There’s no sadder form of failure, to me, than giving into food cravings.
Imagine you want to change your diet. Deep down, this feels right for you, right now.
You do your research, and decide that it’s not only healthy, but ideal, to eat this way.
You do the work to get your spouse on board. They’re a little hesitant, but supportive. Up for giving it a try, for you.
All the pieces are in place, and so you begin.
It all goes perfectly, until one day you hit a snag: you get out of work late, your car breaks down, you have an argument with a friend.
And visions of cheeseburgers start dancing in your head.
You’re not going to eat it, are you?
Any sane, rational person just ignores the urge, right? I mean, there are so many good and well-thought-out reasons to stay on the path!
And yet, so many times I hear that this is how it ends. You pull over on the way home from work, eat the cheeseburger, and it’s curtains for your diet change.
Whaaat?!?! You wanted the cheeseburger so badly that you threw away all that good stuff you had going? Just so your mouth could be happy for 10 minutes before you felt disgusting for the next half hour? No!!!!
But alas, I get it. Cravings are powerful things. And if you’re not prepared to deal with them, it’s quite possible they’ll get the best of you. So if you’re in the midst of a transition to a plant-based diet, or just trying to take your diet to the next level, here are nine suggestions to help you when the inevitable temptation arises.
1. Remember that your taste buds will eventually change.
Talk to anyone who has made a plant-based diet (or even just a whole-food diet) last, and they’ll tell you that your taste buds absolutely do change. It takes time, but it’s real.
Eventually, raw vegetables become flavorful. Certain fruits, amazing. It’s hard to imagine if you’re not there now, but it happens.
And on the flip side, all those flavor-packed snacks that are loaded with salt, sugar, and oil — and especially artificially flavored varieties — lose their seductive power.
So if you’re thinking that the choice to eat healthy means fighting this battle for the rest of your life, think again.
2. Have a finish line.
The day you stop having cravings is one finish line, but it’s also one that’s really far off.
So what do you do?
Make up your own finish line: Treat your diet change as a “challenge.” Make it last just 7 or 10 days, or if you’re brave and have some support, go for a full month.
The point is that with a finish line in sight, in moments of temptation you won’t be fighting against I can’t eat this now, and I can never eat this again. Nobody’s going to win that one.
If instead it’s, “I can’t eat this now, but in just four more days I’ll have completed my challenge, and then I can do whatever I want,” you’re way better off.
And when you reach that finish line? Then decide whether you want to extend it another 10 or 30 days. And if, not from a place of craving but in a well-fed, relaxed, and balance state of mind, you decide you’re just not up for more, then that’s cool. You did what you said you would, you gave it a shot, and at least you know what it feels like.
Chalk this up as a win, and I bet you’ll be back in the future when you’re ready.
3. Take the smallest steps you can.
You’ve heard me repeat this advice dozens of times now, but it’s just as important for beating cravings as it is for habit changes overall.
If you change everything, all at once, then of course the cravings will strike. And hard. And when they do, you’ll have nothing to fall back on, because you gave up everything all at once.
And in that moment, your new habit is extremely vulnerable.
But if you take those small steps, you can …
4. Eat something else — even junk — that will keep you on track.
Back when I was a brand new vegetarian, I missed buffalo chicken wings. When I was out with friends watching a basketball game and they all had wings, of course I wanted wings, too.
Instead, I ordered a plate of fries and smothered them in hot sauce.
Terrible for you. Borderline gross. Stomach ache afterward.
But that plate of grease, salt, cayenne and vinegar kept me on track. It satisfied the taste buds that were screaming for fried, tangy, and spicy, in a way that I could live with.
Sometimes, especially during a transition, the choice to do something unhealthy for the moment can keep you on the path that leads to health for years.
Another example: fake meats. Sure, they’re junk food, but if in the early days they keep you from second-guessing your decision to eat this way, then they’re more than worth it.
5. Know your reasons.
Particularly when transitioning to a plant-based diet, motivation is your secret weapon.
If it’s just for health reasons, maybe there’s some passion there. But chances are, you’re also in this for the animals or the environment. And those ethical motivators tend to be far more powerful than the ones that just involve your own personal health.
So connect. Watch the documentaries, read the books. Figure out your reasons.
And if health is it for you? Then at least try to link it to others — does it mean being able to play with your grandkids on the floor when you’re 60? Seeing them get married? These will likely be more powerful than something that’s just for you.
Whatever it is, find out what really drives you, and do whatever it takes to amplify it.
My wife, Erin, recently lost a bunch of weight. And during the process, when she was hungry, the first thing she would do wasn’t eat.
Instead, she’d go for a run. Or a walk. Or to the gym. Or to pilates class.
It wasn’t to burn extra calories (although that’s a nice perk). Rather, it was that she discovered that often when she thought she was hungry, it was really just emotional.
Exercising changed her body chemistry and took her mind off the food she was craving. When she got back home, she was in a better position to make a healthy choice.
Will it work for you? It’s worth a try — and worst case, you get a workout in.
7. Remember: “If it’s in your house, it’s in your mouth.”
Surely you’ve heard the favorite checkout-line fitness magazine piece of advice: Don’t shop for groceries on an empty stomach.
Well, this is Chef AJ‘s corollary that speaks directly to those with food cravings.
Let’s face it, temptation and cravings are going to arise. If chocolate ice cream is sitting in your freezer and you start to thinking about it, there’s no unthinking about it. It sits there all night, taunting you, gnawing at you … all rich and creamy and chocolate and yummy.
But if that same chocolate ice cream is five miles away in the grocery store? Most nights after dinner when the craving strikes, you’re not going to feel like going to get it. You’ll make the (sometimes tough) choice not to have it, and more easily move on.
8. Keep better choices within reach.
On a similar note, keep the healthy stuff nearby.
This means in your house, of course. But it also means in your car, for those days when you get stuck at work and the fast food restaurants are calling your name on the drive home. It doesn’t have to be a full dinner that you keep in the glove box, just something to satisfy you for a few minutes and help you make a good choice.
Or how about a jar of peanut butter in your desk at work? An energy bar in your gym bag?
Be ready for everything you can imagine.
9. Track what you eat.
I’m no fan of tracking your food, long-term, as part of your lifestyle. And for those with eating disorder histories, it might be best to steer clear of this particular tip.
But otherwise, when you’re trying to change a habit, a small reward after each success helps to reinforce the behavior in your brain.
So what are you supposed to do when it’s your entire diet that you’re trying to change? (Certainly, a food reward would defeat the purpose.)
Answer: Write it down, right after you eat. Keep a Google spreadsheet or an Evernote document, and ideally, have others look in on it for extra accountability. Or even better, use an app like Two Grand, where you take pictures of everything you eat and upload them to a social media platform.
This helps you in a few ways. In addition to letting you feel the “win” when you eat the way you want to, it installs an opportunity for important negative feedback: now when you consider indulging the craving, the knowledge that you’ll need to write it down and report it might be all it takes to help you make the choice that you really want to make.
The cravings are going to happen. The question is, will you be ready?
Other than possibly the small steps approach, nothing here is going to prevent the cravings from happening. But all these ideas can all help you deal with them when they show up.
The thing is, you’ve gotta be ready. You have to take what steps you can in advance, so that when temptation strikes, you’re prepared.
And if you’ve already messed up, remember that it’s not about being perfect. You can regroup, restart, and most importantly, review what went wrong before and figure out what you’ll do this time to be ready for that situation.
In this way, you change. Not all at once, and not on the first try … but eventually, you change.
Have faith, don’t give up, and you can’t help but find your way there.