So many of us can struggle with compulsive eating and don’t understand why or what to do to get out of the cycle. For most of us, we’ve learned to substitute food we can eat for all the other primary foods that nourish us, such as love, affection, intellectual stimulation, vocation, purpose and meaning. The cycle becomes so habitual that we may not even recognize the steps between the impulse for those primary foods and the action to eat compulsively. But we can start to crack our cravings codes by slowing down and becoming more aware of what’s going on in our process.
One of the most effective ways to build our awareness of what’s going on with our cravings and understand what we really need is to keep a cravings journal. Keeping a cravings journal allows us to start clearing the fog of confusion and developing more concrete awareness. When we can see what’s actually going on and slow it down, we afford ourselves time to make different choices that will better serve our needs.
Pick a Time Frame
First, pick a time frame that you will use in one observation period. This will depend on your specific habits. For a general guideline, pick one day at a time. However, some people want to track by each craving they have within a day, so they may design a sheet that has three to five entries per day to catch the minutia of details. You also want to list the time of day of your cravings to see if there’s a pattern. The important thing is that you select a time frame that allows you to get a clear picture of how emotions, social interactions, mood and food interact.
Create Check Boxes
Create a system so you can quickly begin to gather data while you’re in the throes of a craving. Creating check boxes ahead of time will help you identify what you’re experiencing without having to articulate it in the moment. When people struggle with identifying emotions, it is actually really helpful to even know the difference between sensations, emotions, moods and judgments. For example, people may select “I feel fat” as a feeling. But fat isn’t a feeling; it’s a macronutrient or a judgment. Identifying it as a feeling puts us in a lose-lose situation, because we begin attacking our body shape as the culprit. We shame ourselves instead of being able to address the real need happening — the emotion. The following are examples and ideas for check boxes:
Sensations: buzzing, tingly, hot, cold, pulsing, tense, expansive, numb, arousal
Mood: anxious, depressed, obsessive, flat, content, hyper, manic, sexual
Emotions: mad (annoyed), glad (joy), sad (lonely), scared (bored)
Judgments: worthless, gluttonous, ugly, stupid, fat, undeserving, outcast
It’s easy to conflate the categories and feel paralyzed. By separating them out, you get a clearer picture of what might be going on for you. For example, if you tell yourself a judgment, it may create a feeling of despair, which over time can create a general depressed mood.
Next, create some check boxes of typical foods you may crave and perhaps ones you eat that aren’t cravings based. You can organize them based on macronutrients or any other system that makes sense to you. For example:
What Am I Craving?
Carbohydrates: breads, pastas, starchy root veggies, rice, sugars, fruits, candies
Fats: avocado, coconut, olive, nuts
Proteins: legumes, tempeh, soy, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, cheeses
Combos: French fries, sandwiches, rich candies, pizza
People may want to add a stool log in here as well if they’re wondering about food sensitivities and how that affects their bowel movements.
Listing the Events
Next, create a section to list the events that have happened since the last checkpoint. This will give you information about what was going on around the cravings and allow you to connect the dots. For example, you may want to ask yourself, “What events have happened in the last 24 hours?” You may also want to ask, “What events are coming up in the next 24 hours?” This seats you in the present moment, evaluating how the recent past and near future are affecting you currently.
Cracking the Code
This is the section where we start to synthesize the data. Looking at your answers in the above sections, you’ll now have space to make meaning of your urges. You may want to ask something like, “What need is my emotion trying to tell me to meet?” and “How can I get that need met without compulsively overeating or binging?” For example, if you checked “lonely” for an emotion, your emotion may be telling you that you’re seeking connection with people rather than food. Perhaps you also circled a judgment of unworthy, which may keep you from seeking that connection and looking to soothe it through food. Perhaps pizza is what you crave when feeling lonely, because it reminds you of special memories with a person who is no longer in your life. When you’re angry you may crave something entirely different, like peanut butter.
When you start to understand the craving/emotion/mood/judgment cycle, you can start to identify it at every aspect. For example, now that you know the link between your feeling of loneliness and pizza, you don’t have to wait until you’ve had a binge to identify your loneliness. You may recognize your craving for pizza and understand the shorthand that it means you’re lonely, and then choose to reach out to someone instead. Perhaps you’ll share the pizza with a current friend in an amount that serves your body.
Whatever you choose, select items in your cravings journal that work for you. Commit to the practice for a good month to get a clear picture of what is going on. Set aside time to understand yourself at a deeper level so that you can nourish all of you: body, mind, heart, and soul.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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