This post is a brief insight into a book I wrote recently called “Cravings Kung Fu: Conquer Your Food Cravings By Using Their Own Power Against Them“. In it I’m going to outline a way to control food cravings that is based on cravings research, an interesting psychological perspective and some of my own experience.
But before we start this post just for the record I don’t know anything about Jennifer Lopez and any food cravings she has. It’s just that she happened to be in the picture that I’ve used from Marie Claire. I don’t know if she has bad cravings sometimes or what she does about. So if you think this post is about J-Lo it’s not.
It is related to Kung Fu though…
Why would you want to read on? I can only promise one thing: you will be surprised at how susceptible we are to crave food. This post will teach you how to become aware of the two most important factors in controlling food cravings: environment and habit, and how the principles of a martial art like Kung Fu can actually be more effective and relevant than you think. What it won’t be about is how to distract yourself or deny yourself from eating because basically this doesn’t work! You may have already found that out from trial and error.
Why study food cravings?
First off, the reason I got into this subject is that a few years ago I became interested in losing fat and eating more healthily. One of the activities you do (or should do) is make a food journal to see what you actually eat before you change your diet. It makes sense: see where you are before going off in a new direction.
When I did this I noticed I ate half a bar of chocolate each night – which is quite a bit of fat and sugar. At the time I thought to myself that I shouldn’t be doing this (every night???) and told myself I was going to do something about it. Trouble was that it was hard to get out of the habit.
Now you’ll probably laugh at this but I was 11 stone 4 lbs (about 72 kg) at the time, being 5 foot 9 inches in height (1 m 75 cm) so I was pretty lean anyway. Or more to point I was “skinny fat” – a bit of a belly with no real definition. I was strong enough as I did rock climbing but you get the picture: I didn’t quite look big which I guess was what I always wanted (damn those fitness magazines!).
So on one hand I probably needed the food! On the other I thought it best to try and reduce my chocolate habit as eating a cleaner diet is always a good thing. I eat a much cleaner one now and can testify to that.
I was trying to look for a way to stop my habit without using tapping methods or strange berries or those kinds of ideas. They just seemed a bit far fetched. They may work for some but my scepticism was screening them out. Instead I wondered what would happen if I ate something else instead of chocolate, but importantly what is if ate this food at the same time that I got the craving.
You can learn a thing or two from quitting smokers
I got the idea from my smoker friends . I’d heard before that you can be successful in quitting if you simply replace the cigarette with another activity that uses your hands. It’s not enough to just use the patches for some people: doing something with your hands appears to be the key. The one I remember (this was a good few years ago) was eating sunflower seeds. My Spanish teacher was using this to distract herself from smoking. It seemed to have worked.
So the method I tried was to eat some nuts instead of chocolate (I couldn’t quite face a mouth full of sunflower seeds with shells). Short story: it worked after a few weeks. One other fascinating side effect was that I was also more aware of when I got the chocolate craving. It was always after dinner, a habit that came from my mother’s cooking. We also had dessert after the main meal. I was basically continuing a dinner pattern that started when I was very young.
Now come forward a few years and I have this idea in my head and a method that seems to work: use a replacement food. But I don’t really know if this is a method that has been used or even studied. In fact I don’t really know what has been studied so I started to look into it and read papers.
Without going into masses of detail there are literally thousands of aspects of food cravings and how we eat and these are being studied as we speak. However, within this field there are common traits and I’ll summarise two of the big ones as they are relevant to the method that I found worked:
- Food cravings APPEAR to be related to diet – low carb and monotonous (eating the same foods a lot) seems to work best
- Cravings can be influenced by environment but whether they can be consciously “triggered” for example, by seeing a food you crave is debatable.
Some cravings studies (like this one) focus on dieting and its effects. Others study brain chemistry specifically dopamine (here). But another group headed by Brian Wansink looked at more subtle factors: environment. Does where you eat, when you eat and even who you eat with affect how much you eat?
Think about that for a second: maybe you can’t kick the fatty foods habit because your friends all eat fatty foods?
Wansink has published books about eating and nutrition (here and here) but the take away I want to share with you is that food cravings appear to be subconsciously activated by the environment in which you eat. Maybe this is why you have chocolates only at work? Or always hit the fast food after the gym? The habitual behaviour mixed with the location and people may be enough to trigger the craving.
