You’re having a great day, and then something pushes one of your buttons. You’re stressed at the office, or at home. You’re alone. You had a fight. You’re overwhelmed by what you should do to get that project off the ground. You can’t sleep, or you wake up in the middle of the night and you have one clear thought, “If I eat everything will be okay.” Cravings storm time.
When you eat, you eat substantially more than necessary. Most of the time it’s not your body that needs nourishment. It’s your emotions that need comforting and, more importantly, numbing. It’s tough. It feels lonely.
Invariably, after we’re done eating everything feels “wrong” and we’re cloaked in a carb-hangover with various shades of guilt.
What can we do when we get hit by the craving storm? These are eight things I’ve found helpful and successful for me. Most of these things apply to anyone who’s familiar with the rough waters of cravings. The first is specific to anyone who, like me, has diabetes.
- Check my blood glucose level. 90% of the times when I have a craving, my blood sugar level is either too high, too low, or moving in either direction fast. Before I put anything in my mouth, I check and make sure to take the necessary adjustments. This happens often before going to sleep or at night. If I’m in hypoglycemia or if my blood glucose is going down fast, my body and mind go through a little “death” experience. They feel deprived of the necessary energy to “survive,” which is what, in my experience, creates a craving for food (food=life). The first thing I have to do is fix the imbalance. What that means is, I eat glucose tablets or drink juice to fix the low.Now, this is very important and it took me some time to get to grips with it. When I’m in hypoglycemia I don’t use it as “a-time-to-eat-a-lot-of-stuff-I-usually-can’t.” I don’t binge on a pint of ice-cream or a bag of cookies. Because that will set off another imbalanced cycle which I will have to chase with insulin, which in turn will create new hypoglycemia and set me up for other cravings and other binges.This is very difficult because we all know that hypoglycemia is a perfect time to eat everything we’re not supposed to eat otherwise. But that’s a way to rationalize and add stress to our body and mind, because it’s very easy to overeat.Similarly, if my blood glucose is high or rising fast, I get a craving. No energy enters the cells and my brain feels starved. Again, the experience is that of a little “death,” whether I’m conscious of it or not, just like for hypoglycemia. This is why, at least in my case, I get a craving and want to overeat. As If to make sure that “I won’t die.”But all I have to do is take the right amount of insulin and wait.First I fix the low or high blood glucose level. Then I deal with the craving, if it’s still there.
For someone with diabetes, like me (T1), this first point is paramount. By checking and dealing with my sugar levels, I handle 90% of my cravings. I don’t eat until my blood glucose level is in balance. By the time it’s in balance I usually don’t have the craving, anymore. Not only this helps with keeping my blood glucose balanced, but it helps me stay fit and not gain weight.
- Drink water. Anytime I have a craving, I drink water first and wait 10-15 minutes. This is a “magical” remedy. It works most of the time. Make sure to drink water throughout the day (eight full glasses, at least), and add a full glass or two when the craving knocks at the door of your mind.This isn’t a trick, rather it’s based on scientific evidence. The symptoms of (even minor) dehydration are similar to and confused with hunger. When the body doesn’t get enough water it sends signals to the brain that are mistaken for hunger, but are really thirst. I never even thought of water. Now I drink it regularly and I feel well, alert and my cravings are minimal. Make sure you drink water regularly.
- Exercise. It’s better to do a little everyday, than to do a lot every once in a while. Make exercise a habit. You don’t have to sweat your rear-end off to benefit from physical activity. Take a brisk 20 minute walk, that’ll do. But do it every day. I go to the gym, whenever I can. When I can’t, either because I don’t have time or because I’m slacking off, I get myself to take my 20 minute brisk walk (even at night or early in the morning). And that’s better than not doing anything and it makes a huge difference. I always feel better because of it.Among the many benefits, physical exercise stimulates endorphins, which help our mind stay alert and our mood stay positive. A positive and alert mind is the most powerful antidote for emotional cravings and excessive eating.
