Accepting Your Cravings

We all experience cravings from time to time and that’s perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of what you fancy every now and then. In fact, restricting ourselves from our favourite food often leads to more cravings [1], so it’s important to give yourself permission to eat the foods you enjoy.


Sometimes, however, we experience cravings far more than we would like and they can be really hard to resist. These cravings might be very frequent and intense, making them hard to manage. When we give in, we might feel a bit out of control. This usually ends up with us feeling pretty guilty after.


Unfortunately, actively trying to resist cravings is usually pretty ineffective. We might try to avoid these foods by not keeping them in the house, or just keeping small portions around. Modifying our environment to work in our favour can go a long way, but sometimes we need some extra strategies too. Besides, we can’t avoid these foods forever and we’re not always in control of our environments. Ultimately, most of us would like to get to a place where we feel confident and in control of our food choices regardless of where we are. The goal isn’t to prevent cravings from arising ever again, but to feel good about how we manage them when they do arise.


So, how do we do it?!


Step One: Understand Your Triggers

It can be common to feel like there is something wrong with you for experiencing cravings, when in fact it’s completely normal. The reason that cravings can be so hard to manage is that we’re often unaware of why they arise; we usually act on them automatically, without much thought in the moment. Learning to act in a more conscious way might be more beneficial for our long-term goals [2].


We may experience cravings for lots of different reasons and usually it’s a signal for something else. The key is to pay attention to these experiences and try to decipher the message. What are your cravings trying to tell you? If you often find yourself having unwanted food experiences, it’s time to play detective and see if you can spot any patterns.


If you can’t think right now, it could be helpful to answer these questions when you next experience an episode of unwanted eating.


1. When do cravings usually arise?

2. What was going on before the cravings arose?

  • Where were you? At home? At work?

  • What time was it?

  • What were you doing?

  • How were you feeling? E.g. Stressed, sad, bored, lonely, tired…

3. What did you notice about the eating experience?

  • What did you eat?

  • How much?

  • How did you eat? Quickly or slowly? Did you notice what you were eating? Did you really taste it?

4. How did you feel after?

  • Did it make you feel better or worse?

5. What would you like to be different?

  • If you have completed the Values Exercise, it could be helpful to revisit your values. Ask yourself: What could [Shannon]* do to move herself towards who she wants to be?


*When you do give this a go, it’s useful to reflect on your actions from a third-person perspective. It sounds a bit silly, but referring to yourself in the third-person helps to create something termed psychological distance. Essentially, this distance facilitates self-control by shifting our focus away from the more salient features of the situation and towards features that are more relevant to our broader goals [3]. For example, rather than thinking about how good the chocolate tastes when we eat it, we’re more likely to think about the impact that may have on our long-term goals. This can help us stick to our goals of improving our eating behaviours [4].


Remember that lots of people struggle with these too and you’re certainly not alone. We all face unique pressures which is why it’s so important to understand yours. Try to take a step back and just reflect on these experiences from a distance. Human behaviour is so complex! Try to take this as an opportunity to be curious about your own behaviour. There is no right or wrong, we’re just trying to understand what is going on so we can gain more awareness about our own actions and the things that drive them.


Step Two: Brainstorm Solutions

After a bit of reflecting, you may begin to spot some patterns as to when and why your cravings arise.


1. What did you notice? Are there any common trends?

  • At what time do the cravings usually arise?

  • Is there a common trigger?

  • How do you usually feel prior to experiencing a craving?

2. How can you break these links?

  • If you’ve noticed tiredness is a common trigger, are there ways that you can manage your energy? Do you need more sleep? More rest? More time off?

  • If you’ve noticed boredom is a common trigger, what hobbies or activities could you add to your life? How else can you manage boredom?

  • If you’ve noticed sadness or loneliness is a common trigger, what could you do to address those emotions? If you’re struggling to come up with answers on your own, it is worth reaching out to a professional who can help.

Step Three: Acceptance

The above strategies will help you to identify common triggers and make plans on how you can manage these to help reduce the frequency of your cravings. These are great steps to take in advance.


Sometimes we might need additional strategies that we can utilise in the moment too, to help manage the intensity of cravings when they do arise.


Although these urges are uncomfortable, trying to suppress, avoid, or get rid of them usually doesn’t work. Research suggests that acceptance of cravings, rather than avoidance, may be a superior strategy [5], especially for those of us who are particularly responsive to the presence of food [6]. Think of your urges like a misbehaving child. The more you try to discipline the child, or get them to quieten down, the louder they become! If we can learn to tolerate them when they’re playing up, they will soon get bored and calm down on their own. Sidenote: I don’t have kids, don’t take parenting advice from me, this is just an example!


There are a number of acceptance techniques out there [7] so you might want to experiment until you find ones that work for you.


