I know a lot about cravings—or, as I prefer calling them, eating impulses.
I battled with food for half my life, always stuck between desperately wanting to eat and desperately wanting to lose weight. As a teen, I was diagnosed with PCOS and pre-diabetes. By the time I turned 20, I weighed nearly 300 pounds.
The experience was miserable, but I was fortunate in one important way: my mom (a gifted scientist with a PhD and also an MS in nutrition science) was exploring the relationship between a low-carb diet, mindfulness, and eating impulses. Her work helped me lose nearly half my body weight.
That was 10 years ago, and I’ve spent my professional life unraveling the inner workings of eating impulses. Where do they come from? What makes them so strong? Why do some people experience them so intensely and others don’t?
Turns out, eating impulses are complex—as complex as the brain itself! Hormones like insulin, ghrelin, dopamine, estrogen, and cortisol are ever-changing in our bodies and brains, dictating what we crave in each moment. Just ate something sugary? Your brain is probably pinging you for more. Just had a stressful meeting? Your brain is probably sending hunger messages to your body so you’ll eat, get a hit of dopamine, and feel better.
At its core, what we crave has a lot to do with how we feel. Feeling tired? Stressed? Awkward? Lonely? Bored? You’re probably experiencing an eating impulse. Feeling awesome? Connected? Relaxed? Accomplished? Your eating impulses probably aren’t as strong.
I’ve worked with hundreds of people to help them reduce eating impulses, and there is one thing that anyone can do to dramatically reduce those impulses. And it has nothing to do with food or going on some intense starvation diet or drinking celery juice for a week.
Nope. The best way to reduce eating impulses is through basic self-care. Not the “treat yo’ self and watch Netflix for four hours” self-care, but true self-care.
Self-care looks a little different for everyone, but we can address it through seven main categories: connecting with yourself, movement, basic hygiene, nourishing relationships, sleep, and connecting with nature.
Here’s why self-care is oh-so-important for curbing eating impulses:
Let’s say you work from home. It’s 11 a.m., and you haven’t showered, you haven’t brushed your teeth, and you definitely haven’t put on a bra. Your client calls out of the blue for an intense talk, and you feel totally unprepared. The stress leads to a binge later that afternoon.
Getting dressed and ready for the day wouldn’t prevent that stressful call, but it would have left you feeling more able to manage that stress. You would have approached that call feeling clean and prepared for work.
How about days when you got a bad night’s sleep? Or days when you feel alone, because you haven’t had a solid, heart-warming conversation with a friend for a few days? Or days when you haven’t even taken a moment to ask yourself, “Am I okay?” These are the times when our eat impulses are sky-high, because we’re not emotionally “resourced.” Instead, we’re drained. And who can resist some soothing ice cream or pizza when they’re totally drained? No one.
The goal is to fill yourself up with self-care so you can manage eating impulses from a better place.
Here are a few ideas. Adding in one or two things from this list can help drastically change your outlook and behavior:
Connect to yourself.
Put a post-it on your refrigerator that says, “Are you okay?” Every time you see it, stop, close your eyes, and just ask yourself the question. You might be surprised by what you uncover and the simple steps you can take to improve your day.
Move (or stretch) your body.
You don’t have to be an exercise person, but walking around the block, stretching for five minutes, or giving yourself a little forehead massage are great ways to connect with, and care for, your body.
Doing things to feel physically clean is life-changing. Honestly. Even washing your hands can make you feel ready to take on a new challenge. Bring a little self-care kit with you to freshen up throughout the day. (You might be surprised how much an after-lunch tooth brushing does for you.)
Nourish your relationships.
Connecting to other human beings makes us feel really, really good. It stimulates the feel-good chemicals in our brains and gives our bodies a sense of relaxation. Make a simple plan with a good friend, someone who supports you just as much as you support them. Take a walk or even talk on the phone. The more supported you feel in your relationships, the more prepared you’ll be to take on life’s stressors.
Losing sleep affects our hunger hormones and our general ability to handle stress, among many other things. Of all self-care practices, it may be the most important! Wind down for bed by taking a hot shower, turning your lights down, lighting a candle, or drinking tea. Even a half hour of additional sleep can help reduce eating impulses.
Make your bed, organize your desk, or tidy your room for a few minutes each day. The more control you feel over your space, the more control you’ll feel over your life.
Connect with nature.
Grounding is real! Even taking a moment to look at the sky, open a window, drink a glass of cool water, or give a houseplant some love can bring you the perspective that only nature can offer. Time outside is truly a gift to your human nature.
Choose one thing from this list and give it a try, right now! Brush your teeth and see how you feel. Or clear the clutter next to your laptop. Look out the window. Take one breath.
These are the things that bring us calm, connection, and grounding, and they can have a real impact on our emotional resilience—and on our ability to manage impulses when they arise.