Don’t think about pink elephants.
You just thought of a pink elephant, didn’t you? That’s how the brain works. By telling yourself not to think about something, you actually think about it.
Cravings can be likened to pink elephants. When you are avoiding certain unhealthy or fattening foods you find yourself thinking about them excessively. These thoughts can be intrusive and difficult to ignore.
Your weight loss program will not be successful unless you get to grips with your cravings. My Blackmores spoke with leading ACT psychotherapist and bestselling author, Russ Harris, about how they develop and how they can be controlled.
How do cravings develop?
“First of all, cravings are a fact of life,” says Russ.
“They are the result of multiple factors, and everyone has their own triggers. For many people they are mainly triggered by anxiety, guilt and boredom. At times of painful or uncomfortable emotion, they will turn to food.”
Furthermore, Russ explains, the worse your general diet, the more intense your cravings are likely to be. If going on a healthy eating plan means giving up the processed and ready-made food you are used to, then you are likely to have them.
“There’s almost an addiction-like component,” says Russ.
“Some people feel resentful and deprived of what they want to eat and have strong cravings as a result.”
How can we deal with cravings?
You might not have thought about it this way, but a craving is essentially a sensation in your body.
“When you next crave something in particular,” says Russ, “stop and pay attention to what is happening in your body.”
The sensations you may notice include:
- your mouth watering in anticipation of eating
- tension in your arms, legs or neck
- a knot in your stomach, like nervous anxiety
Russ suggests observing these physical sensations like a curious observer. Acknowledge what you are feeling and what your mind is telling you.
Check in a couple of minutes later and notice how the sensations might have changed. This exercise helps you to detach from the urgency of the feeling.
Russ says, “I call this urge surfing. A craving reaches a peak and then subsides, just like a wave. Staying with the feeling and observing its pattern helps you to recognise what happens to you in that uncomfortable moment of temptation. It keeps you grounded in the present moment.”
You can choose what to do
One of the problems that make cravings so difficult to overcome is that the pattern of urge/impulsive eating is well-entrenched behaviour that stems from childhood.
However, you can break the pattern by recognising that in that moment you are faced with a choice.
“You can either give in to the craving, or do something else,” says Russ. “And that something else will be more meaningful and life-enhancing just because it is not acting on the craving.”
Tempting foods usually offer a pleasurable distraction that soothes pain and relieves boredom. But if you choose to give in to a craving, then you continue to reinforce the pattern. The other choice is forego that pleasure for the sake of your health and weight loss goals.
“It’s a question of your values,” says Russ. “Ask yourself what you want your time on the planet to be about. Overeating? Or looking after your body?”
No magic cure
According to Russ, there is no doubt that eating a healthy diet reduces your cravings. “Unfortunately, however, there is no magic cure,” he adds.
Slip-ups are inevitable, even for the most conscientious eaters.
Russ says, “If you choose to have that extra piece of chocolate this time, then accept you have lost the benefit of resisting your craving and move on.”
The main thing is to have a better recognition of the choices you can make. When you are in the grip of a craving, it can seem as if you have no option other than to submit, but you do not have to be at the mercy of every thought.
It is possible to learn different thoughts, but it takes commitment to change.
“By recognising what you are experiencing is a craving, and actively choosing to resist it,” says Russ, “you are choosing the benefit of acting on your values. This will bolster your self-esteem because we like ourselves better when we put our values into practice.”
The take-home message
- Cravings are less intense and less frequent if you practise good eating habits.
- Recognise when you’re having a craving and ride it out.
- Observe your sensations in order to detach from the emotion surrounding them.
- Make a choice to act on the craving or not.
- Be clear about your values regarding eating and health. Choosing to act on your values will strengthen your sense of yourself as a capable person.