Empowering Ourselves against Cravings

May 24, 2011 in Psychology of Food, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Being a nutritionist/dietitian for decades, you’d think that the astonishment for the complexity of my field would have been over and done with long ago. But the reality is, that nutrition is so multifaceted; it is more than just knowing about metabolism, weight management, nutrients, food preparation, fiscal/financial/social aspects of eating, psychology and behavior. It is trying to put these aspects together, realizing the impact of one facet upon another. Nourishing ourselves and doing it well, in today’s world, is not an easy task. One of the issues that keeps nutrition so complex, is that, it is truly in its childhood, as a science – that is, it’s growing each and every day. Sometimes, that growth is a big surprise – it’s exciting and unanticipated and that keeps it fresh after decades of studying it. Today I want to share with you information from newly published research that knocked my socks off. I’ve personally experienced the phenomenon, but never thought that I’d actually see it shown in a scientific study. It’s a study about cravings; that intense desire to consume a particular food that is difficult to resist – often not satisfying hunger or having much to do with actual hunger.

When I used to do individual nutrition counseling the subject of cravings was frequently broached. When people were considering the prospect of beginning a new eating plan, often the fear of cravings raised its ugly head. Seriously, it was almost like a Godzilla sized green fire-spitting dragon peeking its head around the corner. What will be forbidden in this new eating plan? What will happen if I ever taste the forbidden foods again? Some people never really asked the questions out loud, but they seemed to lurk in their fear-filled eyes. In the past, they’d tasted one bite of some ‘forbidden food’ on their restricted diet and that was the end of their quest for losing weight and improved health – of course, they felt horrible failure and there was a huge load of self-effacement. Managing “cravings,” “forbidden foods” and “falling off the wagon” is a critical skill set necessary for achieving success in weight management and in being well nourished. I believe that is one of the very most important sets of skills that we can learn.

There are two main aspects of managing “slip ups.”

  1. Managing the actual physical cravings
  2. What you do and how you think when you do ‘slip up’

Physical Cravings

In a study published in the journal Obesity the subject of cravings, food preferences, and appetite was studied in an innovative and interesting way. Corby K. Martin and the other researchers measured how much the participants liked certain foods that were restricted from their diets. What the researchers discovered was that the type of foods that were restricted, carbs for example, actually experienced bigger declines in preferences for the restricted high carbs. They found the same results with the group on fat restriction. What’s most surprising and counterintuitive to what most of us would think is that the restriction actually reduced the craving. Yes, the individuals experienced a reduced craving/preference for foods that they restricted in their diets. Can you believe it? – Declines in cravings! You may want to consider ordering the article or going to a university library and reading their copy. It’s really quite clever research with a most unexpected outcome. Or maybe not so unexpected; maybe one of their researchers got the idea from their self-observation.

Our observation

Vic (Dr. Grandpa), and I have noticed over the years, that by taking certain foods that are troublesome from our home, it has actually decreased our desire for those foods. I’ve also noticed that when I stopped eating simple sugars, because Dr. Grandpa was diagnosed with diabetes, that I didn’t have a feeling of scouting the house for something sweet. Sometimes it is even more pronounced than that – some sweet foods have become just too sweet for me.

So the first thing that we can learn from this study is that reducing a certain group of trouble foods may facilitate a decreased craving for that group of foods. I’ve advocated controlling your environment for a long time. Exercising will power does not work like exercising muscles; it’s like trying to lift 500 pound dumbbells, it’s not happening. So if you want to decrease simple carbohydrates like sweets, and processed white flour foods, begin by taking them out of your environment. (See a number of ideas in the link in this paragraph.) And voilà! Eating less of your trouble food may lead you to discover that over time, you have snipped the craving dragon’s head off a bit at a time.

The second important finding from this study was that the group that was given low carbohydrates/starches, not only had the reduced preferences for high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods, but was also was less bothered with hunger.

So how can we use the findings to help ourselves? First, if we know that we are drawn to fatty foods or simple carbohydrate foods (high in processed grains/sweets) then begin by getting them out of our environment (office, home, purse, car). Stop eating them; you may have to ‘tough it out’ for a while, but eventually the cravings will subside. Second, if we need to reduce fat, focus on the junk food/fast food/restaurant foods/snack foods and the excess fatty meats, cheeses, dressings, and spreads. Do include some fat in your diet to stave off hunger.  Note: our recipes almost always include extra virgin olive oil; the Mediterranean-style of eating is not fat free.

