Do you feel like you struggle with cravings?
Do you identify as a sugar addict?
Do you feel irresistible urges for foods that are not on your plan?
You are not alone if you said yes to those questions. 100% of my clients share your struggles.
It’s important to note though: It’s our reaction to, our fear of, and our shame about urges, cravings, and sugar dependence that create some of the most intense drama and challenges to our weight loss.
Seriously, think about it. If you didn’t crave cupcakes or ice cream; if you didn’t have the urge to escape your stress into a bag of potato chips or a plate of nachos; if you didn’t feel like sugar was controlling you, do you believe that you could be more successful at losing weight and getting to your health goals?
Although there is a physiological component to this experience of cravings and urges in your body, your brain has ultimate control over what actually goes in your mouth. And you are the boss of your brain.
Here’s the best news: You don’t have to get rid of cravings and urges to take care of yourself the way that you want to.
I’m going to teach you some tools and some concepts today that will help you learn how to navigate cravings and urges and hopefully shed some light on why you may be feeling like your cravings have some magical or evil power over you.
The science behind sugar
Let’s start with sugar. For the majority of us, sugar is what we have the urge to eat and wish we didn’t. So many of my clients feel this way — and so did I.
I felt like my sugar addiction was a malfunction of my particular body, that I was broken, that there was definitely something wrong with me.
I had loved, craved, snuck, and overeaten sugar since I was a little girl. I just kind of figured it was how I was made and that it was just a burden I would have to bear.
“I love sugar, I’m a sugar bug, sugar is my vice,” are all thoughts I had, and they all left me feeling like it was totally out of my control. I thought that this was just the way I was. That until sugar went away and didn’t exist anymore, I would be miserably addicted to it.
I remember wishing that someone would just invent a pill that would make me not want sugar so I could finally be free. I really believed that that would be the only thing that could fix me.
Then I learned something that changed everything for me.
My body’s dependence on and drive to eat sugar was a product of human biology and evolution. The fact that I wanted and craved sugar was exactly the way it was supposed to be.
Sugar and your brain
If you think that sounds like complete rubbish, just bear with me for a minute. Our brains evolved to reward us for taking actions that ensured our survival. Eating, especially calorie-dense foods, was one of those survival-ensuring actions.
The neurotransmitter, dopamine, drove up our desire to find food. Then when we ate and digested food into glucose — our body’s preferred source of energy and fat storage — our brain rewarded us with a little mist of dopamine.
This signaled to us that the thing we ate was good and important and we should repeat it.
That is exactly how our brain and body are meant to function. Sugar and other concentrated foods, like flour, are digested quickly and they turn into high amounts of glucose as you eat them.
These foods concentrate the amount of glucose and also concentrate the intensity of reward that our brain signals.
So when we eat sugar, what is released is not a mist, but a waterfall of dopamine, which signals that the thing we just ate was super important and we should do it again and again.
Our brain is not equipped to handle these levels of dopamine, so it down-regulates, or decreases its sensitivity, so that we need more sugar to get the same good feeling. Then this cycle perpetuates.
This is the same reward that exists when we use cocaine and other drugs. It is powerful.
Sugar and your body
There is an effect happening in your brain but there’s also an effect happening in your body.
Your body uses glucose for energy and stores excess as fat. When there is glucose in our blood from the food we eat, insulin comes in and sweeps the excess into our cells to be stored and used as energy for later.
But for most of us, later never comes. We eat constantly and almost everything we eat has sugar, which means there is always excess glucose in our blood.
So our insulin remains high, which means we’re always in fat storage mode. Our frequently high insulin, over time, shifts our bodies from their natural evolved state, which is fat-adapted. Fat-adapted means our bodies are burning our stored fat for fuel.
Our bodies become sugar-adapted. This means our body has forgotten how to go to its fat stores for fuel and it’s instead just relying on incoming glucose through your mouth for all of the fuel.
When we’re sugar-adapted, it’s kind of like our cells are just laying on the couch, calling for McDonald’s from UberEats instead of getting up and making a roast and some steamed veggies for dinner. It’s just easier.
You are probably sugar-adapted if you are experiencing any of the following:
- You crave sugar
- You feel “hangry” when you don’t eat
- You’re storing excess fat
Why does it matter?
So how is all of this helpful to you? Well, to me, it was helpful because it meant I wasn’t broken.
You’re not weak, you’re not lacking willpower. It doesn’t mean anything about you as a person. It’s just biology. There are things you can do to address it and change it.
You can shift your body back to functioning as it evolved to — back to being fat-adapted. You can help it go back to relying on its fat stores for fuel.
Really, that’s the number one thing we want to be eating when we’re trying to lose weight — our fat stores. We want to eat up all the fat that’s stored on our body. I call it dining in.
Sugar-dependence in our bodies is a thing, but it doesn’t mean that it has total control and we’re hopelessly doomed. We can make changes and feel better.
Another reason we have urges and cravings has to do with habit loops. Any habit, including answering urges and cravings for sugar, can be shifted and changed. It just takes some time and some tools.
Let’s talk about this habit loop that we’ve created and that we reinforce each time we cycle through it. A habit loop consists of a trigger, a behavior or response, and a reward.
