Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
31 Oct

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I like the Primal Blueprint in general because even though there are foods you avoid there are relatively simple (although not always easy or quick) ways to make the thing you are craving in a way that is far less negatively impactful on your body. I have only been eating this way for about a month now, but I have had a version of pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin bread, pizza and cupcakes now that are almost 100% on plan. They are higher in carbs to a degree- but I find I don’t need as much of them and just the fact that I can have them is a comfort if I really want them. I am not one who does well with the “You can’t eat that.” I never have been- the rebel in me wants to cram as much of it in my mouth as possible in order to prove that I can. The nice thing about this is that it is something I can have, but I no longer need. Makes me feel better about myself in the long run, actually.

    When I am craving something, I make it in the most primal way possible, pure and simple. By the way, the idea of doing potato rounds as buns has gotten me really excited to try turkey burgers again (never really been a fan of the beef kind). I was sure that I would have to make an uber expensive paleo bread recipe to do something like that! Potato rounds as buns sounds much easier and much less expensive. Good times!

    Stephanie wrote on October 31st, 2013
  2. After a while, I actually started to crave the primal foods instead.
    Just yesterday I got a craving for canned mackerel and boiled eggs.
    About a year ago that would have been granola bars or sandwiches calling!

    It’s amazing how the body just adapts to “know” what it needs instead of assuming it “wants” junk.

    Just keep grocking on you’ll get there!

    Baz wrote on October 31st, 2013
    • I woke up with a strange craving for eggs this morning…
      Made a massive omelet!!!

      marielleGO wrote on November 1st, 2013
      • Sounds like your living the life 😛

        d wrote on November 1st, 2013
    • After eating mostly primal for a few years, last year my husband and I decided to lower our fat intake and track our diet for a couple of months to drop a few pounds. The weight came off easily when I simply cut down my 1/2 cup of whipping cream a day and used a lighter hand with ghee and olive oil – strong support for the ‘fat-burner’ principle – my body had less fat coming in as fuel, so I burned my reserves instead. But the really weird thing was that out of the blue, I had an intense craving for…. Liver. VERY strange, given that to this point in my life, I despised liver, and would never have dreamed of ordering it in a restaurant, let alone cooking it myself. After 2 or three days of this continual craving, I marched into the butcher’s store (we still have them in Germany :)) and bought some liver, went directly home, fried it up in ghee with some onions, and literally wolfed it down with a small glass of red wine. Delicious! That happened twice more, and that was it for about 9 months. Then the craving returned briefly and was similarly dealt with. I also get cravings for paté… we eat masses of freshly made organic leberwurst, but that is nothing new.

      I would have to say that I rarely crave things like I used to when I was eating a lot of grains. I do sometimes simply want to treat myself to a couple of scoops of gelato, but I refuse to beat myself up about it. I eat it, actively skipping the guilt trip, and then move on. Potato chips are a weak spot when I get together with family, but I know that as soon as we’re home again there’ll be no chips in sight. I think having a relaxed and healthy attitude about these exceptions allows me to move on instead of castigating myself and spiraling into a bad emotional/food-guilt place. At the risk of sounding self righteous, I think we should be congratulating ourselves on the 90% we are doing to promote our health rather than getting down about the 10% that might be sub optimal.

      mh wrote on November 3rd, 2013
      • Liver is very nutritious, so maybe you were lacking something :) Eating it regularly is a good idea.

        Sofie wrote on November 6th, 2013
  3. Damn!!! Why did you have to give that last “just eat it” option!!!

    I have been battling a craving that I only have this time of the year. Only in this season with have these specific sweets available for on of the Dutch holidays. Chocolate covered cookies….
    And I have been doing good so far but the craving doesn’t go away. Actually I crave all sorts of chocolate related things now I think of it… (I know it’s an addiction) but now the idea of those sweet with my nice Mead, a good book and tons of candles makes me crave it even more

    I did give into a craving and had a bing day last weekend when I was having a girls only weekend… it resulted in two days of feeling so sick!!! I think I can manage cravings for a while, thanks to that..

    One thing that has stopped with eating primal is the craving of sweets in general (it’s only chocolate)… I found that they started to taste too sweet and too chemical..