One reason that the study published in Obesity is so helpful is that you can use the information whether you crave too much fat or too much carbohydrate. We can design our eating plan targeting the group of foods that each of us individually, may crave.  Over the years that I counseled individuals, I noticed that it’s not just sweets that people crave; some love bread and pasta – lots of it, some crave fat, some crave meat and cheese (which could also be for the fat and it’s flavor) and some crave ‘crunch’ – like nuts and chips (also have lots of fat). I genuinely never met a patient who craved too many vegetables or even too many servings of fresh fruit. This says something about the artificial nature of products that induce craving, as discussed earlier in Dr. Grandpa’s blog about how foods are designed for craving.

Knowing that you will empower yourself against craving, whichever your favorites are; it may give you the strength to stay away from the problematic food for a while, in order to rid yourself of the cravings in the long run. Get away from it, and see if you actually lose the heightened desire for the troublesome food or groups of food.

Most successful weight managers don’t deny themselves their favorite foods forever; they learn how to control the frequency and portions they eat of those foods. Reduce frequency by, for example, having the food at an ice cream parlor – not stocking the home freezer with a favorite food that you have craved in the past. Paying attention to quantity – portion size – is another way of managing cravings. Some people can manage cravings by packaging the foods that they enjoy in individual just right-sized serving portions. Then they plan how often they will have that serving. One technique is to allow sweets/desserts occasionally, and making the servings fairly small. An example from my life is the Intense Orange Lindt chocolate that I frequently have at bedtime. I don’t need to package it, because it is already divided into eight pieces. Those little lines protect me from having a larger chunk. That works for me – the key is to discover what works for you.

For me, keeping most sweets out of the house; and if not out of the house, at least out of sight is my best technique.  When we have a large gathering I often have sweets, ice cream and so on. When the party ends, I pack it up and send it away with the guests! I know if I don’t get rid of it, it will be no surprise who is going to eat it and whose hips won’t be happy about that.

Can you actually learn to crave something new?  Maybe not actually crave, but I believe ‘yes you can look for foods you enjoy! – if not crave it, you can learn to love it and anticipate it eagerly.’ I know that having extra fancy or exotic fruits can be a special treat, or even ordinary fruits nicely presented to make me feel like I’ve had a treat. Do you ever notice once you’re eaten the ordinary, but crisp juicy apple, you ask yourself, “Why don’t I have this more often, this is really delicious?”  Or have you ever noticed not only the pleasure of a flavorful orange, but in addition, how long you were satisfied after eating it? You may discover new foods to take the place of old cravings. But real, whole foods are not likely to be overeaten, unlike the artificial fudes carefully crafted in layers of fat, sugar, or fat and salt, or all three, to lead to craving.

Managing Slip-ups

Sometimes our very best intentions and even our well-developed healthy habits fall short of our best-laid plans. In all candor, this just happened to me yesterday, Mother’s Day. We went to a family gathering. Since I write about weight management so frequently, you’d think that I’d have been prepared. I wasn’t! I was facing fatigue, trying to get too many things done in too short a period – pushing a little too hard. I don’t know if the Yellow Fever and Typhoid Immunizations that I had on Friday added to the fatigue and the seven hours of gardening the day before, but the bottom line is that my ‘best laid plans’ fell on their face. Plus, if I needed more excuses, it was Mother’s Day, for crying out loud. There were some wonderful little, oh so very little, chocolate covered and chocolate dipped European cookies; that called my name. I had one, then two and oh my goodness, you know what happened; I had another and another. They were so small. Yikes! The scale was up an entire pound the next morning.

Now this is the part I hope you will remember if you have ever had a ‘slip-up.’ It’s discouraging!!! It’s disappointing!!! But it is not the end of weight management. To begin with, I realize that I did not eat 3500 calories in those cookies. So some of the weight is water (salty salads and meat); that will go away fairly quickly. I’m not going to panic – I will be very careful for a while and in a few days the weight will be gone. The ‘slip-up’ can become a huge problem, only when the individual, who has forbidden themselves a certain food or group of foods, feels a huge failure for having done so and feels all is lost. Weight management is over. Weight management or weight loss is unachievable; instead of realizing that it is one dessert, one meal or one day. Note: My extra pound was gone in two days.

