How to Balance Intuitive Eating with Cravings and Thanksgiving
It’s Not Willpower. It’s Science!
It’s November! Hard to believe we’re transitioning from Halloween to Thanksgiving. Then we’re jumping to our winter holidays and New Year’s…so many drinks, so much food. For those practicing intuitive eating or focusing on health and even those following a particular “diet,” October through January can be a challenging time of year. Dare I say, slippery slope? These months are full of fun seasonal foods and days of celebration meant to be spent eating delicious meals with family and friends. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course — everything can fit into the plan. Eat what you need to feel like you’ve had your holiday!
Remember, for every gimme, there’s a gotcha. Sometimes enjoying ourselves during the holidays can trigger cravings and lead to a snowball effect of unhealthy eating. This can create feelings of guilt or frustration if we experience setbacks in our progress. In these moments we can beat ourselves up and feel like we have zero willpower. But what if it wasn’t a lack of willpower that led to eating the whole dessert table; it’s science! The reasons for cravings are often more physiological than we ever give ourselves credit for. The good news is, once we understand how to keep our bodies from craving and us from snowballing, we can have our slice of pumpkin pie and eat it too!
If your household is anything like mine, Thanksgiving leftovers means food for days after the holiday. Read: many an opportunity to keep indulging in fun Fall foods. My first recommendation in such situations is to ask yourself: am I truly hungry, or just craving a treat? It’s important we’re able to tell if our bodies need fuel or if we just really want another day of stuffing ourselves with stuffing.
Here’s how you know: hunger is a lot more general. Being hungry means you’re open to eating salad, salmon, or broccoli — something with significant nutrient density. You’ll also feel internal signals from your body telling you to eat something. Cravings, on the other hand, tend to be habitual, specific and come from your mind wanting something rather than your body. For example, if the only thing that sounds good is a cookie or chips, it’s likely a craving. Or if you always have dessert after a big meal, you might want some sweet potato pie after your Thanksgiving leftovers.
So what causes cravings? A whole lot of things, actually. Some factors include genetics, emotions, sleep, stress and hormones. It’s not that you have poor willpower — a lot of this is about how our bodies are built and what external factors are at play!
Genetics and hormones guide and control your body. If you crave bitter foods, you may have a gene that causes it. If salty snacks are your go-to, maybe you’ve got the gene that makes you have an aversion to bitterness so you desire salt which covers or blunts such flavor. And if you have a sweet tooth, your genes may make you seek out what’s left of the tarts and cookies.
The hormones leptin and ghrelin control hunger and satiety, but eating may also give us doses of the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin. Associating eating with rewards and pleasure can cause our bodies to release dopamine and serotonin when we have our favorite treat. For example, if it’s been a rough Thanksgiving with all of the planning, cooking, and extended family time, you might sneak a bowl of ice cream or two as a reward for yourself. This could cause us to turn back to eating for an easy way to feel good, even when we’re not actually hungry.
The external factors of stress, sleep, and emotions may be more obvious to us as a cause of cravings. The chaos of ensuring dinner goes right and family disagreements can cause us to lose sleep and feel overwhelmed. We may turn to sugary or indulgent foods to make us feel better. A lack of sleep also decreases leptin, which makes it hard to ever feel satisfied. We’re always hungry when we don’t get sufficient rest! In terms of stress, there’s plenty of ways to ramp up your cortisol during the holidays. That uncle may bring up politics at the dinner table, starting an all-out war as usual (insert eye roll and heart palpitations). The stress caused by all that yelling likely won’t have you reaching for extra turkey breast…more like the candied yams…save them from becoming part of a food fight! If we’ve learned to associate food with pleasure and rewards, as we mentioned with hormones, these external factors can drive us to seek out food so we feel good again.
If cravings are so chemical, is it willpower we need to combat them? Nope! We can use those same chemicals to help us combat the cravings! First understand, genetics are not our destiny. Hormones and genes may load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger. OK that might be dramatic but suffice to say you are still in control, and there are plenty of ways to fend off cravings.
Keep your body stress-free (OK, maybe stressed less) and well cared for to keep it from seeking comfort foods! Be sure to properly hydrate, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. When you’re first looking to combat your cravings, swapping out your desired food for a healthier version may help. Googling a recipe on how to make healthier mashed potatoes and gravy for one of the side dishes may be just what you need. Alternatively, you could decide to eat whatever you’re craving and simply serve yourself a small portion, keep the 3-bite rule in mind, or refrain from eating to please your mind instead of your body.
If these tips don’t work for you, try Post-it notes (just trust me as I explain this one). This can help you manage your stress responses, boredom, and cravings. On a post-it note, write a list of things you enjoy doing, that help you relax, occupy your mind (or hands). Now make a couple Post-its with that list and leave them in places where you’ll encounter them on your way to that comfort food. Put one on your coffee table for when you watch TV, put one on top of the ice cream pint, maybe another on your computer screen…you get it. When you feel like eating something right then, that’s triggered by habit, boredom, or stress, look at the Post-it! The idea is for the list to remind you of other things you enjoy which actually resolve the challenge for longer than the 30-seconds of a bag of chips. This could be reading, meditating, journaling, listening to a podcast, going for a walk, etc. Personally, I have an adult coloring book sitting under my coffee table with the colored pencils right there. Whatever you choose to do, it’s a healthier option to trigger that hit of dopamine which allows us to magically scientifically resist our cravings.
Also remember that good food equals a good mood! Choosing healthier foods helps us in the long run because it won’t create the chemical cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes causing cravings and hanger. Plus it eliminates that guilt that can accompany those indulgent food choices. The highly processed foods that are so often our favorite snacks (hello, chips and M&Ms) are actually specifically made to be addicting. They activate the reward centers of our brains and stimulate our appetites by providing empty calories that offer no satisfying nutrients.
Our takeaways? Enjoy your time with family and friends and still celebrate the holidays with special food that only rolls around once a year. That’s what intuitive eating is all about! Just be aware of how these foods may trigger cravings. You can break the mind-body cycle of cravings by identifying the causes of your cravings and avoid snowballing by using the tricks you read here: eat quality, nourishing food. So have your favorite holiday foods on the day of celebration; you don’t have to throw yourself off track. Happy holidays!