Cravings are little demons you can relish destroying --once you know how!
When you choose to abstain from eating, you see what is really eating you. And sometimes looking at those cravings, habits, emotions -- leads us to want to run straight back to our favorite soothing mechanism (often food). The power comes, when you sit quietly, feeling what you’re feeling and make the deliberate choice to let it pass rather than feed it. If you can routinely do this – depriving these demons of fuel – it will set you free. Not just from your health or weight issues (that’s just the tip of the iceberg), but from the parasitic thoughts that have controlled you for longer than you’ll ever know.
What’s the difference between Cravings vs. Hunger?
Despite what you might say at a restaurant when you can smell delightful scents all around you and you’re feeling your stomach growling, I’m willing to bet that there is 9/10 chance that if you’re reading this you’ve never experienced real starvation. That may sound harsh, but so much of what we experience as “hunger” is not starvation. Rather what you’ve experienced is, cravings or simple (lower case) hunger.
Hunger is not starvation
Starvation is when our body is on empty. They’ve burned through all of the stored fat and are depleted on nutrients. We desperately need food to survive. In the western world, almost none of us (thankfully) experience this regularly, if ever. Starvation if I had to personify it's – Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s desperate, primal, deeply seeded survival instincts have control of your brain and body.
What is hunger then?
It’s important to differentiate between true deep starvation hunger and what we call “hunger.” Unless you’re under extreme conditions, the hunger that we use in every day speech when we describe that unease in our abdomen is: I’m used to eating lunch at this time of day or having popcorn while I watch Netflix, or I smell something delicious coming from the kitchen – let me go investigate… I think I might want that...
Hunger, in a nutshell, is ghrelin
Ghrelin is the hormone responsible for the stomach growling you experience. It’s the little pull that you get that says,
“hmmmm -- let’s check and see what that delicious smell is that’s coming from the kitchen. I think I need some of that”
"HEY! it’s 1 PM and I usually get lunch at 12… you need to pay some attention to me.”
That’s hunger. Hunger personified is more of a train conductor. Hunger knows when it is supposed to be fed and its reasonable and intelligent. If there happens to be a lovely fruit platter in the break room that comes upon its tracks and there is space aboard the body train, it politely will accommodate them in the stomach. Should you be behind schedule or change the destination. It will do its best to accommodate and get you back on track. It will not have a tantrum, it will not go AWOL. Hunger will stay professional and do the best it can to get back on track or accommodate the new schedule.
Then there are CRAVINGS.
Insert hissing sound here.] Cravings range from the annoying young child who won’t stop asking if we can buy that in the grocery store to full-on Britany head-shaving-level intensity. They are not polite. They're not well mannered. And, worst of all, they are devious. Devious little fuckers. Like Loki. Loki is cravings personified.
Under their power, you find yourself thinking things like:
“Yeah I just finished dinner and I couldn’t possibly eat any more of this salad and salmon, but there is an ice cream bar and I NEED that ice cream bar.”
Cravings believe that you have a desert shelf in your stomach that is somehow different than your healthy-food shelf (or perhaps for you it is a bread or chip shelf -- or all of the above!And, the little craving demon is at little Demon Depot right now picking up supplies to build some more freaking shelves…)
How do you know if it is a craving?
Cravings come on both gradually and aggressively. But if you try to just ignore them, they become louder, like a rude hotel guest incessantly ringing the bell at a hotel until they get service. They don’t care about us. They just want us to meet their demands.
If you have strong cravings you’re basically a hostage in your own mind. Often the biggest culprits for food cravings are sugar, highly processed foods, fast food, chips, pizza and other things like that. There’s actually an addictive food list that if you swap the words, that’s the list of top craving foods. [HERE]
How do cravings work?
Cravings hijack your brain in a number of ways, but the most common is by taking control of dopamine… these are the same circuits and patterns that come into play when we think of drug addiction or alcoholism.
"Humans have a built-in weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgement of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them. Children have been targeted especially; food companies spend over $10 billion a year selling food brands to kids, and it isn't broccoli they're pushing. Overweight children are a demographic in many ways similar to minors addicted to cigarettes, with one notable exception: their parents are usually their suppliers. We all subsidize the cheap calories with our tax dollars, the strategists make fortunes, and the overweight consumers get blamed for the violation. The perfect crime."
— Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life)
Cravings can be hard to beat without a plan of attack
If we are constantly triggered and know the work of ----who believes that our will power is finite, then playing wack-a-mole w/cravings all day is inevitably going to be a losing battle. By the end of the day, we’ll be ready to give that child or that annoying customer whatever it takes to get the bell to stop ringing.
How Cravings Trick Us
The deceptive thing about cravings (one of their many sneaky tricks) is that while it feels like the only way to make it cease, make the bell stop ringing, seems to be to satisfy it. And, yes, in the short-term that works, it is not a good long-term strategy. Instead of ending the war, you’ve let the craving demon win the first battle. And, what happens is the emboldened craving becomes increasingly aggressive needing this same fix on a more frequent basis. Then, it needs bigger hits, it needs new thrills, before you know it you’re that craving’s puppet and you better believe that it will utilize that to its advantage. Walking all over you. Giving in only helps feed the craving monster.
