Wednesday, January 20, 2010

controlling the cravings, part 2

Part 2. Part 1 is here.

Conventional dieting wisdom seems to be that you should give into cravings, but in moderation. Some diets even build in a "cheat day," under the theory that this will minimize cravings on non-cheat days. A release valve on the pressure cooker of your diet.

My problem with this strategy is that it's overly simplistic. First, not all cravings are created equal. Although we may experience them as the same intense longing, a craving for an avocado is not the same as a craving for something sweet. A craving for a sweet is not the same as a craving for Mom's homemade mac-n-cheese. These cravings stem from different sources, and should be treated differently.

Second, I noted in the first post that a paradox of dieting is that the very act of restricting a food creates a craving for it. Another paradox of dieting is that feeding a craving can create more cravings. A great example of this is sweets: eating sweets tends to make you want to eat more sweets. (Lest those of you who only drink diet -- like me, for a decade -- feel smug, some research suggests that artificial sweeteners trigger the same response. There is no free soda.)

So, on the one hand, you have the problem that denial creates a craving, and on the other hand you have the problem that "giving in" (I don't care for that phrase, incidentally -- it's so defeatist) can create a craving later on.

What's a poor dieter to do?

Some sites recommend that you try to trick yourself out of a craving by taking a walk, or going on line. Frankly, this doesn't work for me. I think my shoes would give out before I "forgot" about chocolate.

Instead, I follow these two steps.

1) Use the trigger food itself to identify the source of the craving. If I'm craving Mom's mac'n'cheese, it's probably because I'm looking for comfort food, not that I really want a gloppy cheese and pasta casserole. If I'm craving avocado, it may mean I've been restricting the fats too much. If I'm craving a piece of chocolate cake, it probably means I'm looking at one.

2) Respond to the craving (or not) based on its source.
  • If it's a genuinely physiological need (e.g., for Omega-3 fats), eat the target food. Even if it means going over your target calories for the day.
  • If it's a craving triggered by a psychological need (e.g., for comfort), it can probably be alleviated by a healthier alternative that fills the same purpose. Instead of mac-n-cheese, make meatloaf and broccoli. (Notice I'm not saying that the craving is no less real for being psychologically induced. I wish that I was one of those people for whom food is just fuel, but I'm not.)
  • If it's a craving sparked by seeing a food, start walking. There are, of course, exceptions. If a German colleague gives you a gift of a top of the line imported chocolate truffle, one that probably cost more than your kid's weekly day care bill, sure, eat it. But sight-induced cravings are typically sparked by food that, frankly, isn't that special. Cheesy poofs aren't going to disappear from the local 7/11 next month. Your kid will be invited to another birthday party soon enough, and the odds are good that there will be cake at that party, too.
  • If it's a craving for sugar or grain-based snacks (I'm talking about you, Triscuits), my body does. not. need. it. There's no such thing as an Essential Salty Carb. And, it's not "harmless," if eating empty carbs perpetuates cravings for empty carbs.
My current strategy for sugar/grain-based snacks is this. Eat super-clean, with no sugars or processed grain snacks, for a month: long enough for the body to readjust and lose the "taste" for sweets, short enough that it doesn't seem interminable. Reevaluate. If I still crave sweets or grains, give it another month. Reevaluate again. The odds are good that the cravings will have decreased or shifted to healthier foods, if they haven't gone away altogether.

As I see it, the choice isn't between "living life" and "denying myself." It's between a lifetime of craving/cheat cycles OR and a month or two of "denial" in exchange for the chance of living a healthier, craving-free life thereafter.

So far, so good.

But, that's just me.

be strong //

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