- If I still have the craving gnawing at my mind, I share with a friend. I speak of my craving with my wife or with a friend. If you are in a support group you have plenty of phone numbers to call. The idea is, before I eat, I talk it out. Before food goes into my mouth, words about my craving and my mood must come out of my mouth.A variation of this is what I call, “speak-eat out loud.” This will sound funny, but it works for me. I once had a craving for peanuts I couldn’t resist. I knew I didn’t “need” to eat peanuts, but the craving wouldn’t leave me. I also know peanut cravings for me have a physiological component, since my body needs some of the nutritional components in peanuts, and it often manifests during low blood glucose levels. Peanuts also have an emotional component (connected to my childhood with my father), which is what pushes me to eat too much of it. So, being an actor and writer, I just spoke out loud in detail as-if I were eating peanuts. “I’m going to get a bag full of roasted shelled peanuts. I’m going to sit in front of the television. I dip my hand in the bag and pick one at a time. I’m going to crack ‘em open and pop ‘em in my mouth. I chew and feel that flavor…”I get as specific s possible to make the experience as real as possible. Doing so I feel it. I feel the texture in my hands and between my fingers. I taste each peanut. I taste the skin and the occasional shell fragments. “And I eat more! So good!…” I continue speaking about it aloud, as if I were actually eating them.It’s not before long that the emotional memory induced by the words, settles the craving enough and I don’t have to eat.You can do this with someone else as part of your “share with a friend” (sometimes I do it with my wife), or by yourself, or to your dog or cat. It doesn’t matter, as long as you speak aloud. I will say, it’s also kind of fun. After the first few times, now the monologues are very short. As soon as I induce the “experience of eating” whatever I’m craving, just by speaking about it aloud, I lose the craving. Try it, you’ll see. Let me know if it works for you too.
- Snack. If I starve myself, if I eat scarcely or infrequently I’m setting myself up for a craving. It’s better to eat smaller portions often, rather than big amounts every once in a while.Don’t starve your system. It’s best to eat every couple of hours. Obviously, I don’t have to eat a loaf of bread every two hours. I just have a healthy, tasty snack. This keeps my metabolism running, my energy and my stomach full and keeps me satiated. It makes me more unlikely to get a craving down the road.I can even outsmart my cravings. For example, I have a passion for chocolate. So I make sure to use healthy and balanced chocolate snacks (nowadays we’re very lucky, there’s an abundance of healthy balanced choices) every time I can. This will make it very unlikely that I’ll crave chocolate, because I’ve been having it, regularly. To handle peanut cravings, I’ll add a handful in my salad for lunch, thus my body gets the nutrients it needs. Regular snacks in between meals work beautifully for me.Also, keep in mind that when the craving isn’t emotional but is physiological it means that my body needs a specific nutrient, but my misinformation and confusion leads me to binge on a common food that has some quantity of that ingredient. For example, my chocolate (and even peanuts) craving means that I need magnesium. Now I take magnesium every morning, I don’t crave chocolate or peanuts, almost ever. And when I do, a small amount of it satiates me. Check out this chart and try it yourself based on your cravings.
- If all else fails and the craving is still screaming at you, do not eat alone. Once I had a craving I couldn’t resist. I called a friend. After talking for a little while, I still couldn’t shake the craving. My friend said, “Okay. Get your food and come over. You don’t have to eat alone.” Suddenly, I felt embraced by a gentle breeze of “acceptance.” The craving left me with the same speed as a scrap of paper is blown away by a gust of wind.You don’t have to eat alone. Get together with your spouse, your friend, someone who will not judge you, and say something like, “I can’t get rid of this craving and I don’t want to be alone. Will you please keep me company while I eat?”
- Chew. I chew a lot. This was taught to me in elementary school, then I promptly forgot it. As a person with a health condition, it’s recommended that I chew over 50 times, 100 for complex carbs. If I chew a lot I will automatically eat less. My body will process and absorb the full nutrition from the food, which will make me feel satiated. I will also enjoy what I’m eating a lot more, and the overall experience is better.
- Choose to be happy. If everything else fails and I end up eating, I say to myself something like, “I’m now going to eat ______. I will chew it well, and I will enjoy every moment of it. I am grateful I can eat this now. I’m happy to eat it, and I’ll be happy for having eaten it.”The most powerful and vicious trick of emotional cravings is that they keep us bogged down in that guilt-ridden hangover. I have found that my choice to “be happy even if I give into the craving” is the single most powerful antidote to that emotional vicious cycle.
These eight strategies to deal with cravings are what I use all the time. They’re not exclusive of one another. I use them simultaneously, they complement each other. Since I have diabetes, I always start from the first. But I always make sure to drink water, exercise and do all the rest, to either avoid cravings or handle them when they come.
The key is moderation. I can eat anything I want, as long as I don’t hurt myself by over-doing it. Again, the key and the bottom line is “choose to be happy.” Giving into cravings mindlessly, rationalizing and finding excuses, being in denial about them, doesn’t make me happy. I tried it. I know.
I found out that there’s a big difference between being happy and being high. Giving into cravings mindlessly makes me “high,” as in “intoxicated with a temporary deceitful feeling of wellbeing.” But the simple truth is, it only hurts me.
I choose to be happy. Because once you experience happy, you won’t settle for high.
Original article published by permission on Diabetes Daily Post.