Weeoooweeooo! Food Craving Rescue Squad (FCRS) Urgent Bulletin #1

January 19th, 2011

Drop your control-freaky-weapons, please!

Methods which aim to master, reduce, challenge, eliminate, ignore, deny, or get rid of food cravings are not likely to work, and may even backfire!

While, we at the FCRS recognize food cravings are single-minded and tenacious, they don’t tend to back down when quarreled with. In fact, the more desperately you try to make the cravings go away, the more they may begin to bother you.

Psychologists call this cognitive ironic processing, or the “White Bear Principle,” — try not to think of something and the thing you are trying to get rid of gets more insistent, or tightens it’s grip. It’s like when you try to get a song out of your head, and on and on it sings.

So what do you do if the food cravings won’t leave? Do you have to give into them?

In this situation our minds tend to spit out two choices: I have to get rid of this craving,” or “I have to eat this now.

This FCRS bulletin is intended to present another possibility – - one that might be more helpful and empowering in the long run. This new approach is based on simple, but very powerful magical skills, borrowed from a school of psychology called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We’ll also be getting a little help from our colleague, Severus Snape.

But first, four helpful facts about food cravings:

Fact one: Food cravings are strong or intense urges to eat a particular food, often “highly palatable” foods. These foods also tend to be high in fat and calories. Food cravings are distinguished from other urges to eat, such as those occurring in a true state of hunger, by their intensity and specificity. Intensity refers to the tendency for people to go out of their way to get their hands on the desired food. Specificity implies that only a certain food, or type of food will satisfy the craving.

Fact two: Food cravings are on the rise due to dark forces that conspire to bring cheap, tasty, delectable food to the corner nearest you. You live in what social scientists call an “obesogenic environment,” which simply means food that hijacks your brain to want-want-want is available pretty much everywhere.

Fact three: We are biologically wired and physiologically choreographed to want to seek out and eat calorie-dense foods. Dopamine releasing neurons rev up when a desired food is near, and powerfully promote more wanting. Eating the craved food results in a surge of natural opioids in your brain. These “pleasure chemicals,” are soothing, reduce pain, and produce an elated high. Skip a meal, and you’ll find evolution has put a gnawing pain in your gut to keep you alive. So you can’t just NOT eat.

Fact four: Strong emotional states, particularly sadness, boredom and stress are related to increases in food cravings. Humans tend to do things to avoid experiencing unpleasant emotions. We may not like having certain feelings and thoughts and sometimes we struggle with trying to make them go away. And one way some of us do that is to emotionally eat. This appears to work in the short term, bringing on a relief of tension and a rush of biochemical pleasure. In the long term, it sets a pattern of more weight gain AND increased persistence of the emotion we are trying to get rid of!

So given that food cravings are normal, natural and expected, what should you do when food cravings arise and you’d rather not act on them?

While we may feel wholly at the mercy of the dopamine neurons firing in our brain, we have an inherent and uniquely human ability which can make our cravings a heck of a lot less compelling: self-awareness.

“If you can get some space and distance from the craving,” says Professor Snape, “you can see that there are choices about how to respond. Just allowing the craving to exist can take away its insistence. Regardless of whatever you are craving, feeling, thinking, or experiencing internally, you have a choice over what action you choose to engage in.”

FCRS psychologists call this process of watching a craving, “urge surfing.” Like waves, your cravings rise, and then pass away. Eventually the cravings recede — you don’t have to act upon them, or push them away. The more willing you are to get on your board and ride the craving out, the less your cravings will hook you, and the more space you’ll have to make a choice that you’ll be content with in the long run.

Fortunately, Professor Snape came up with a handy acronym to help you remember how to practice these skills, so you can make choices that will help you head in a direction that enhances your life.

Naturally, the acronym is S-N-A-P-E

S: Set an intention. What do you value about learning how to manage your food cravings and eat healthier? What personal qualities do you want to cultivate in the process? Set your intention to grow those qualities — whether they be persistence, focus, courage, flexibility, self-kindness, freedom, gratitude or some other personal quality. Keep your intention at the forefront of your mind. While it might not always be easy to turn down the glazed donut twist, it feels good to cultivate the best parts of yourself!

N: Notice the craving. When a craving arises, simply notice it. Step back and see it from a distance, “I see myself having a craving for a cookie right now.” You might find it helpful to say something like, “Stepping back,” or “Watching my mind.”

A: Acknowledge the craving. The craving is here and you may not like it, or want it but you can open up to the reality that this is what you are experiencing in this moment. You may notice feelings in your body, and you can acknowledge those too, “Here’s a feeling of boredom,” “Here’s a feeling of insecurity.” Or you may notice judgments, “Hmm, I see my mind is busy with the same old judgments.” Whatever cravings or feelings or thoughts your mind churns out, they are okay and don’t have to be changed or extinguished.

P: Practice making space. While noticing and acknowledging, it’s normal to get hooked by a thought or a feeling, or get caught up in the intensity of a craving. Experientially, this feels like a tightening in your body. It’s like being locked in a crowded broom closet with the craving pressing on you. Imagine opening the closet and letting your cravings, thoughts and feelings roam amidst a wide open space. In time, they’ll recede.

The easiest and most direct way to do this is to bring focus to your breath and your posture. Roll back your shoulders, open up your chest, extend the crown of your head toward the ceiling, and take deep breaths into and around the strong cravings or feelings in your body. Keep breathing into the craving and you may notice, little by little, you are making more space around it. It can be helpful to say “Making space,” or “I don’t want this, but I can make space for it.”

E: Engage in what’s happening around you. Notice what you can see, hear, or touch around you. Notice your head, neck, shoulders, arms, legs. Have a nice stretch or let out a big yawny-yawn. Continue to notice and ride the wave of your craving while simultaneously increasing your connection to the world around you. In this powerful state of awareness and engagement, you can make choices that are consistent with your health goals and values.

Presto, you’ve surfed your first wave! And if you’d like to become better at riding out cravings, watch your mind trying to dissuade you from practicing…

Look out for next month’s Food Craving Rescue Squad Bulletin in which we’ll give you some troubleshooting tips and another fun strategy discovered by some innovative neuroscientists!

2 Responses to “Weeoooweeooo! Food Craving Rescue Squad (FCRS) Urgent Bulletin #1”

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  1. AE says:

    Thank you for your intelligent guidance. You write with great clarity. Keep em’ coming!

  2. Lauren says:

    oh, thanks AE! It would be nice if it just came out that way — but it starts out a big jumbly mess at first!

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