    My solution to cravings:
    – always have dark chocolate at hand (I prefer the 72 or 76% chocolate)
    – Have dried fruits at hand (they are so sweet that just one or two pieces is enough)
    – mix melted coconut oil, coconut rasp, raw cacao powder, sweetner like maple syrup to taste and place it in the freezer for a while. It results in a heavy on the stomach bounty like candy…

    marielleGO wrote on November 1st, 2013
  4. There should be two different words, but for now I’ll describe the term high cravings as those caused by hormones, blood sugar fluctuation, or deficiencies. When I switched to a low carb diet I was getting lots of high cravings, the kind that would cause you to down a tub of ice cream in a single sitting. What I did for a week or two was if I got an inkling of a craving, or thought I might get one, no matter what it was for I would just overeat on fats and meats, sometimes tell I felt sick.

    Now I just get low cravings, which I can either ignore or do any of the tricks listed in this article. But for high cravings substituting a primal version just doesn’t cut. My experiences I need to exert extreme will power or overeat like I did. I really didn’t know it at the time but I may have been reseting leptin or ghrelin levels or something like that, but my body did adjust so I didn’t get high cravings anymore.

    JD wrote on November 1st, 2013
  5. I am a licensed counselor and practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. A major part of the treatment for most psychological problems is exposure and response prevention. That is, exposure to a feared trigger and resisting urges to do something that would provide momentary relief through avoidance. It has been scientifically determined that cravings are time limited; typically a single bout of craving lasts no longer than 7 minutes. This includes hunger pangs, urges to have a drink. The most important first step is developing awareness of the beginnings of a craving, then the ability to sit with the feelings/sensations involved, without reflexively moving to get relief. There needs to be an underlying motivation to improve one’s quality of life, since the work is not easy, especially not at first.

    Lisa Wolfe wrote on November 1st, 2013
    • Just returned home from dinner with a friend and funnily enough – there’s another timely and astute article from my friend Mark S – before I went to have dinner I resolved not to abandon my primal principles – but you know, I just didn’t have the willpower – I didnt go mental, but looking back i had paella (rice), beer (grains) and shared a knickerbocker glory (ice cream, disgraceful!). Shocking, I know my primal bro’s and sisters, i oughta be ashamed. But perhaps the stress relief of a good meal outweighs the bad behaviour! Either way – i can’t really imagine being able to resist this stuff on a dinner date with a good friend.

      Keir Houghton wrote on November 6th, 2013
  6. The paleo diet is the only diet I’ve ever been on where I did not have cravings.

    Melissa (a.k.a. The Cavechic) wrote on November 1st, 2013
  7. I think d best way to subside cravings is to change habits d ryt way… I dnt remember if i read this on MDA or Nerd Fitness, but d best way to change a habit is by creating a new SELF-IDENTITY…

    I thot i cud never let go of the wheat rotis (flatbread) and rice that is so common in India, but after a few months of moderating these things,i started thinking about myself as sum1 who DOESN’T EAT that, rather dan sum1 who DOESN’T WANT TO EAT that… creating identities works like a charm, at least it has for me…

    Also, luckily, I have studied some biology, and I get what is happening inside my body in most day-to-day experiences (I had gotten a deltoid sprain once, and though I didn’t say so in front of d doc, I had figured out what had happened, and wat part of wat exercise had caused it :p)… So, i find it v easy to investigate WHY i’m feeling drawn to some foods, and then act accordingly… If m jst tired and need a pick-me-up, my body screams ‘glucose’… i jst jump on d spot a few times… dat gets me in d mood to drop down for 10 pushups (while gomer pyle holds d guilty food :D), n den my mind z too buzzing to think abt idiotic carbs :)

    Logan wrote on November 1st, 2013
  8. I can usually ride out cravings if I put my mind to it (ie, I REALLY want to), unless I’ve let myself get over-hungry. It”s been very hard since baby #4 (2 months old), because it’s hard to get my hands free on any type of schedule. When they do get free, I make food for the older kids first, and sometimes I get to mine, sometimes not. That’s when the temptation to eat four granola bars, or toast, or anything I can reach with 1 hand can get overwhelming. I also notice that I have worse cravings if I skip my cod liver oil for a few days. I’m working on it–and the temptation gamut of October is over (5 family birthdays + Halloween=too much sometimes).

    Beccolina wrote on November 1st, 2013
  9. I am in one of those life “moments” where there have been multiple sources of stress and uncertainty. I have been for more than a year. I have definitely fallen off the wagon, which I never was fully on. I am slowly increasing the number of meals that I cook myself, which I am doing more now than ever before. I may still be eating badly (when out socially) too frequently for my taste, but I am working on cooking as another front to get back to the wagon. I can feel that my “bad” decisions affect me more than they have been and I am beginning to back down from that because I like cooking and making my own tasty meals.

    I think I will look into the Primal Cravings cookbook as another tool. I’m certain I’ll find that useful.

    Kevin A Goldman wrote on November 1st, 2013
  10. I get “mouthfeel” cravings, the need for something creamy, crunchy or caramelly in my mouth. Usually it’s creamy, so the craving is for ice cream. But I notice when I have recently eaten lots of healthy fat, the craving isn’t there as often. I think my my cravings are usually related to my body’s need for nutrients it’s missing, so I try and figure out what my body is trying to tell me with its “mouthfeel”.
    So far I have:
    – creamy = berries & cream, avocado, or coco milk smoothie (body needs fat)
    – crunchy = peanut/almond butter & carrots, apple (body needs..vitamins?)
    – caramelly/chewy = steak? beef jerky? Usually I just have a Snickers bar, but that doesn’t help… Haven’t figured this one out yet, any ideas?

    Annika S wrote on November 1st, 2013
    • What is &amp?….Annika…I get the SAME “creamy/crunchy/caramel-y” cravings…and find a frozen banana fruit soft-serve thick concoction…with slivered toasted almonds and a quick brittle fabricated from Maple Syrup to “quelch” these “needs” quite satisfactorily!….Beef jerky really does help with the “chew” factor as well…or even a bit of tamarind pulp..for a “sweet-yet-tart” caramel-y effect!

      Donna wrote on November 2nd, 2013
  11. I needed this article right now. Thank you.

    Janis wrote on November 2nd, 2013
  12. I think the cookbook “Primal Cravings” is pure genius for solving the problem of cravings. Did the trick for me. Pure genius.
    And, Logan, you are very funny and very wise at the same time! And you write the “English of the Future”! Love it!
    As Logan says so well, it’s true that you can create a new self-identity. Try this: imagine you are the Forest Goddess. Does the Forest Goddess eat glazed doughnuts or have excess abdominal fat? No, she is slender, with a pure heart and long flowing hair! She cooks wonderful stews for the dwarves (dwarfs?) and rabbits and squirrels follow her around. If you are this goddess….. can you really eat a Snickers bar? Just asking!

    maidel wrote on November 3rd, 2013
    • I love this idea!! I am picturing myself as Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings, nibbling on nuts, fruits, wild meat etc.

      Happy Fuscia wrote on November 9th, 2013
  13. I have found that sometimes the ideal substitute is not the immediately obvious thing. For example, sometimes I crave warm croissants with salted caramel sauce for breakfast. Oddly, my perfect craving-beater for that one is tuna in Mediterranean vegetable sauce! The tuna is flaky like the pastry and also a little salty, and the tomatoes/peppers/onions etc. provide enough sweetness.

    Also, sometimes it can help to just eat the nearest available primal food, whatever it is, as that buys you time to work out what it is you really want.

    Michael wrote on November 4th, 2013
  14. I have been Primal 90/10 for the last 6 months, closer to 95/5 the last month. I haven’t experienced much in the way of weight loss but I do feel better. Carbs are between 30-70 g a day. I don’t get many cravings but I really do miss my craft beer. I am going to Octoberfest this weekend and I know that I will have 1 beer a day and plenty of sausage and sauerkraut. But I have been fixating on the apple strudel that is a tradition every time I go. The last time I went I wasn’t Primal and I got the strudel and only ate a couple of bites. Hopefully I can do that again this time without to much damage. I am making a choice to have the beer and strudel and I am not going to beat myself up about it. On the other hand, I could get there and decide it’s just not worth it. But either way, it’s my choice.

    Andrea Canavan wrote on November 7th, 2013
  15. Since going the Primal path, I find that I have reset my palette to enjoy real food. For example, I allowed myself to cheat on some potato chips recently and I found that I didn’t enjoy them very much. On the flip side, a bowl of blueberries tastes like a decadent treat to me these days. It doesn’t mean I don’t get cravings for junk foods, but I can control them much better now.

    Additionally, when I do get a craving for fast food, say a burger, I think about the poor wages of the workers, the inhumane treatment of the animals and all the packaging waste that goes into landfills, or our oceans. No thanks.

    Green Girl wrote on October 27th, 2014

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