Managing Cravings: Strategies to Stay the Primal Course

CravingsLast week’s “Why Diets Fail” post elicited some great discussion. There was a bit of everything – from wrangling to rallying, appeals to encouragement. It was the kind of conversation that, I feel, really makes the community. People are real. They put their experiences out there. From there the discussion, inquiry, challenge and support get going. It’s spirited and honest – doesn’t get any better than that in my book. I invite you to look back to the conversation yourself. For my part today, I want to address by far the biggest theme of that day – cravings. Your comments explored the issue from all kinds of angles. What do I do with cravings? Can I prevent them – pre-empt them in any way? Is it a bad sign if I have them? Do I need to give it time? Do I need to take a different approach? If I have them, does it mean eating Primally can’t work for me? Let’s take it apart.

First off, let me say this. I get the cravings experience. I truly get it. When I was doing the extreme competitive sports, I was eating more carbohydrates than you could probably imagine. A tub of ice cream in one day was not unheard of, and that was in addition to a whole myriad of grains and fruit and other carb/sugar sources. Yes, I got plenty of meat and veggies in there, but when you push your body that hard every day, you load up on thousands of calories – any way you can get them.

So, when I finally retired from the competitive lifestyle and the diet that fueled it, my body had its own transition to go through. I was never overweight, but the poor diet and overtraining took its toll in numerous other ways, including recurring bouts of fatigue, osteoarthritis in both of my feet, severe tendonitis in my hip joints, and gastrointestinal maladies to name a few. Something had to change. And it did, but it was rocky at times. It didn’t happen overnight. I held onto some things for a while – a bit of bread at restaurants, a helping of this or that at holiday meals. Eventually, I gave it all up. That’s what I found worked for me. With the effects on my body and digestive system, I just couldn’t justify it anymore. That said, I still remember the things I enjoyed back then. Even today I can look at a bananas foster and get a little wistful. Then it passes.

It’s important to say that not everyone has these kinds of cravings. Sure, no one is blind to what the rest of the world is eating. All of us here at one time or another used to enjoy some variety of unhealthy but insanely popular food. In fact, I’d venture to say just about every one of us had some favorite item – some piece of junk food so processed and kitschy that it feels almost unmentionable. (Go ahead, get it off your chest.) Still, not everyone continues to crave said unmentionable or any other old favorites. Some people, once they go Primal find over time that they’re totally satisfied and feel little to no interest in “indulging.” The longer they’ve been at it, the less tempted they are. Call it age, adaptation, whatever, but it’s probably a number of factors: physiological predispositions (or lack thereof), individual histories, personality traits, etc.

If you’ve been fully Primal for a while, the following strategies might not be as useful. Even some veteran Primal folks do, however, end up going through a temporary backslide during random life events or transitions (e.g. pregnancies with strange aversions/cravings, grief/loss with appetite issues, extreme life stresses, etc.). For those who are transitioning to Primal and for those who have been Primal but still experience cravings, these might be helpful.

Thanks to everyone who offered their ideas last week. Some points here echo/dovetail with those suggestions. Some will sound quite logical. Some will seem a little off the wall. I’ve worked with a lot of clients over the years and heard from thousands of MDA readers about their experiences and the paths they took to Primal. Collective strategies show the unusual underbelly of how to get from point A to point B and stay on course. For some, the path is straightforward and sensical. For others, it’s a quirkier, more imaginatively scenic road trip.

Accept that it’s going to be a journey toward personal idiosyncrasy.

Make no mistake: good eating is just as personal as bad eating. Maybe the better way to put that is it needs to be just as personal – if it’s going to stick. If your food line-up becomes a generic meal plan of shoulds instead of wants, you’re going to have a problem on your hands eventually. You need to find food you’re passionate about – that you look forward to eating. No, we don’t live to eat. That said, who wants to give up really great pleasurable eating?

Take radical care of yourself.

Seriously – bigger than life, indulgent care of yourself. So much so that you rest on the edge of guilt and would fall off the other side except it’s so nice for a change. It’s amazing to me how many people take on a new diet and change nothing else about their stressed out, sleep-deprived, unbalanced lifestyles. We’re setting ourselves up for failure if we don’t work with our bodies or if we exhaust our willpower. The hormonal helter-skelter caused by sleep deprivation won’t do you any favors. Likewise, going through 4 caffeine crashes in a day or living a life you have no desire to meet each morning is reason to pause and reassess. Food is powerful stuff, but it’s part of a bigger picture. Do other things to take care of your emotional and physical needs, and you’ll take pressure off your diet to fix things it’s not meant to fix.

Keep a transition food journal – the unrated version.

Yeah, as a trainer, I know the typical food journal “assignment” can be tedious and boring. I’d suggest taking a different approach here. Try to view this as an exercise in extreme self-honesty. (That’s where it all starts after all.) For the first week, write down everything you eat – and crave. No judgment. Put as many of your food thoughts and responses in there as you have reasonable time for. Let every quirk and odd association shine through. (If nothing else, it will be fun to look back on.) Be sure to include where/when the craving hit – and what spurred it (e.g. T.V. commercial for meat lovers’ pizza, neighbor kid with a fudgsicle, a crappy mood). For the second week, brainstorm responses to cravings, reasonable exits/avoidances from craving-associated situations/triggers and substitutions that sound good or almost as good for each craving. With that in mind…

Discern the real crux of your craving.