Something happens, you take an action, and you get some reward or benefit and your brain takes note. “When ______ happens and we do ______, we feel better. So let’s do it again next time.”
Think about the feelings that typically have you reaching for sugar to escape.
Maybe it’s stress, overwhelm, frustration or inadequacy. At some point in your life, you had an experience where you felt that feeling, saw something sugary, and ate it. Then you felt a little lift from the dopamine and you felt better.
Now your brain is running the following sequence:
- We feel stressed (trigger)
- We eat Oreos (response behavior)
- We feel better (reward)
So the next time you feel stressed your brain goes straight to a desire for Oreos to complete the loop. It makes perfect sense then that it feels automatic and unconscious and that you find yourself at the end of a row of Oreos before you even realize what’s happening.
Our reaction to this is usually to be frustrated and to feel out of control and to make it mean something about us. We even may start to build up some fear around experiencing an urge or a craving because we feel we have no control when they come.
The difference between urges and cravings
We mostly use the terms urge and craving interchangeably, but I do see a slight difference between them.
Both are a strong desire, but a craving is a strong desire for a specific food and an urge is an urgent desire to eat something, anything.
An urge is usually triggered by an uncomfortable emotion and a need to escape it. A craving is usually just a strong desire to eat a particular thing for the taste experience of it and the reward we feel from eating the object of that desire.
Both relate to an itch that demands scratching. It feels urgent, important, unbearable, and it goes away once it’s scratched.
The easy answer for what to do about urges and cravings when they come, is to eat the thing you have the urge or craving to eat, right? This is what we do most of the time, and then we turn around and berate ourselves and beat ourselves up for doing so. We’re just scratching an itch.
Conquer cravings with mindfulness
What if we don’t want to answer our cravings or urges? What if the food we think we need doesn’t align with our health goals?
For most of us, we think the only option is to resist with all of our might. Use whatever means necessary to not eat it. Distract yourself, push it away, punish yourself, throw it away and dump soap on it, tell yourself you can’t, you shouldn’t, and you’re the worst for even considering it.
But that is like jumping up and down screaming, pounding your head on the wall over an itch you can’t reach on your back. It doesn’t make the itch go away, and it creates some unnecessary suffering in the process.
Navigating urges and cravings requires a counterintuitive solution. The urgent desire compels us to hurry and eat. The craving drives us to eat the object of our desire ASAP, and both typically result in us eating mindlessly, unaware of when we’re satisfied or full, or we try to resist and run away.
The counterintuitive solution is to slow down and be mindful.
Listen to understand
I read a quote recently and I think it describes perfectly what we want to do in the face of cravings and urges: “Listen to understand, not to respond.”
When we are working on changing the way we eat and urges and cravings come, our knee-jerk reaction is to argue and fight with them. We feel tension, tightness and often an increase in the intensity of the urges and cravings. We recognize the craving and immediately respond with defensiveness.
The counterintuitive solution is to listen to the urge. That looks like relaxing into the urge, turning toward it, opening up to the urge, allowing it to be there, accepting that it is there, with the intention of understanding it.
We want not just to notice that it’s there, but to look into it. Get curious about it.
Here are some questions that might help:
- What does it feel like in your body to have this urge? Is it tight? Tense? Tingly?
- Is it increasing in intensity?
- How does it change if you take a deep breath and focus on relaxing into it?
- How does it change if you tense up and try to push it away?
- How does it compare to the last urge that you had?
- What triggered this one?
- Where did it come from?
- What just happened?
- What time of day is it?
- Is this a pattern?
Changing the habit loop starts with noticing the urge, bringing it to consciousness, and then changing the way we respond to it and re-examining the reward that we get from it.
Listening to understand and connect to how the urge or craving feels in our bodies is a new way to respond.
Examine the aftermath
Look at what happens after eating the reward. Notice if the food is actually rewarding you in your body.
It’s a delicious taste experience, sure, but is that where the pleasure ends? Is it worth the aftermath? How do you feel an hour after answering the urge by eating that thing?
This process may sound tedious, but I promise you the payoff is enormous.
It takes a little more effort and consciousness to unwire or rewire a habit than to create it in the first place.
But when it comes to cravings and urges, the work pays off because on the other side is so much more freedom. Freedom in your mind and your body as you start to tune into what your body needs and release all of the brain chatter about not being able to be in control around food.
Habit change will never be a smooth road with no missteps, but just like if you tripped and fell down while you were walking down the street, the key to success is to just get back up and keep going.
You don’t stay down on the ground beating yourself up about how you tripped and now you’ll never be able to get back up. You don’t scream and cry about how unfair the world is because you have this body that tripped and fell. You just get up and you keep going.
Resources to help
When it comes to mindfulness and body awareness, there’s no better exercise than meditation. There’s an awesome course on mindful eating in the 10% Happier Meditation App that focuses on this topic and helps you practice and get good at doing body scans.
Dr. Judson Brewer, who teaches the course, also has an amazing app of his own called Eat Right Now, which is a comprehensive program to help you learn to be mindful in your eating. It helps you go through this process of managing urges and cravings by listening to understand.
There are some really awesome tools in there. I have no affiliation with these things, I just think they’re really awesome, so check it out if you feel like you want a bit of hands-on help going through this process.