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Controlling Our Cravings

Almost all of us have food cravings. For those of us who have diabetes, our food cravings can make us lose control of our blood glucose levels and our weight.

But we crave different foods, and some of us have learned how to control those cravings. Dr. Joyce Nash, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Menlo Park, California, has conquered her food cravings and works with people who have them. I am still working on controlling my cravings.

“I don’t have cravings very often any more,” Dr. Nash told me. “I used to have cravings some years ago when I was still in my difficulties with food. One of my cravings at that time was apple or cherry turnovers.

“But I got over that a long time ago, and part of the reason was that when I discovered that it was easier to be 100 percent committed to my health and also to realize that when I craved some food what I really wanted to do was to escape some feeling, usually anxiety. Giving into a craving allows us to pretend that life isn’t difficult. But we have to have other ways to cope, and one of them is accepting that life isn’t easy all the time.”

I asked Dr. Nash about my particular food craving, which is fat. But her answers apply to all of us.

Question: What are the most common cravings that people have?

Answer: In terms of food cravings the top of the list has to be chocolate. There are three tastes that get to all of us at one time or another — sweet, salty, and fatty. We can just drive by a McDonald’s and smell the fat and get a craving for a hamburger.

Q. My craving is first for cheese and second for milk. My favorite cheese is Taleggio from Italy. I have to buy it in very small amounts because I will eat it all up that day.

A. That is called portion control, and that is one of the first steps in managing a craving. That and being sure that you eat regularly throughout the day with snacks as necessary so you don’t get hungry. There is a difference between hunger and appetite, and when we are talking about cravings we are talking about appetite. When we are hungry too that makes us more vulnerable in giving in to temptation.

Q. I am a tea drinker, and I have recently switched from Darjeeling to Assam, a black tea, which is better with a little milk. So I bought a quart of milk, and instead of adding it to my tea I drank practically all of it straight, because I just can’t resist milk.

A. That means that milk is a danger food for you. And is it whole milk?

Q. Yes.

A. That’s the one with the highest fat content. And the fat in the milk that gives it the creamy taste is the third of the three horsemen who grab you. It would be better if you could reduce to 2 percent and then 1 percent and finally to nonfat milk.

Q. What I am going to do is just not bring it home, because I just can’t resist that stuff.

A. Exactly. Some of us, especially those of us who are tempted to binge or overdo have some foods that just must be treated with great care. If you have a danger food like that it is better frankly to just keep it out of the house and either drink your black tea straight or switch to another tea that is not as potent as the black tea.

Q. Back to cheese, I do generally keep it out of the house. But the markets that I shop at all have these little cheeses to sample, so I just gorge on them. That’s a problem, because I have to go shopping.

A. They have these little plates with the cheeses on them and here you are munching down on the whole plate.

Q. Exactly.

A. So it is embarrassing too. Here is an important thing. When we have a craving, we have to be able to step back from that craving and be able to see this as a thought, as an idea. We need to not become fused with the craving or the thought about the cheese. It helps if you can catch yourself and, number 1, plan ahead before you go into grocery store where the cheese is and, number 2, talk to yourself and say, “I am not even having one because it is a slippery slope.” You have one and you are just going to stand there and embarrass yourself by eating the rest of it, right?

Q. Yes.

A. Better to say to yourself before you go in, “I am not even going to have one. I am going to shop from my list and only buy what is on my list. And sampling is not on the list.”

Here is what I do personally. Grocery stores have lots of samples. My point of view is that I don’t ever touch a sample because I might like it. If I like it, it is nothing but trouble. I think of it as something that I just don’t do.

Do you have diabetes?

Q. I do.

A. You have to walk the straight and narrow. It is not something you chose. You don’t want to have to be this way, but that is what fate dealt up to you. You have to be willing to accept that this is your situation. One of the things that you have to do for your health is not to get caught by the Cheese Monster. This is a way of talking to yourself and thinking to yourself that says, “What are my overriding values?”

Values are important. Your overriding value is your health, and you know that you can get away with a little bit. But it is harder to be 99 percent committed than to be 100 percent committed. You can be 100 percent committed to your health, and for you it is really important because you have diabetes. This is true for lots of people who have diabetes that it is easy to cheat just a little bit, and that cheating can go a little further and then a little further, and then you are in trouble.

Q. I realized in my own life that being 100 percent committed to something is easier than being 99 percent committed. I follow a very low carb diet that excludes grain. In the last few years I have totally stopped eating grains. That was hard for me at first, but now I have totally gotten over that.

A. Research shows that the less you eat something that is a temptation the less tempting it is. The less you eat wheat the less you want wheat. What happens there is that your mind says, “I don’t eat wheat.”

Is your diabetes managed now?

Q. Yes. My most A1C was is 5.2.

A. Good. What you are doing is working and that is important. When faced with a temptation or craving you need to ask yourself, “What am I really wanting now? Do I want to escape something? Number 2, what is this doing for me? Is this going to meet my needs in the long run?”

Yes, you could cheat a little bit, but you are going to get dragged down one way or the other because you are going to feel bad at the very least about yourself and then sooner or later your whole eating will be in turmoil. So it’s better to say, “Is this working for me? Does this work for me in terms of my values, in terms of my health? In order to preserve my health, does it work for me to cheat or give into this temptation?”

Dr. Nash has more recommendations on her “Lose Weight, Live Healthy” website. She has written nine books on behavioral medicine and weight. Her most recent book is Lose Weight, Live Healthy: A Complete Guide to Designing Your Own Weight Loss Program (Bull Publishing Company, April 2011, ISBN: 978-1-933503-61-5, $16.95).

Dr. Nash’s recommendations are already working for me, and they can work for you. At the moment I am enjoying a cup of tea without any milk. I feel better about myself because now I am 100 percent committed to the paleo diet, which avoids dairy products. And I just came back from a grocery store where I didn’t accept a single sample.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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