Toddler eating cake batter
Why do we struggle with cravings? Six reasons: some natural, some artificial

We make a reasonable plan: I’ll skip dessert today / have only one glass of wine / spend just 30 minutes on Facebook. But when the moment comes, a persuasive inner voice demands our attention. It’s been a hard day! You deserve this. You need this. Just a little more won’t hurt!

The urge to give in feels so overwhelming, and the consequences seem so minor. But over the long term, we’re often disappointed in the results from these small actions. Procrastination. Weight gain. The feeling that we can’t make a plan and stick to it.

Why do we get stuck in this cycle? Why do we crave certain things? Why do we give in? And what can we do about it? I’ve been studying this topic intensively (and practicing on myself of course), and here’s some of what I’ve found.

Reason #1: We have an inner toddler.

She’s still in there!

It seems like no matter how sensibly we plan ahead, there’s always a part of us that seeks (demands?) more pleasure and less effort in the moment. I think of this part of me as my inner toddler. Except she now prefers wine and sourdough bread instead of cake batter.

Just as toddlers have different tastes, and some are more tantrum-prone than others, people vary in what they are susceptible to (food, drink, gambling, procrastination) and the strength of their urges. But it seems like the basic infrastructure is there for all of us.

I can’t get rid of my inner toddler, and actually I don’t want to, because I think she’s also the source of my playfulness, spontaneity, wonder and joy. But I need to be a wise, loving, patient inner adult in order to head off noisy demands (“I don’t wanna sit at the computer, I want craft beer and Netflix!”) and to get through them calmly.

Reason #2: What we’re craving actually has addictive properties.

Who craves blackberries? Humans crave cigarettes. Alcohol. Drugs. Gambling. Pornography. Caffeine. Social media. Attractive things we see in ads. Foods with sugar, fat and flour.

Our genes and experiences may give us different levels of susceptibility to each of these categories. But most of us have trouble managing our consumption of at least a few of these.

What do they have in common? They are:

Engineered to keep you eating, while you imagine yourself as a happy, strong jungle cat
  • Highly concentrated forms of natural stimuli. There’s a huge difference between coca leaves and cocaine; consensual sex and porn; storytelling around a campfire and social media; natural fruit and a gourmet cupcake.
  • Often designed on purpose to be addictive. Social media is engineered to keep you clicking and scrolling. Slot machines pay off just enough to keep people coming back. Food scientists work in labs to figure out how to make products more “cravable.

And it seems that foods with highly refined ingredients and concentrated sugar-fat-salt mixtures far beyond anything found in nature become “hyper-palatable,” leading to cravings and bypassing our natural “you’ve had enough” feelings.

Do you think the “problem” is that you love sweets or fatty foods? How many spoonfuls of pure honey would you eat? Olive oil? Butter? Maybe it’s not you, it’s the food?

Reason #3: We live in obesogenic environments.

NOT real food, except maybe the popcorn

The worldwide obesity rate has nearly tripled since 1975. What changed? Not human nature, or people’s “willpower.” Most people around the world now live in obesogenic environments . And at the same time, we are bombarded with unrealistic images of how we “should” look. Not a recipe for optimal health!

Our culture offers us refined sugar, fat, flour and alcohol wherever we turn: gatherings and celebrations, supermarkets, convenience stores, fast-food chains, restaurants, takeout and delivery. It’s natural that we get used to these substances and crave them. In fact, in order to avoid them, we have to actively say no, resist seductive and misleading advertising, and proactively seek out alternatives.

So … does this mean we have to manage our inner toddler with one hand and swim upstream against the culture with the other? Yes. But fortunately I have found that this process is ultimately very rewarding and leads to a secret island of well-being.

Reason #4: It’s a habit.

Remember when we used to “go to movies”? I know that someday when I return to a theater, I’ll have an overwhelming urge to eat buttered popcorn. And not just a little bit (that would be fine), but a whole 1,000-calorie tub. I see it, I smell it, I expect it, and my toddler brain wants and demands it. To have a chance at resisting my popcorn urge, I’ll have to use all my habit change tools:

Keeps the mouth busy, at 3 calories per piece
  • I’ll eat a solid, satisfying meal with plenty of protein and vegetables before the movie, so I’m not hungry AND craving popcorn.
  • I’ll provide myself some kind of substitute stimulation, like squeezing a fun squishy ball with my hand while chewing an interesting flavor of gum.
  • And I’ll prepare a reassuring but firm answer for when my toddler brain flails and kicks: “Yes, crunching 1,000 calories of salty, buttery popcorn would be fun, but we’re not doing that today. Here’s your grapefruit/prickly pear/cayenne/sea salt gum (!), and you can eat the whole pack!”