Mindfulness

Urge Surfing: This is a mindfulness technique that teaches you how to observe and experience your urges or emotions. We’re not trying to get rid of them, we’re simply focusing on the feeling in the moment. After all, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn how to surf.


When you notice an urge, rather than fighting against it, imagine you are on a surfboard and riding along with it.

  1. Focus on your breath [8]. Practice a few cycles of deep inhalation and exhalation - I’m a fan of the Box Breathing technique. Use your breath to keep you centred; this will be your surfboard.

  2. Notice where you are experiencing the urge: What does it feel like? What’s happening with your heart rate, your breathing, or your gut?

  3. Explore the sensations: Notice whether the feelings fluctuate in intensity or quality. Don’t try to act on them, just be curious about how it feels.

  4. Return to your breath: Keep going. Focus on your breathing.


[9]


This is likely to feel difficult at first and that doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It’s just completely different to the way we’re used to approaching our cravings! Don’t be put off if you can’t quite get the hang of it on your first few tries. These surfing skills take practice. Think of real life surfers: they don’t go out on day one and try to tackle the biggest waves they can find. They build up their skills over time. Although it’s challenging, these skills will pay off. Learning to focus on the present moment when cravings occur is a technique that can be applied in a wide range of different settings, meaning it’s likely to serve you well for the long term [10].


Defusion

Cognitive defusion techniques work by increasing the distance between us and our thoughts, helping us to be more mindful and present with our direct experiences of the moment. There are a number of cognitive defusion techniques out there [11].


Defusion, along with guided imagery, has been shown to help reduce calorie intake in response to cravings.


[12]


Defusion has also been shown to reduce the intensity of cravings, even for chocolate!


[13]


Leaves On A Stream is a brilliant cognitive defusion exercise developed by Russ Harris [14]. It could be worth giving this a go next time you experience a craving.





In summary:

  • Cravings are totally normal and can arise for a number of different reasons due to complex interactions between our bodies, brains and the environment we live in.

  • Experiencing cravings doesn’t make you a bad person.

  • We can’t get rid of cravings completely but we can learn strategies to help reduce the frequency and intensity of them when they do arise.

  • There are a number of different techniques that you can use. Some of them may take a bit of practice so don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t work the first time.


[1] Hill AJ. The psychology of food craving. Proc Nutr Soc. 2007 May;66(2):277-85. doi: 10.1017/S0029665107005502. PMID: 17466108.

[2] Papies, Esther & Pronk, Tila & Keesman, Mike & Barsalou, Lawrence. (2015). The Benefits of Simply Observing: Mindful Attention Modulates the Link Between Motivation and Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 108. 10.1037/a0038032.

[3] Rees, H. R., Fujita, K., Han, H. A., Sherman, J. W., & Sklar, A. Y. (2018). An examination of the processes by which construal level affects the implicit evaluation of goal relevant stimuli. Motivation Science, 4(3), 251–261.

[4] Furman CR, Kross E, Gearhardt AN. Distanced Self-Talk Enhances Goal Pursuit to Eat Healthier. Clinical Psychological Science. 2020;8(2):366-373. doi:10.1177/2167702619896366

[5] Karekla, M., Georgiou, N., Panayiotou, G., Sandoz, E. K., Kurz, A. S., & Constantinou, M. (2020). Cognitive Restructuring vs. Defusion: Impact on craving, healthy and unhealthy food intake. Eating Behaviors, 37, [101385]. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2020.101385

[6] Forman EM, Hoffman KL, McGrath KB, Herbert JD, Brandsma LL, Lowe MR. A comparison of acceptance- and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings: an analog study. Behav Res Ther. 2007 Oct;45(10):2372-86. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2007.04.004. Epub 2007 Apr 18. PMID: 17544361.

[7] https://contextualscience.org/acceptance

[8] Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353

[9] Retrieved from: https://peerguideddbtlessons.weebly.com/urge-surf-image2.html

[10] Tapper K. Mindfulness and craving: effects and mechanisms. Clin Psychol Rev. 2018 Feb;59:101-117. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2017.11.003. Epub 2017 Nov 13. PMID: 29169665..

[11] https://contextualscience.org/cognitive_defusion_deliteralization

[12] Schumacher S, Kemps E, Tiggemann M. Cognitive defusion and guided imagery tasks reduce naturalistic food cravings and consumption: A field study. Appetite. 2018 Aug 1;127:393-399. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.05.018. Epub 2018 May 14. PMID: 29772295.

[13] Schumacher S, Kemps E, Tiggemann M. Acceptance- and imagery-based strategies can reduce chocolate cravings: A test of the elaborated-intrusion theory of desire. Appetite. 2017 Jun;113:63-70. DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2017.02.012

[14] Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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