Once you end the idea that you are dieting, but have designed a new way to eat permanently instead, you realize that you can recover from eating some unhealthy, fatty, sugary food – like the cookies. If you berate yourself and tell yourself that you’ve failed yourself and your plan, and you’ll have to muster the courage to start a diet again one day (That is some day in the future, undoubtedly.), you may put many pounds on before you can get back to healthy eating. Some of you know that I’m not the only one who has gone through this cycle. But the bottom line is, if you nip it in the bud immediately, no one, not even your special jeans will even recognize that the one or two pounds registered on the scale. You may know from experience, as I do, that waiting too long to get back to your healthy eating style and gaining lots of weight is miserable. So make up your mind to get the troublesome foods out of your reach and get back to your enjoyable, healthy eating immediately. I should mention, however, that I am so glad that the foods that gave me the trouble are not at my home.

I believe that the skills involved in not letting a slip-up become a weight gain relapse is probably the most important weight management skill set that one can develop.  It’s really just a realization.  Once you stop dieting, and develop a new eating style, you realize that you can have foods that don’t fit your plan and it doesn’t need to spell failure. Or if you want to call it failure, it was limited failure only for those few days of recovery. This is not even worthy of being called a failure, but just a tactic. You may want to think about these experiences and see if you can turn ‘slip-ups’ into future success or future ‘smaller failures slip-ups.’  It’s fine-tuning your eating style – it’s not the end of your pursuit of health and a healthy weight.

In my experience an all-or-nothing attitude toward food is really counter-productive. It’s less damaging to realize that we’re doing more right than we are doing wrong. Pick yourself up dust yourself off and start all over again – this concept has been known for a long time, but maybe we need a little reminder from time to time. I’ll say it again, how you cope with a slip-up may be the single most important skill you can learn in managing your weight.

Can you view unplanned eating or the slip-up as a learning experience? We all make mistakes. Learning how to identify risky situations and avoid them the next time is learning, growing perspective and it won’t damage your self-confidence in the process. Where are we likely to slip-up? Knowing can help us reduce the chance of it happening again. I know I cannot stand at a buffet table within arm’s reach. Getting in a conversation away from the food table is a technique that I use. Yesterday, when I discovered that I was inhaling chocolate-dipped cookies, I got into a conversation far from the delicious, but pesky cookies. Fortunately, that was the end of that. I think that the next time I will say to myself, “If I decide to have some of those little cookies, I’ll choose one of each of my three favorite styles. Develop strategies when you recognize that a certain setting is risky for you. If you think about it ahead, you’re more likely to get out unscathed.

Can we congratulate ourselves for recognizing that we made a mistake, instead of berating ourselves? Hey, congratulations! You stopped. Yes, you ate too many, but you did stop. You learned from the experience – more congratulations. Once we learn that we can have a slip-up and cope with it successfully, the more empowered we feel. We eventually learn that we truly are in control, even when we slip. We gain the confidence that we need to handle situations filled with risk. The more we practice the positive self-talk and following improved techniques, the more empowered we feel and the more successful we become.


Never and always rules can be a set up for failure. I remember years ago, I decided to never eat tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant.  I didn’t eat them for years; then when I did, I realized that it was not the end of weight management, but only a single food that I don’t want to eat frequently. That change in thinking has served me well. It has really decreased the power of troublesome foods over me.  Now let’s talk chocolate-coated cookies – will I be ready next time?  Managing weight is making many lifestyle and food choice changes. Realizing that, makes us also realize that eating any single food does not have to lead to regaining weigh or ending our healthful eating plan. If we think about all the eating behaviors that we’re doing right, maybe we won’t let a slip-up lead us back to all our old damaging eating behaviors.


Nutrition and a healthy eating style may be complex, but they can be a functional process of success. Today we can take joy in the knowledge that science says that cravings don’t need to be an ugly green fire-spitting Godzilla waiting around the corner with ultimate power over us. Empower yourself with a safe environment, and positive skills to manage slip-ups and you will have moved a long way toward a healthy eating style and weight management.