Reason #5: We’re trying to escape uncomfortable thoughts or feelings.

We feel stressed/worried/unhappy or just bored in the moment, and our brain thinks it has a brilliant idea: potato chips! beer! cake! social media! Those will make us feel better. Of course, after the glow wears off, the original feelings are still there — and sometimes worse, because they now may include an extra burden of shame, guilt or self-blame. In a terribly vicious cycle, we might feel bad because we’re judging ourselves (or reacting to others’ judgment) for being overweight or for not sticking to our plans, and we turn to food, drink or procrastination.

Here the urge is not only to enjoy something attractive and pleasant, but also to escape unpleasant feelings — a double push. This requires an approach from all angles:

  • cultivating unconditional self-love
  • noticing and questioning our unhelpful thoughts
  • not fearing our negative emotions and allowing them to pass through us (a bit like a tantrum)
  • and devising better ways to support ourselves and meet our true needs. More on this in Part 2!

Reason #6: We’re not good at switching to fat-burning mode.

Thanks to the insulin/glucagon system, our bodies are either storing fat or burning fat — not both at once.

The body has a huge capacity to store fat, but it keeps only small amounts of sugar. (Protein is stored in our body’s actual infrastructure, and alcohol isn’t stored at all — its calories are burned immediately).

When our small stocks of sugar start to become depleted, the body can send us an alert to consume some new sugar/starch, or burn the fat we already have.

A healthy body can easily switch to fat-burning mode between meals, during moderate exercise (like a long walk), and at night. That’s why most of us don’t wake up starving, even after not eating for 12 hours. The body is humming along using the fat we already have.

However, imagine what happens during a typical day in an obesogenic culture. The days starts with sugary coffee, juice, and sweetened cereal or starchy bread (recall that starch is just long chains of sugar). There’s a pastry or another sweetened coffee during the morning. Lunch might include bread and soda. Cookies or something starchy and crunchy come along in the afternoon. Dinner has plenty of starch as well, and then there’s dessert, alcohol and evening snacks.

Snacking may continues until 11 pm, and the sugary coffee starts at 7, resulting in a food-free window of only 8 hours. During the other 16 hours, there’s a pretty constant input of sugar and starch. So the insulin system (which stores excess calories as fat) works overtime, while the glucagon system (which promotes the breakdown of fat from fat cells) is underutilized.

We become insulin-resistant, and eventually we are heading for type 2 diabetes. More relevant for this discussion, our bodies become less accustomed to switching over to fat-burning mode, so they scream out for sugar — we get “hangry” — despite the fact that we have a bountiful available storehouse of fat. There are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, so if you are just 20 pounds overweight, you’re carrying 70,000 calories around with you! And your body still clamors loudly for sugar!

Here are some strategies to reverse insulin resistance and help your body become “fat-adapted” so it can easily flip the switch toward fat-burning. I’ve done this successfully and experienced a huge reduction in food cravings (but unfortunately becoming fat-adapted does nothing against procrastination):

  • Lengthening the fasting window at night; no calories (just water or herbal tea) for 12 hours or more.
  • Lengthening the time between meals and snacks, especially foods with sugar or starch. The old suggestion to “eat frequent small meals” does benefit some people, but as universal advice, it is a myth.
  • Including longer periods of enjoyable, moderate exercise, like hour-long walks, hikes, bike riding, etc. Bring water but skip the trail mix unless you are medically struggling with your blood sugar and need that support.
  • Consuming plenty of protein to maintain your body tissues, but reducing your consumption of refined sugars, starches and alcohol, to push your body to use the storehouse it already has.
  • Experimenting with lower-carb meals (protein-rich foods plus vegetables that grow above the ground) and snacks like a hard-boiled egg or a pack of seasoned tuna.

So what else can we do to soothe our inner toddler, counteract our obesogenic environment, calm our uncomfortable emotions, become fat-adapted and gain more freedom and control over our cravings?

In Part 2, I’ll continue the discussion and describe five practical strategies to move from cravings to calm. I’ve been using all five and seeing great results.

In fact, I’m confident that I will actually publish Part 2 next week ? even though when the day comes to write it, my brain will make a lot of noise: But you’re tired! Take a break! The basement needs organizing! Check your email again! Go ride your bike! Now you’re hungry! Will I be able to give myself love and compassion and write anyway, like I did today? We’ll see next week!