A Small matter of self-control
Environment isn’t a defintive answer for why we have cravings but it does crossover to a different body of work dealing with how we control our actions in general.
This work is one that doesn’t seem to be studied specifically with respect to food cravings, at least in the work I’ve seen. Maybe it is there and I don’t know about it but it doesn’t seem to be top of the list of factors. It’s the work by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. They specifically studied how our self control (or will power) varies and is depleted by making conscious effort during the day.
Our will power is what underpins all conscious actions we take, or at least what we think we take! Apparently we only truly have control of what we do for 5% of the time, in the worst case. We are completed outgunned by our own subconscious. The Master Computer runs the show.
But within that 5% we can affect change in ourselves and in our habits. In effect, with some awareness we can slowly write new programs for the Master Computer.
Baumeister’s experiments on subjects show how fragile our will power resource can be. Making one group of people go through a task that was difficult or one that required fighting impulses (like eating radishes instead of chocolate chip cookies) made this group less focussed in a subsequent task. They either gave up or didn’t take any action, becoming much more passive and pliable.
There was another interesting observation: making ANY choice can reduce will power. Even groups who did not have to undergo an arduous task showed a drop in interest or competence in a subsequent task.
There is some good news: Baumeister and colleagues continued the work, eventually proposing that will power could be managed better if blood sugar levels were steadier meaning diet can help with focus. They also found that will power can be increased and trained much like a muscle, so it is possible to get more self control, a handy skill if fighting off food cravings.
The main point from this work is something that seems like common sense: if you want to succeed in controlling food cravings then take action one step at a time. Reducing your choices about what to do will result in more success.
But what about Kung Fu?
The Kung Fu element is that you consciously let the craving urge take over. You let yourself get drawn into the motions of it but at the very last minute you eat your replacement food. It takes preparation and will power, hence the reason why you should just focus on this one thing: the replacement food.
It is very similar to the idea in Kung Fu (and other martial arts) that the best way to overpower a formidable attacker is to use their energy against them. But to do this you need to be flexible and fast. You also need to be able to redirect the energy so it takes practice, on one hand to overcome the natural instinct to fight head on and on the other to retrain your body to be able to deflect efficiently.
However, once you can deflect well it seems almost effortless. And so the same with food cravings: once you build awareness and have practised using the replacement food, it will be a lot easier and use less effort to control food cravings.
Putting it all together
So how do we go about mastering food cravings?
The first thing is to take note of what happens when you have the worst craving. What time of day does it happen? Where are you?
The next thing is to think of some other food that you can eat – this will be your one thing to change. It’s best to use something simple: if you tend to eat chocolate bars maybe nuts or cheese will do. If you’re craving is more meal related, such as a big curry or hamburger, you may have to replace chips with salad or green vegetables. It’s probably best to try and control the small snack-type cravings first though as meal-type comfort food takes involves more diet changes. (This is explained in the book.)
Sounds hard, right? It is but it gets easier once you start practising. It also gets easier once you gain awareness of when and where your craving strikes. Also, your new craving habit for the replacement food will build over time so that you still get the urge but it will be for something healthier, less fatty (or at least with much less processed fat) and something hardly loaded with sugar at all!
Of course, you may not want this at all – you could be a powerlifter and basically be eating everything in sight! But if you are worried about it, try this kung fu trick and remember the secret is make small changes one at a time, so that you don’t use up your will power before you get the result of not eating the craving food.
Last but not least…
Like I mentioned at the outset I’ve taken food cravings research and combined with this method into the book, “Cravings Kung Fu: Conquer Your Food Cravings By Using Their Own Power Against Them“. You can get it free on iTunes and for a small price on Amazon (I would like to give it away but Amazon have a minimum price policy – though if you send enough emails to them they can set the price to zero!)
It will give you detailed plans of how to conquer your food cravings using the “Kung Fu” method of redirecting and focussed application of will power, instead of fighting with all your might head on, only to be overpowered before you even get close to your goal.
One other thing: the common remedies of trying to distract yourself or denying yourself food may work some of the time but they don’t work consistently. Reprogramming your brain and habits does. Go give it a try.