So what can you do to lessen the choke-hold of your cravings?
There are a couple of schools of thought, but what I have found is there is a simple formula for wearing down and eventually knocking out my cravings.
Step 1: The first step is to lure the cravings out. There are lots of ways to do this, but I’ve found for me that fasting is the best way. So often we’re not even aware of our cravings until we’re on our last bite. When you choose to abstain for food for a set period of time (especially when it is longer than you’ve fasted before), you will see your cravings wriggle themselves into your consciousness.
Step 2: Once you have a live one, in plain view, you employ a Zen tactic I learned from Judson Brewer’s work and which you can learn more about in his book, The Craving Mind. This means takes the concept of listening to your craving, acknowledging it, honoring it and just sitting with it, fully present, WITHOUT TAKING ACTION. And, try to notice what triggered it. Was it the smell of your favorite fast-food restaurant? Was it a thought that popped into your head that there was leftover chips in the pantry? Was it reading that last statement? Was it seeing a photograph for a recipe on social media (that’s a big one for me)? Was it the time of day? The activity? A combo of a few of the above?
Notice it, so you can become aware of your triggers and if possible limit them. Or, if not possible, be consciously aware that you have these hooks in you.
Step 3: Give yourself an alternative mental reward. Like praise yourself for recognizing that you were about to give in to a craving, but didn’t. Remind yourself of other victories you’ve had over this same demon and then move on.
When it happens again, which it likely will repeat the steps!
Over time the more you can abstain from these cravings and giving into the habitual behavior and reward that follow. The more you can free yourself!
Beating cravings! Step by step an example in action.
So the craving appears: I really want that chocolate cookie that’s sitting on the table across the room!
*Now before we launch in, let’s talk about the fact that I shouldn’t keep in close proximity or anywhere closer than a car-ride away, anything that I know causes cravings, but that I don’t want to regularly consume. That said, none of us ever have perfect control over our environments. And, shit happens. (I remember being on Day 2 of what was supposed to be a 3-day fast and my partner’s employer mailed a box of 12 enormous cookies to our house un-announced. I get it life happens.)*
That acknowledged, let’s pretend I have a big delicious iced cookie on the other side of the room.
And, let’s say I think:
“Ooooh I want to eat that cookie!”
Now, I KNOW that I’m not hungry, but it is like the cookie has taken over my brain and is speaking directly to me:
HHHHEEEEEEYYYYYYYYY, YEAH YOU!!!!!
I’m over here.
Aren’t I cute. Did you see my little sprinkles? Did you know they’re Belgian white chocolate?
Think about how good I’d taste.
Think about how much you want me.
How goooood I'd taste.
You could have just a bite?
You could have just one tiny, tiny little bite?
You’re strong! You can do that! No problem.
You can even use a knife to cut off just one teensy tiny piece…
I mean, at some point you’re going to eat me anyway.
Why not try me now?
Come on… ya know you want to…
And then wham! You get out the knife, you cut off a little piece, then another. And, bamn! The craving demon’s got ya!
SO INSTEAD: This is where you pull out the Zen Mindful Powers. And it goes like this,
Oooh I’m having a craving.
Wait, no my MIND is having a craving.
That cookie is making one hell of a case to it.
My mind is awfully tempted.
But I know I’m not hungry.
And, I know I said that I was going to fast for four more hours.
So, instead of listening to my craving mind, I’m going to figure out what triggered this…
Was it the sight? The smell? Watching my partner eat two of them?
Ok, yup it was definitely the smell and watching him eat two. Ooh and not wanting them to all be gone without me getting to try each flavor.
Ok, so those thoughts triggered me.
Well, I also know that my health is really important to me and I don’t want to break this fast early.
So, instead, I’m going to be insanely proud of myself for not caving in, I’m going to get out of the house for a walk while listening to a podcast about why sugar is so bad for us (I know that if give my mind something else to focus on for at least 15 min it will get distracted and forget all about the cookie), and in four hours when I break my fast I can choose whether or not I want to eat it.
And, mike drop! You won the battle. And, if you keep with the strategy and stay the course, you’ll eventually win the war too.
I know because I’m successfully sugar-free for six months. And, the cravings have maybe 1/100th of the power over me that they used to.
Ok, but what if it is hunger?
If it is real hunger and you’d eat some steamed plain fish… then if you’re not fasting. Go make a healthy and delicious meal!
And, if you are fasting you have a choice: stick with the fast – hunger will pass (and much more gently than the cravings -- remember its a polite train conductor) OR you can choose to break your fast with a nutritious choice. That’s completely up to you. And, you can get right back on that fasting horse another day! That’s the beauty and flexibility of fasting!
Rumi quote about casting out demons.
How do I know this? I’ve spent the last 3.5 years fasting and leading support groups for fasters. I’ve done everything from short intermittent fasting to months of a alternate day and 4:3 fasting, to several 5 day and even a 9 day fast. There is nothing like fasting to help you face your craving demons and realize how much they are controlling your actions. Free yourself! You’ll be so glad you did.
To learn more about my journey with fasting please check out: