots of books written about it, but if so I don’t know about it. The seeds of the idea have come to me from many directions.)
Pay attention: Over time, as my diet becomes healthier, I have become more and more aware of the huge impact what I eat has on how I feel. Many of you will say “duh!” but probably an equal number of you will doubt it. It is only very recently that the average doctor is beginning to acknowledge that diet can significantly impact prevention and control of disease; many still don’t consider it important enough to discuss during an appointment. Schools don’t make this connection when they serve high-sugar, high-fat meals in the lunchroom. Common sense (“garbage in, garbage out”) isn’t always so common. So for example, I thought I could eat sugar with impunity until I discovered, after thirty years of mild acne, that sugar gives me acne within hours of eating it. I did not know this because I ate added sugar, at reasonably low levels, almost every day. So it was only when I thought, “Eh, maybe these anti-sugar fanatics know something I don’t, maybe I could cut back,” and then one day overindulged again, that I made a connection I hadn’t even been looking for.
This isn’t the only example, but I will try not to bore you more than necessary. The thing is, I now have a strong incentive to not eat sugar excessively. The pleasure lasts minutes, but the zits last days. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. Maybe with you, the sugar makes you feel jumpy, or just vaguely unhealthy or even guilty. The point is to pay attention, not just to pounds on the scale, which for me is too distanced, but to how you feel. I discuss the concept of not being aware of how bad some food makes us feel in another post I wrote, Why Can’t We Stick With a Healthy Diet?
Face Your Cravings: I’m going to continue with the sugar example. We live on a very short street with no other trick-or-treating kids, and we are cut off from other neighborhoods by a busy road. So while we could theoretically get some kids, we never do. Zero. So I buy a handful of Smarties (my favorite vegan candy) and then there they are after Halloween. I don’t eat anything like this usually, so I paid close attention when I ate, well, about ten rolls of them one night and then about the same the next night. In addition to my face breaking out (which I was just beginning to figure out), I noticed that on the third night, I really wanted more Smarties. Since there were still a few left, I finished them. The next night, when I wanted them again, there was nothing for it but to sit with this want. Now, I could have raided the kitchen looking for something to take the place of the Smarties, but because this was a new craving, and I was paying attention, I realized this was something I wanted to get hold of. I wanted to Take Control. So I sat there, and just marveled at this feeling inside me. I didn’t push it away “Bad cravings, go away, what a terrible person I am!” and I didn’t hold it tightly by letting it drag me to the kitchen. I chuckled to myself, “Wow, those Smarties are really calling me. What a strong feeling this is. Good thing I don’t have to follow it, I don’t have to believe it. I’ll just watch it and see if it gets stronger or not.” It is also helpful to see this craving, not as the enemy, but as a part of yourself, like a sick child. Have compassion. So, within a minute or so it went away. It might have come back, but I would just do the same thing, and I found that each time, it was easier to let go of. The next night, I couldn’t care less about Smarties again. This was empowering information – the craving doesn’t last forever, and doesn’t come back indefinitely! When I feel like I really want something, the suffering is not indefinite, if only I can take a stand! And knowing what I do about the acne and the cravings, if you put out a bowl of Smarties for me right now, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have one. Like Pavlov’s dog, I can learn.
This isn’t isolated – I had the same thing happen when I cut out (for expense reasons) the dark chocolate I was eating every night. At first I missed it; that first night, I did have an apple as a substitute, but I was being aware mindfully, and I didn’t expect it to really replace the chocolate. By the second or third night, I didn’t even think about it. I have been without it over a month. I wanted to see if it would raise my blood pressure to have it again (long story), so I tried two pieces in the middle of the afternoon last week. I didn’t even want them, had to make myself eat them. I didn’t crave them later, which seems to confirm my suspicion that a craving is not usually set up by having something just once.
Other examples of foods that I suspect create cravings in me are salt and diet soda. I have no interest in diet soda unless I have had a few cans of it in the past few days; the first can is “meh,” the second one tastes better, and soon I am vastly preferring it to water. From paying attention, I have learned that diet soda is not worth the craving. Here is my posting on someone else’s meat addiction.
A friend told me she used the craving technique of having a glass of water, waiting two minutes, and then if she still really wanted whatever having a small piece. This is very similar. She’s bringing mindfulness to the situation, instead of just being dragged to the kitchen, whether to have the desired food or a desperate substitute.
Sometimes when I have an urge to have dessert when I would prefer not to, I will fix a pot of tea (I learned to love it without sugar). Now, if I threw a teabag in a mug with water and shoved it in the microwave, it might not have the same effect as what I do: put water in the kettle, heat it up, measure tea into my teapot, assemble the tea tray, etc, etc. It is ten mindful minutes from start to finish. Do you see the connection? It’s not really about the tea, any more than it was about the apple. I’m not expecting the tea or apple to substitute for the Smarties or whatever, to fulfill a crunch, or salt or sweet craving. It’s just a pleasant thing to do while I experience the craving and watch it go away.
As part of this discussion, I encouraged the man at the table to be very aware of where this craving was coming from. Look all over the body – is it in the hands, the mouth, the chest? This is very useful information. In the end, though, if there is no hunger in our stomach, and the craving is coming from somewhere else, is it a good idea to be eating, even if it’s a healthy substitute? You’ll have to decide that.
Take Control: I’ve already discussed one way to take control, by facing your cravings and not being dragged around by them. Another way is to set some common-sense rules and just stick to them. I’m open to the possibility that that is easier said than done. I wonder sometimes if I don’t have more willpower than other people. I can’t really understand an unbreakable addiction (though I can have compassion), and have no interest in reading stories about people making poor life choices, Shopaholic, for instance. So maybe this is just me. But I set some food rules, like have a breakfast just big enough so I’m starting to get hungry right before lunch. If for some reason I have real hunger earlier, mid-morning snack will be fruit only. Same idea for lunch, with any afternoon snack being vegetables only. I have a sensible dinner, watch my portions. Some good dinner rules would be, serving bowls stay in the kitchen, served buffet style; use smaller plates; measure portions; seconds only on vegetables. I was having dessert every night, but decided to cut back so picked the nights that were important. Now we have dessert three nights a week, and when my children ask for dessert some other night, I scoff, “On a Monday?? People don’t eat dessert on Mondays.”
I also want to point out that the single most helpful food rule, hands down, was “Stop eating animal products.” When I went from vegetarian to vegan, most of the junk food I used to eat was suddenly off limits. Bye bye, M&Ms, see ya, doughnuts. I no longer wanted to eat misery. Most people would probably say that M&Ms having milk in them would be a real bummer for vegans, but my complexion, my waistline, and I are so thankful I’m not tempted any more.
The other staffer at the table made a very good point, that often these snack substitutes could be foods that we need more of anyway, such as fruit for dessert. Absolutely. It’s just that for me, fruit is a poor dessert; I feel like I’ve been had. And it leaves me in the habit of eating something after dinner, which is what I’d like to drop.
So, maybe that’s just me. Maybe I offered the guy lousy advice, though he had the other advice to choose from as well. So if you feel that the rice cakes and canned peaches are working for you, awesome. But if you feel like these foods are just papering over a steadfast problem, like they’re barely containing the craving, like you need to keep finding the next new product that will really make you stop wanting to eat a wheelbarrow of cookies every night, then maybe it’s time to Pay Attention.