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How to Honor Your Cravings and Release Food Restrictions

Today I’m talking about food restrictions and honoring your cravings, and what that means with Intuitive Eating. If you’re new to Intuitive Eating, start here with the resources section!

We’ve all had those nights where all we can think about is pizza. Or fried chicken. Or chocolate chip cookie dough. Even, a hearty butternut squash salad!

There’s nothing wrong with having these cravings or even acting on them. 

girl wearing orange tank top and eating ice cream

Or maybe you’ve been “good” all week, but you’re really craving a burger and fries for the weekend. You justify this by reminding yourself that you’ve saved up your calories all week, but then you feel like you’re binge eating on the weekend.

Only to start over again on Monday. 

You struggle with challenging the food police. 

Do these food restrictions sound familiar?

Why Do We Have Cravings?

Cravings are completely normal, and I think it is important to normalize them – especially in this diet culture we live in. 

Cravings come in many forms. Here are some of the common reasons for cravings:

So, now let’s talk about each one. 

What Food Cravings Mean Emotionally

Emotional cravings are very common. While it’s cliche to think about eating a pint of ice cream in bed after a breakup, that may be our best way to cope with our feelings in the moment.

Using food to cope is a normal coping mechanism. Diet culture makes it seem problematic, but it’s entirely normal. When it’s our ONLY mechanism for coping, then it’s worth exploring some other areas of stress relief and coping. But, you shouldn’t feel bad or guilty about eating when you’re upset, angry, confused or hurt. 

Eating is emotional. Emotional eating is normal. Food cravings and emotions go hand in hand. 

Food is more than fuel. We’re excited to try new foods, or nervous or scared for cooking with others. It’s virtually impossible to completely dissociate any type of emotion with food, so I think we have to be careful when we label ourselves as “emotional eaters.”

I have so many clients who use this term about themselves, and while part of me understands what he/she is trying to say, the other part of me is screaming, “yes we are all emotional eaters!”

It’s so important that you honor your hunger and give yourself permission to eat all foods. 

This is how you can make peace with food

Food And Nostaglia

I think that nostalgic cravings can play into emotional cravings at times. Maybe you’re homesick and all you want is your mom’s homemade brownie recipe.

Or, you’re going to an Italian restaurant, which makes you think of your meme’s third-generation lasagna recipe, and now that’s all you can think about. Or a cozy bowl of pasta, like this veggie pasta bake

Pasta Bake in Casserole Dish, a vegetarian healthy meal for athletes

Food and memories are very interlinked.

Feeling nostalgic about something you miss, or something that you no longer have access to can bring up a variety of emotions. Which may lead to certain food choices. That’s okay and normal. 

Food is nostalgic, and it reminds us of memories, both good and bad. It brings us happiness when it tastes good, and sometimes frustration when it doesn’t.

Taste Hunger

Taste hunger refers to the notion of not feeling physically hungry, but wanting to taste something. 

I like to use the example of a smell that stimulates your taste buds or salivary glands. A new product you want to try. 

Or, you’re out celebrating a friend’s birthday and maybe you ate dinner beforehand, but the frosting on that cupcake looks SO GOOD. And you really want to try it. 

You may not feel biologically hungry, but you still want to eat it. 

chocolate cupcakes with vanilla icing

This is an important concept because it’s okay to eat when we aren’t physically hungry. That’s a normal relationship with food.

Intuitive eating is not black and white – there’s a lot of gray and nuance and this is one example. 

Food Deficiencies

You may have heard this in relation to meat in that you may be low in iron or zinc. This is true.

But also, think about when you have low blood sugar or you’re cranky. Or you’ve gone too long without eating. You probably want a high carbohydrate/sugar food (ice cream, french fries, cheeseburger, milkshake, etc) to increase your blood sugar.

overhead shot of burger and fries

Or, maybe you’re sick and you’re craving warm tea, full of antioxidants to help with immunity.

Perhaps, maybe you just crave more sugar or calories if you’re undereating in relation to your activity level. If you’re craving peanut butter at every meal, perhaps you need more fat in your diet.

If you can’t think of life without cheese, maybe you need more calcium (and/or fat).

Sometimes, there’s a reason to the madness. Sometimes you have to give your body a little credit.

Food Restrictions

In general, restriction doesn’t work. As the authors of Intuitive Eating explain, when you tell yourself you can’t have something, you just want it more.

I’m fairly certain we’ve all been here. Whether you’ve struggled with disordered eating or not, I think we can all relate to putting some sort of restriction on ourselves, whether it’s a loose restriction or not.

Physical vs. Mental Restriction

Restriction can be physical and/or mental. For example, maybe you’re letting yourself enjoy an ice cream cone physically, but mentally, all you can think about is how many calories you’re consuming and how much you need to cut back on food tomorrow.

Or, how much you have to exercise (compulsive exercise can be linked to disordered eating). 

Here are some examples of restriction.

  • “I’m not eating ice cream tonight….I’ve had it 4 times this week.”
  • “That pasta dish sounds good, but I think I’ll go with the salad.”
  • “Should I really eat another tablespoon of peanut butter at this one sitting?”
  • “I’m thinking about chocolate again…but I ate it with breakfast – I should probably wait until dinner, or maybe wait until tomorrow.”
  • “I didn’t run today so I need to cut out a snack.”

