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Cravings and Willpower
A common question that I get when people are trying to improve their nutrition is, “How do I curb my cravings?”
Learning how to troubleshoot cravings can feel challenging, but it doesn’t have to be that way forever. My approach to nutrition focuses on helping people understand the basics of nutrients that will help them be fueled well for their life and goals.
In addition, one of the most important factors is helping people improve their relationship with food to feel less guilt, stress and anxiety when they are eating. If we understand some of the mental, emotional, and behavioral aspects of what, how, and why we are eating, it makes it so much easier to make mindful choices for the long run.
So, when it comes to the topic of “curbing cravings,” my approach isn’t about avoiding foods completely (outside of actual food allergies, sensitivities, or factors like religious beliefs).
The concept of “curbing cravings” is tricky because often, the first dieting move that people make is to try to cut out entire food groups to fully avoid the foods that they are craving. This is tricky because overindulging and binging often stems from some type of restriction or some other need that is not being met.
So, what happens when people try to curb cravings with food avoidance?
Let’s use the example of chocolate, a typical “forbidden food” that people try to cut out.
The mindset with cutting out chocolate (or any “forbidden food” you are craving) is often the belief that if chocolate is avoided entirely, there isn’t an opportunity to overeat it.
The problem is, what happens after a few days, weeks, months when you think of chocolate and REALLY want it again?
We’ve all been there when you walk past the ice cream shop and your senses are overtaken with the sweet aroma of cream, sugar, chocolate, and waffle cones. It can feel irresistible, especially if you have been avoiding it for a period of time.
Most people have experienced that feeling often described as “caving in to cravings” or “falling off the wagon.”
Food avoidance often has a breaking point, as many people can attest to the frustrating experience of yo-yo dieting.
Relying on willpower is not the best long term strategy. Habits will outlast willpower because they are predictable and sustainable.
The Satisfaction Factor
The quest for “balance” in nutrition can seem like a never-ending journey. Instead of viewing nutrition as “on the wagon or off the wagon” in your quest, it can be helpful to view the journey more flexibly so that it isn’t an “all or nothing” mindset.
Willpower is founded in an all or nothing mindset, whereas habits are a lifelong journey of health.
So, if habits outlast willpower, how do we actually establish habits that last so we can be healthy and still enjoy the foods we love in moderation?
It can often start going a layer deeper than food choice itself.
A helpful mindset shift is that creating a great relationship with food is actually not about food avoidance, but rather discovering the “satisfaction factor.”
There are three big elements that contribute to discovering the satisfaction factor, so that you can eat to feel fueled well and also eat the foods you enjoy without guilt, stress, or yo-yo dieting.
1) Listening to Hunger and Honoring Fullness
The first element for discovering the satisfaction factor is practicing listening to your hunger and eating when you are hungry and honoring your fullness to stopping eating when your hunger is satisfied.
This is important because when you are more attuned with your body you can make more educated choices nutritionally. This takes practice.
Developing this habit with food can feel challenging for people because hunger and fullness is often ignored. Ignoring your internal cues is not your fault. That’s learned behavior from years of dieting where the diet overruled what your body was telling you.
That said, if we focus on re-learning and building a solid foundation to understand these cues, we will more easily be able to build lasting habits.
2) Honoring Your Health
Nutrition isn’t one-size-fits-all. We all have slightly different needs nutritionally. That said, there are some basic foundational elements that are important for everyone. Choosing foods that help you be healthy and energized is important in building habits and the highest quality of life.
How people obtain these different types and amounts of nutrients varies, but generally, prioritizing your health in food choice can help in understanding the satisfaction factor because nutritious foods help optimize your body to run at its absolute best.
3) Honoring Preferences
Honoring your preferences is important in creating a long term lifestyle. Eating foods you like, in addition to eating nutritious foods, is an important part of building habits.
A helpful tool to stop the cycle of yo-yo dieting is to internalize that you always have permission to eat any food, which in time, will allow you to feel more relaxed about food and have the ability to be mindful.
When people first hear this concept, they will often say, “So… If I just eat the food I’m craving all the time, how will I ever be healthy and get the results that I want?”
That’s a fair question.
When you learn how to eat both intuitively (through understanding hunger and fullness) and mindfully (through honoring your health), you learn the satisfaction factor.
When food feels scarce and off limits, it can lead to constantly thinking about food, stress, anxiety, and potentially overeating or binging because of the sense that you may never get to enjoy that food again.
So, when no food is off limits and you have unconditional permission to eat, you learn to experience what it feels like to have the freedom to just have a taste when you aren’t really hungry, or to enjoy an amount that will simply satisfy your hunger instead of constantly feeling guilty, second guessing, or swearing off certain foods.
With this skill, you can eat a bite of cake and actually feel satisfied (YES it’s true).
Other times, you’ll want the whole piece, but you won’t need it every time, because you know you can always go back and have it again. It’s not a stressful “all or nothing” situation.
People often think creating food rules gives them power, but the ultimate power is freedom – freedom to understand what your body needs and also freedom to choose the foods you love.
As you practice this, those “forbidden foods” often lose their luster and feel less like temptation. Learning the satisfaction factor will allow you to feel more content and ultimately satisfied.
Nutrition is certainly a science, but it is also an art, so keep practicing these strategies and you will continually gain confidence and improve.
So, to answer the question, “How do I curb my cravings?”
The answer: learn the satisfaction factor.
When you discover what the satisfaction factor means to you:
-You can eat without judgment to be more present and enjoy the moment.
-You won’t feel like you have to overindulge because it will never be “the last time you will eat it.”
-You can eat lots of nutritious foods the majority of the time and have some cake every now and then.
The combination of practicing honoring hunger, fullness, health, and preferences reduces stress and rigidity to create more flexibility, consistency, and lasting habits.
When you learn the satisfaction factor, food becomes more than just fuel. It becomes enjoyable.
Dr. Molly Maloof is passionate about extending healthspan through her medical practice, personal brand, and educational endeavors. Dr. Molly provides health optimization and personalized medicine to high achieving entrepreneurs, investors, and technology executives in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
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