What do you really want when you’re craving your coworker’s tuna casserole or mac and cheese? Seriously. Do you want some hot comfort food? Do you want something that reminds you of your childhood lunches? Do you want cheese…salt…creaminess? What will fill that spot? Some really good cream based Primal style soup? Maybe not every single craving will respond to a strict Primal substitute. Do the best you can. If a bowl of buttered and salted peas will get you over the hump, then do it. If a bowl of mashed cauliflower “potatoes” with butter, salt and parmesan can sub for it, even better. Maybe some “meatza” or a grass-fed Polish sausage or hot dog (complete with some homemade ketchup) will give you the same “normal” food vibe.

Keep a major stash – of moderate recipes.

On that same subject, I think it’s crucial for most people to have plenty of recipes/food ideas that reflect some of their old favorite things to eat – just Primalized. That was the heart of the Primal Cravings cookbook concept, and I can’t tell you how many people tell me that book helps keep them on the wagon. When you just have to have a big juicy burger but feel like the meat patty falls flat on its own, try the crispy cooked potato slices as a better bun. The fact is, most of us agree that gluten free buns are a poor substitute, and there’s no nutritional value in them anyway. Crispy potato slices are just different enough to not disappoint but hit on the inevitable taste association most of us have of burger and fries. This is just one example among many in that cookbook and others, but the general point holds.

Keep plenty of substitute ingredients on hand.

Along the same lines, have plenty of ideas and plenty of ingredients to make whatever you might feel inclined to lean on in a craving fit. (Yes, I know it can feel like that – that sudden, intense and irrational mental flare-up.) Keep cocoa powder, stevia, and coconut milk on hand for when your chocolate craving has gone toof far. Or, better yet, some chocolate coconut Primal Fuel with just water and ice can really hit the spot. Keep alternative sweeteners in the cupboard and some fresh fruit and nuts in the house to make an impromptu Primal “fruit crisp.” Keep less starchy root vegetables for when you want healthier fries or chips. Create seasoning blends for said fries or meats that make you crave them even more. (I thought a good grass-fed steak was heaven until I started using a lavender and custom salt seasoning. Now I could eat it every day.)

Make an “eat this, not that” list – and have multiple copies.

Put one on your fridge. Put another in your car. Put yet another in your work desk. Have one saved in a folder on your phone. When cravings strike, don’t trust your memory to recall this information. That’s not how most of us work in those moments. We go into panic, one-track mind mode. A list means we don’t have to think farther than remembering we have the list itself. (You will likely forget the list a couple times, but that’s fine. Eventually, you won’t.)

Psyche yourself out of deprivation thinking.

We can say cutting out wheat or other unhealthy foods is depriving ourselves (as was raised last week), but I think there’s an important distinction to be made between depriving ourselves of things we need/things that are good for us and eschewing those things that don’t serve our well-being. Giving up something doesn’t automatically impose deprivation. Giving up cigarettes isn’t deprivation. While we might miss a French baguette, a smoker likely misses cigarettes. Sure, for most of us (don’t forget about those with Celiac Disease) a baguette isn’t as bad as a cigarette. Nonetheless, we’re still not doing ourselves any favors when we eat it. Sometimes taking certain things off the table entirely is necessary for health. Coca-Cola will tell you their soda can be part of a “balanced diet,” but that’s a b.s. brand of balanced. Intellectually reason with yourself here, but let it work on an emotional level. Picturing the round contours of the baguette and thinking of a bloated wheat belly can be one way to psyche yourself back to reality. Likewise, imagining the massive carb spike playing out in your body sending off inflammation alarms in every cell could do it for some people. It might take a more unsavory image or memory of last time’s fifteen trips to the toilet to make you turn away.

Look into physiological reasons for continued cravings.

Are you getting enough calories in your diet? What about protein? Do you have a history of hormonal issues? If not, it might be worth checking into. Oftentimes, even slight imbalances (on paper) translate into significant issues for the body. Carb cravings can be the result of adrenal fatigue, thyroid dysfunction, or yeast overgrowth, for example. Particularly if you experience significant fatigue, insomnia or other ongoing physical symptoms, see an endocrinologist or other specialist who would be willing to look at the hormonal and/or whole health picture.

Just eat it, but…

In the end, it might come down to just eating that object of a craving obsession. If you think a Primalized version can get you through, go for it. If not, eat the original. But don’t do it on the spur of the moment. Plan it. Dine with it. Eat other good healthy things with it (e.g. your favorite salad). Enjoy a nice glass of wine with it. Make it an occasion with other healthy foods/pleasurable elements to both fill you and distract you. The 80/20 Principle can work for you here, but be cognizant about how these things go for you. Does one indulgence set off a major backslide? Be prepared for what comes after if you decide to go there. (And try not to go there whenever you can.) Be ready, for example, to make a Primalized substitute of that food the very next day after you have the original. Cravings often come on top of each other. An old food can churn up a whole cycle. Eat the item, but cut off the cycle with all your favorite Primal foods and strategic substitutions over the next few days after that trip into old territory. Avoid the trouble and risk whenever possible by keeping variety and Primal craving-worthy food in your meal circulation.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s worked for you? How has knowing yourself – and organizing your strategies around that self-knowledge – helped you over some major humps in the journey? Throw your ideas and challenges into the mix on the board today.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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