Let’s talk about our cravings, habits and FOOD!
Firstly though, have you ever kept a food journal? It may just seem like one more thing to add to your list of to-do items, but it is an amazing tool and if you are trying to make any kind of change to your nutritional status or general health, it is something I would highly suggest giving a go. In addition to creating more awareness around your eating patterns and habitual foods, journaling in itself has been shown to reduce levels of stress and inflammation in the body. So there is that too!
I’d suggest getting at least 3 days down in your journal. 5-7 days would be ideal. You are going to want to journal in detail not only about what you are eating and when, but about how you feel at particular times of the day both in relation to food and just in general.
After completing these few days, come back to your journal with childlike curiosity and leave your judgement at the door. This is an opportunity to learn about yourself, not beat yourself up.
Notice the things that you eat most often. Why do these foods pop up all the time? Are they convenient? Do you just really love them? And if this is the case, ask yourself why? Are you satisfying a craving? Just take a moment to journal about what you discover.
Notice how you felt in particular times of the day or after eating certain foods. Notice any symptoms that pop up for you in the day even if you don’t think they are related to food. Do you experience digestive discomfort or bloating after eating? Do you notice that you are tired or irritable at certain times of the day or after certain foods? Anything that you notice, is worth noticing!
Although we are calling this a food journal, I would challenge you to consider this simply an opportunity to spend some time checking in with yourself and become more aware of some of your patterns, habits and feelings (both physical and emotional).
Over the years, and through personal experience I have discovered that many individuals can adjust their eating habits for a couple of days without too much effort. But after a few days, if not really engaged and aware in this process,most fall off the wagon when ‘life’ kicks in. We are quickly pulled back to what is comfortable and what we are used to; their habits. The food journal keeps engaged, present and curious throughout this process.
Now that we have discussed the importance of a food journal, I want to talk about how it can really help us to uncover some of the deeper ‘stuff’ around food and eating. Cravings and habits.
Our habits and our cravings are connected on several different levels. Understanding how this works helps us to better understand what is going on in our body and how we can make impactful shifts to our eating patterns for the better.
Habits are created like this….Cue, Craving, Response, Reward.
The cue is something that triggers your brain to initiate a behavior and it is what predicts the reward. In ancient times, our brain was constantly searching for cues that would keep us alive, things like food and water. In today’s world however, our brain is often searching for more secondary rewards like praise, recognition, acceptance, money, or personal satisfaction. Our brains are constantly searching for places where they can find these rewards and as soon as they recognize that a reward is possible, a craving begins.
Cravings are the driving force behind our habits. Without the craving of ‘a change’ we have no reason to act. We don’t actually crave the craving itself, but the feeling it provides. For example, those who smoke, don’t actually crave the cigarette, they crave the feeling of relief that comes over them when they smoke. Or, we don’t actually want to check Facebook, but we want the recognition of people liking our posts. Cravings are different for every single person.
The third part of this cycle is the response. This is the actual habit or the thing you do to appease the craving. This can take the form of a physical action or a feeling.
Finally comes the reward which is the end goal of any habit. Firstly, these rewards satisfy us and deliver relief and contentment from the craving. But they also teach us. Our brains are constantly looking for rewards and so when a positive reward is received, our brains remember.
If a behaviour is lacking in any of these stages, then it will not become a habit. Eliminate the cue, and your habit won’t ever start. Eliminate the craving and you won’t be motivated to act.
This is the psychological aspect of our habits and we can certainly relate this to our food and eating habits. For many of us, our eating habits reward us with a feeling. When we can recognize the cue or the particular reward that we are searching for, we stand a much better chance of healthfully changing the habit.
When it comes to food, there are also physiological processes that play a role in our cravings and therefore our habits. What is happening in our body on that physiological level impacts how we feel and we often look back to food to satisfy or change that feeling. When it comes to these physiological triggers, there are things that we can modify in our diet, to support our body systems and reduce the physiological impact on the cue.
A good example of this is blood sugar imbalances, which are extremely common. When our body ingests sugar (any carbohydrate), our blood sugar spikes and insulin is released into our system to lower it to a safer level. If the insulin brings our blood sugar level down too low, as often happens, then we experience cravings for foods that will raise it and increase our energy. Through this experience, we have learned that carbohydrate foods (sugar) increase our energy and help us to feel better (reward) so we repeat this behaviour (habit).
Adjusting eating habits to keep blood sugar more stable through the day is one way to change the cue (energy dropping). There are also often some specific nutrient deficiencies present in those who suffer from cravings so we can work to address these imbalances through focussing on specific foods and perhaps supplementing in order to reduce the cravings.
When it comes to food, and as we make adjustments in our diet to balance blood sugar, we can also replace habits with healthier ones. For example, you might still have a snack at 3:00pm, but because you are now aware that you reach for sugar when your energy drops and how this impacts this continues blood sugar cycle, you have come prepared instead with a healthy protein filled option that will not spike your blood sugar and keeps you feeling satisfied until dinner time.
Recognizing our habits and breaking them down into their four components is a critical component of making any change in our eating patterns. In order to make any kind of change, we need to know and understand where we are starting from. Hence we arrive back at the food journal conversation. Keeping a food journal is a great way to notice your habits and the associated cues, cravings, responses and rewards that keep you repeating the habit. We can then look back on what we have recorded, with curiosity, and make plans to manage both the psychological and physiological components of this process.
You don’t have to feel like a prisoner to your cravings and continuing to be self-critical about your habits doesn’t serve you. Start writing it down and noticing. This is the perfect place for your journey to begin.
If this is something that you feel you need support with, reach out to me here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. OR if you are looking for quick tips and strategies to stay on track with your health goals, jump into the 5 Day Easy Weight Loss Meal Prep Challenge for Busy Moms. We have 3 days left so lots of content for you to take advantage of. You can request access to the group here.