Last week I presented what I’ve learned about why we have cravings — powerful urges to do things that aren’t in our long-term interest — and why they’re so hard to resist.
Fortunately I’ve also learned five powerful strategies that can help us get past our distracting urges and take actions that produce results we truly want for ourselves (not what others think we “should” want).
Some of these strategies can be used to gently gain control over a wide range of troublesome issues, such as procrastination or a fear of heights (two I’m currently working on 🙌). All of them apply to food cravings, and they can be used all at once for great results (let me know what you think!).
Strategy #1: Make a reasonable plan in advance
Stop the internal argument before it starts
Fundamentally, the kind of urge we’re talking about here is an argument with ourselves. Part of us wants to do something (like have a glass of wine or eat a shortbread cookie), while another part of us thinks it’s not a good idea. A lot of mental and emotional energy is involved in this internal conflict. 😵 And there seems to be no perfect solution: we will likely either be disappointed (waah, no cookie!) or regretful (if we give in).
A reasonable plan, created in advance, can help avoid this cycle, freeing up mental and emotional bandwidth as well as helping create the results we want. Imagine the relief of creating a plan we can live with and actually following it 😍.Of course we already do this in many areas of our lives. But the ones where we are plagued with cravings are the hard cases. I’m still struggling to create a reasonable self-employed work schedule for myself and happily follow it without procrastination 🧐 .
What does a reasonable plan look like?
It’s different for each person. It can look more like a set of rules, a protocol, a schedule or a budget. We need to take into account our current characteristics and habits, our goals, the restrictions we can live with, and the way we react to the object of our cravings. The place to start is by asking our sensible planning brain (the prefrontal cortex) in advance what is truly good for us long-term. Not anyone else’s “diet plan” but our own reasonable limits.
This doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming. In fact, it’s fine to start very simply. If we now drink wine or eat cookies every day, we could start with Fruit Friday once a week instead 🍇 . Experimentation and readjustment are part of the process. And starting small and actually following the plan is much more empowering than pledging to do something radical and not doing it.
In the case of my work schedule, I sometimes create a 20-item to-do list for a given day, but complete only 10 of the tasks, and I’m doing other activities to procrastinate. Then I tend to beat myself up and feel frustrated and disappointed. A reasonable plan for me might be to put 12 things on my schedule, make some rules for myself about my procrastinating activities (no Netflix until the 12 are done), and actually do the 12. My beating myself up also indicates that I need to work on being kind to myself. First of all, with my 20-item list I’m not being a compassionate self-employed boss to myself🤨 . If I calculate it out, the list would require me to work 10-hour days without breaks. And I need to work on the kindness of my thoughts: I’m still a 100% worthy person if I complete 10 tasks and not 20. I don’t need to do more to become more valuable. (Just like you are already 100% worthy and do not need to lose weight to become more valuable!) Instead, our plans are always about what we WANT for ourselves, the kind of life we want to live, who we want to be, and how we can take care of ourselves for the long term. I’m still figuring it out, and that’s OK!
The plan must also consider the addictive nature of the object of our cravings. The little voice in our heads says “Just one cookie” or “Just one Netflix show, then you’ll feel better and get back to work!” But we need to be honest with ourselves: is “just one” part of a reasonable plan, or does it just lead to stronger cravings and additional cookies, glasses of wine, or episodes? Do we really feel better afterward? This depends on each person, and it will likely take some experimentation. Schedule-based limits (no Netflix during lunch, no wine on weekdays, no food after 7 pm) often work better than quantity limits.
Is planning our food too restrictive? And isn't it better to be "intuitive"? These are important thoughts. In the area of weight loss, an overly restrictive eating plan -- with severely limited calories, or extreme measures we can't stick with -- will NOT work over the long term, and will likely backfire with muscle loss and weight regain. However, in our modern, obesogenic environment, most of us need to live with some constraints around food. It appears that our "intuitive" eating systems are slightly miscalibrated when it comes to processed foods/refined carbs, as can be seen in the lab experiment with the buffets of whole foods vs. processed foods. People freely eating typical processed foods (like hot dogs on a bun with ketchup and mustard, baked potato chips, cranberry juice and blueberry Yoplait and a fiber supplement) consumed about 500 calories over their needs without realizing it, while the reverse was true for people eating foods like spinach salad with chicken breast, apple slices, bulgur, sunflower seeds, grapes, and a vinaigrette made with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard seed, black pepper and salt. Those are real sample lunches from the experiment; you can see all the actual menus here. So I say: intuitive eating can work great with foods in their whole natural forms. If you want to include foods that don't occur in nature, constraint will likely be necessary. And what about spontaneity? Won't food rules take away my joy and freedom? Think of the mental and emotional energy mentioned above, as we struggle with ourselves and our feelings of disappointment, guilt and regret. By creating our own reasonable plan and reaching a point where we can easily follow it, we can gain freedom from the inner struggle and the joy of knowing we have our own back.
The “don’t have it in the house” strategy has real power. The planning process includes ways to make the desired action easier and put up barriers against the unwanted action. I sometimes put packaged foods and alcohol in the attic when I’m trying to avoid them. If they belong to someone else in the household, a certain cabinet can be designated as “not my food.” And setting out a cut-up apple and a handful of almonds while sending leftover cupcakes to the “spouse cabinet,” the back of the freezer, or the neighbor’s doorstep 😂 is a classic move.
Strategy #2: Treat ourselves with kindness, not anger or disappointment
Parents know that yelling back at screaming toddlers or trying to shame them doesn’t work well. Comforting them (without giving in to unreasonable demands) and loving them despite their screams is a better strategy for everyone’s healthy development.
But with ourselves, so often we “shoot the second arrow” as the Buddha described it, piling shame and self-loathing on top of the unwanted urge. Some part of us thinks this must be helpful, to remind ourselves to do the right thing. We may also be afraid that if we love and accept ourselves as we really are (complete with urges and weaknesses), we’ll become complacent and give up on pursuing our goals.
But the effect of shame and self-loathing is just to discourage us and leave us stuck. Self-acceptance and self-love provide a stronger foundation for the confidence and courage to take challenging and exciting steps toward growth.
Kindness to the “inner saboteur”?
Some weight loss and habit change coaches talk about an “inner saboteur” or a sleazy salesperson whose seductive voice makes false promises: One cookie, or another glass of wine, or a shiny expensive object to buy, will make us feel better. I think this is a very interesting concept that is worth exploring. But I also think it’s important to have unconditional love and compassion for ourselves and not demonize any part of us, even a part that seems to be self-sabotaging. It’s part of being human, and we can love and forgive it without acting on its misguided suggestions. That’s why I like seeing it as an inner child who is just seeking pleasure in the moment and isn’t good at evaluating the long-term consequences.
So whenever I mess up (often), I try to talk to myself kindly: “Hi there self, I see what you did, I love you anyway, let’s figure this out together.” See the great work of Tara Brach on self-compassion and self-acceptance. You can also join my weekly Mindfulness group where I try out what I’m learning with some patient and supportive people 🥰
Strategy #3: Allow the discomfort
In some serious addictions, like severe alcohol use disorder, withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. But usually, the discomfort of skipping dessert, resisting the family’s bowl of potato chips, or returning to my desk instead of watching the next episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel 🤣 is bearable, as painful as it may seem in the moment.
This discomfort is just a temporary state, like when the dentist pulls on my cheek in order to do some other uncomfortable thing in the back of my mouth. Nothing terrible is going to happen if I don’t eat that shortbread cookie, even if my inner child is screeching and turning purple.
The first time you try this, you might tell yourself in advance that if you gently allow an urge for 15 minutes and you still want the object of your craving, you can have it. Here you are reducing the sense of panic, practicing the technique of allowing the craving without acting on it, and with the 15-minute rule, you are also practicing setting a boundary for yourself and honoring it.
“Not now” instead of “no”
It often seems natural to tell ourselves “no” when a craving strikes. This can easily take on a negative emotional dimension, with one part of us (the inner parent?) reproaching and scolding, while the inner child resists. It’s gentler and often more effective to soothe ourselves with “Not now” or “Another time” as we let the craving pass through us.
The more we practice allowing urges without acting on them, the easier it will become. When I’ve done 30-day challenges (like no alcohol, 100% vegan, or the Whole30) the first week was always quite hard, but after that, the urges for things outside of my plan were much quieter. And I’ve noticed that practicing these skills has also helped me stay calm and allow other uncomfortable feelings (anger, frustration) without reacting to them. Certainly not perfectly, but better than before!
Strategy #4: Substitute and distract
This tried-and-true strategy for children works for grownup brains too. What will you do if your toddler is used to having ice cream every day after lunch, but you’ve now decided that isn’t such a good idea? Of course the poor kid will be upset the first few times the ice cream doesn’t appear. So you might be prepared with an attractive but healthier treat, along with an interesting and distracting activity.
Choosing a powerful substitute
The best kind of substitute fulfills what we are really looking for when we are hit by cravings, with better long-term results. What are we seeking when the urge strikes? Is it comfort? A reward? Something to fight boredom? Something sweet, salty or crunchy? Something to keep our mouth busy? Something to relax us? Simply a reason to sit down and take a break? (That used to be one of my main reasons for unneeded snacking, silly me 🤪) This can be a very revealing topic to reflect on (and journal about). There may be deeper reasons underlying the simple urge to enjoy a pleasant snack. Maybe we feel like there’s not enough pleasure in our everyday life. That no one takes care of us (and food does?). What can we do about that?
Substitutes for foods we are craving that have worked well for me and for my clients include eating our favorite fruit, crunching on interesting vegetables like jicama with lime, chewing gum, drinking sparkling water, listening to music, taking a walk, reading a chapter in a good novel or audiobook, doing a puzzle or hobby, or lifting weights to an invigorating song (that’s me 🙌)!
Easy access to the substitutes is important, especially in the environment where cravings are likely to strike. I also prepare myself for rehearsing in advance what I will do when the unwanted urge arises. Then I quickly turn to the substitute when I feel the first stirring — or if I’m feeling strong, I allow the urge and explore it with curiosity for a while and then turn to the substitute 🌝
Some of my most favorite substitutes: Instead of a glass of wine at 5 pm: good old purple grapes I’m seeking a break, a feeling of relaxation, some quick calories after an active day, and a good taste — extra bonus that purple grapes taste similar to wine!
And instead of popcorn and craft beer in the evening: gourmet salt on a plate, plus sparkling hops water! I still have popcorn and beer occasionally, but I find the salt and hops water very satisfying. I dip my finger into the salt, and it’s a great substitute for the feeling of reaching into the popcorn bowl and getting a salty reward.
Strategy #5: Reward and reinforce
Our brains love rewards. And these rewards can be as simple as points in a game, “likes” on social media, or even checkmarks on a to-do lists. In our journey to overcome cravings, it’s helpful to build in some kind of appealing reward system that honors our hard work and motivates us to keep going. Some examples:
- Tracking. Days in a row without alcohol, fasting hours at night (12? 13? 14?), waist size, accomplished tasks, or ??? Don’t break the streak! Can I beat my personal best?
- Accountability. Checking in with someone else provides immediate good feedback. One of my clients reaches out to me on WhatsApp every day after she takes her hour-long walk or uses an exercise DVD. She says she gets a boost from my simple clapping-hands emoji and brief encouraging words, and she’s less likely to skip a workout because she knows I’m expecting to hear from her 🤓 In my case, I’m participating in a winter biking challenge called “Freezing Saddles.” Getting points and “kudos” from my virtual teammates keeps me riding even when it’s cold outside. For my eating plan, I’m now using an app called MyMacros+ where I log my food and drink and match them to my daily protein and calorie goals. Here nobody else is giving me feedback, but the app itself provides accountability, since I don’t want to break my daily streak, and it lets me know if I’ve met my protein goal for the day or exceeded my calories. (The numbers in green at the top are the grams I have remaining in each category, according to the goals I set.)
- Try an “Urge Jar,” as suggested by Brooke Castillo. The idea is that every time we successfully resist an urge (and this can happen several times a day), we put an attractive stone or marble into a jar, so we can see them accumulate. If we do give in to an urge, we don’t punish ourselves, we just don’t add a stone. The goal is to keep practicing until we get to 100 stones (!), at which point we will surely feel more in control. (I have not done this yet, but I love the concept!)
- Self-appreciation. Whenever I have kept a commitment to myself, followed my work schedule, met my protein goal, or successfully let an urge pass through me without reacting (now more often than before!), I remind myself to take a moment and appreciate what I’ve done and how it’s taking me closer to the results I want.
Have you used these strategies, or others, successfully? What have you achieved? Let me know in the comments!