DAY 12: Dealing with cravings
“You’re not helpless about this; you can make a decision, but you have to make the decision quickly.”
– Richard Rawson, PhD, associate director, UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs
All week we’ve been talking about seizing conscious control of our food triggers. Hopefully you’ve started building that impenetrable firewall between you and the highly arousing food you find impossible to control. If you’re following the eating plan your blood sugar is stable throughout the day – which is not to say that you don’t have cravings, because I’m betting you do. But it does help tremendously when your raging hunger is under control. Think of it as one less dragon to slay.
Before I understood what food addiction was (and that I was its unlucky prey) I would attempt the behavior modification that most “diet experts” dole out when they’re advising us how to deal with cravings: “Go for a walk!” they’d say. Or “keep your hands busy with needlework!”
Pfffft, they have no appreciation for how dexterous I am. I’m quite certain I could knit and eat Oreos at the same time. Nor does their simplistic advice acknowledge the overwhelming power of addictive cravings. Oh, walking and needlework are great, but when you’re in the throes of a full-on craving assault, that’s not gonna cut it.
- Strategic contradictory thoughts.
Richard Rawson of UCLA, who works with recovering drug addicts, uses a strategy that he refers to as “thought stopping.” It works like this: you encounter a cue (your spouse brings home homemade cookies from office) and you immediately and definitively shut off your usual response (“Must eat that…”).
The goal is to change the automatic “yes!” to an automatic and unequivocal “no.”
No hemming, no hawing. No negotiating (“Maybe I could just have one…”). Negotiating doesn’t work. You are a high-level thinking individual with free will. To get off autopilot you must go to an emphatic “No!” immediately and without hesitation. Once you start negotiating, you’ve lost the battle.
That is, upon being cued you immediately assign a negative association to that cue. A plate of cheese fries arrives at your table, innocently ordered by one of your lunch companions. The cue is instant and overwhelming, right? (“Oooooo, that looks sooooooo good!”)
But rather than allowing your thoughts to stream down that familiar pathway, you shut it down with certainty: “I don’t eat cheese fries.” And then follow that up with: “They’re greasy and I’ll feel gross after I eat them. Nope, not going there.”
The idea is to replace the positive associations you have with trigger foods (e.g. they’re delicious and they make me feel calm and happy) with negative associations (e.g. they make me feel disgusting, they’re massively unhealthy, I lose control, I’m never satisfied and when they’re gone I’m left feeling miserable that I overate once again).
- Talking yourself off the ledge.
If your response to highly arousing food wasn’t immediate and you’ve started to waver you can enlist some handy-dandy reminders of your new priorities:
“I only eat healthy food that helps me feel better.”
“I feel best when I eat food that is in line with my goals.”
“Fresh, unprocessed food keeps me looking and feeling my best.”
“I rest easier at night when I’ve kept my promises to myself about my eating behavior.”
Or you can remind yourself of all the negatives of indulging:
“Eating that food is a trap; no amount is ever enough to feel satisfied.”
“I’ve eaten that before and it always leaves me feeling horrible.”
“There’s no way to eat just a moderate portion of that food; best to walk away.”
“I always feel sick when I overeat.”
“I hate feeling a victim to the pull of this addiction. I am stronger than that.”
There is power in words, even if we just acknowledge them silently.
Just like an elite athlete, we’re in training. And just like they practice over and over again, we must practice how to talk ourselves through cravings.
Learning to frame our thoughts about food in a compassionate yet firm way is key to recovering from food addiction.
More tomorrow. Until then, stay strong.