How to Manage Cravings

Merriam Webster defines a craving as: an intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing

Cravings can be triggered by all different things – memories, habits, smells, thoughts, emotions – you name it.

We all have cravings. If one of your goals on your health journey is to eliminate cravings – good luck. It’s not going to happen. It’s truly an unrealistic goal. Unless you can manage to stop being human!

A better goal would be to learn to deal with cravings better.

The beautiful thing is that most cravings pass in a matter of a few minutes. They are quick to arrive in our brains and quick to leave again. And, a few minutes after they pass, they hold very little power over us. I have two systems in place to help keep me from acting on my cravings.

First, I don’t keep anything in my house that I crave.

I control my environment.

I have three teenage boys. All three play hockey and one plays football. They can eat – and those appetites require me to keep a lot of food around all the time. However, the food that I keep around all the time is primarily healthy food – I have plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, proteins, cheese, yogurt and sparkling water. These are not things that most of us (myself included) crave.

Having once been a teenager myself, I am well aware that at some point in their teen years, my children are all going to want to do stupid things. In preparation for these inevitable events, I moved us out to the country a few years ago, bought a trampoline, dug a pool, and put an ice rink in our barn. I made our house the place where the other kids want to go after school and after practice. So far it’s working – so I can’t complain! However, with a large number of teenage boys rotating through my house on a regular basis, I also have to have a few other less-than-perfect snacks around – or risk having the kids gather somewhere else – where I can’t see what’s happening.

As we entered this phase of life, I had to decide what I was going to allow in my house and what was off limits. I decided to keep two things in my pantry at all times – pretzels and microwave popcorn (or at least I have them most of the time – they can disappear rapidly when six boys finish hockey practice!). I decided on these two things not because they are “healthy” snacks – but because I really dislike both of them and neither one is something that ever tempts me. I can walk by my pantry a hundred times every day and never feel that pull to go grab a handful of either. My boys know that there is a limit on how much of either they get to nibble on – they are primarily there to grab and share with friends in those moments.

There are some things that are completely off limits in my house. Again, not because I deem them “unhealthy” compared to the pretzels – but because having them in the house is a huge distraction to me. I can’t sit at my computer and work knowing there are cheese-its in the house. Same goes for almost any kind of cracker or pastry.

If I start craving cheese its and they happen to be right there in my kitchen – I’m going to struggle. A lot. Controlling my environment is one of the key things that keeps me eating really well almost all of the time. I might crave cheese its periodically, but I can’t think of the last time I had the follow-through to actually change out of my PJs, get in my car, drive to the store, buy the darn things and drive home to eat them. Way too much trouble!

The second thing that I do to help beat cravings is I make myself sit with the thoughts for a while. I don’t let impulse win. Again, most of the time, they are fleeting – so if I can just wait them out, they will more than likely get squashed away by something else more important. Most of the time we start craving something, it is actually our brain looking for a distraction from what we are doing. Most of the time we are looking for something more fun than the current action.

It took me a while to reason this one out, but we rarely crave anything when we are doing something engaging. I don’t crave anything when I’m in a zone writing. I don’t crave anything when I’m playing a game of cards with my mom. I don’t crave anything when my youngest son and I take the dogs walking. When I am fully present in the moment, my brain isn’t looking for something more pleasurable.

I crave things when I’m frustrated with the workload in front of me. When I’m exhausted after a day of work and I still have to make lunches and prepare dinner for the troops. When football practice runs late and I’m impatiently waiting in my car with nothing else to do but think about the confrontation I had earlier that day with someone. When I need a pleasant distraction from the space I’m in.

When those cravings present themselves to me (and you know they typically present themselves loud and obnoxiously):

I give myself two choices. One is to sit with the craving and think about it for ten whole minutes before acting upon it.

Turn my attention to that thought fully and immerse myself in it. This option involves thinking about cheese its for 10 whole minutes before moving on to something else. Personally, I can’t think about cheese its for 10 minutes.

The second option is to return to the thought I was trying to avoid and finish it.

Process it and move on. Reenter the space (that I clearly wanted to be distracted from) and just sit in the space and finish it.

If I can think about that craving for more than 10 minutes without getting distracted, it’s probably pretty legit and is worth going out of my way to acquire it. Not something else in place of it – but that thing that occupied so much brain space that it had to find its way out!

None of us are perfect. There is no perfect way to eat – to think about food – to be an eater in this world. The goal is not perfection – the goal is to understand your wiring and work with what you’ve got to be the best version of yourself you can be.

You know how to find me if you need more help!

Courtney Younglove, M.D.

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