Simply put, restriction is denying ourselves something that we want. If you’re not eating wheat bread because you’re gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, well then that isn’t really restriction.

That can actually be a form of gentle nutrition (the last principle in intuitive eating). Often times, when we tell ourselves we can’t have something, we want it more.

Questions To Ask Yourself About Restriction 

  • Why are you implementing this restriction in the first place?
  • Are you trying to monitor and support self-control?
  • Do you feel out of control when we eat something?
  • Do you feel bad if you eat a certain food or food group?

The answers to these questions may lead you to a different principle of intuitive eating, or a differing reason for your restriction, which may often stem back to wanting to change your body aesthetically, or wanting to eat super “clean.”

sarah schlichter eating peanut butter

A New Way to Look at Cravings 

What if a craving was just a craving? Just that. Nothing more or less.

One of those things where you eat it and move on.

What I’m trying to portray is that acting on cravings isn’t always a bad thing.

When we set this expectation that craving something is bad, we’re setting ourselves up to feel bad about ourselves if we act on that craving.

ground turkey with green beans on plate

Foods aren’t good or bad. Foods are inherently neutral. 

You deserve grace, and if you really want that food, eat it. And don’t feel bad about it. Move on.

Would you make someone else feel bad about their choices?

Things You Can Control To Help With Cravings

  • Eat regularly and eat enough (See a dietitian if you don’t know what enough is for you and your lifestyle)
  • Get enough sleep and drink enough water
  • Show yourself some patience and compassion
  • Get to the root of the problem (99% of the time, it’s not food) – How can you remove stressors from your life?
  • Get outside! Exercise and fresh air can help with dopamine and feel-good chemicals.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and role models. Are you only looking at photos of thin, white women on social media?
  • Keep a cravings journal – Are you noticing any patterns of what you crave and when?
    • When was the last time you ate before your craving?
    • What did you eat? Did you eat all of the macronutrients? 
    • Have you skipped a meal or snack?
  • And the obvious….give yourself what you’re craving!

overhead shot of sprinkled donuts with text overlay

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How do you motivate yourself, or pump yourself up, to accomplish something you didn’t think you could do?

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  1. I do IIFYM and I whole heartedly believe that you can eat what you like and still be healthy! Sometimes people just generally crave something and its OK to give into those cravings as long as it doesnt mean over eating and your still maintaining a healthy diet overall. Eat those cookies, just dont forget about the salad too 🙂

    1. I think being healthy means being aware of what your body wants and needs in the moment, and listening to it. If you eat the cookies over and over again, eventually you’ll crave some more nutrient dense veggies and whole grains. Our bodies are smart 🙂

  2. Cravings can be funny because often times when we don’t just eat the food, we eat everything else in hopes of satisfying ourselves. Not the best approach. I tend to embrace cravings and genuinely love the feeling of getting excited for a particular food. It can be hard to differentiate between craving and boredom, but it’s something I’m working on!

    1. Totally agree with you Kate. I think that we often feel that we have to replace the craving with something that we think or feel may be “healthier,” but like you said, we may keep trying and hoping for satisfaction. I’m a big believer of giving yourself the real thing – and enjoying it 🙂

  3. I am a big believer in honouring your cravings – and honouring your cravings with the actual real thing not “I’m craving chocolate so I’ll eat this spoonful of cocoa power” alternative. Otherwise, often times you find you just keep on craving it regardless of what you do!

    Life is too short to be mean to yourself!

  4. Great post. I think it is important to remind ourselves that sometimes cravings do have a solid reason behind them (physical or mental needs) but that sometimes…, they don’t. Sometimes we just get a mean, sudden craving for chocolate, and that is okay. But not listening to them will most likely just make them scream louder and louder. I used to find I always craved peanut butter when I had been low in protein. Emotionally, when I feel down I crave a latte. Warm milk is a comfort thing evolutionary for humans, so of course I crave some form of comfort.
    Lately, to boost my confidence, I have been really using meditation and breathe work. If I can get myself to feel grounded, I can think clearer and remember all the reasons I am “worth it.”

  5. Thanks for this great post. So often, we see posts about how to “control” our cravings, in the sense of “ignore” them–but that’s not necessarily useful if the craving is telling us something, like maybe we’re undereating or we’re not eating enough fat, etc. Rather than just thinking the craving is evil, it can be a lot more useful to think, “Why am I craving this right now?”

    1. I really dislike how we feel like “caving in” is doing something wrong and we need to ignore what our bodies are telling us. I like your question of figuring out why we’re really wanting something – trying to understand it is important.

  6. I love this post! Whenever I crave something, I first ask if I’m really hungry. Then I try to put it off for a few minutes. If I still want it 20 minutes later or after going for a walk, then I let myself have it 🙂

  7. I was raised to honor my cravings with “just enough of a taste to satisfy” and I still eat that way today. Although if there are sweet potato fries around it’s really hard to hold back 😛

  8. I love this post. And it’s a great point about eating your craving and moving on and not making yourself feel bad, because you wouldn’t make others feel bad about their choices! I absolutely agree with your thoughts on this and it’s definitely something people should read!! 🙂 Thank you for sharing!!

  9. Cravings are HARD sometimes, because I still struggle to distinguish if I want something like pizza because I just want it, or saw your post on Instagram & wanted to bite into some saucy, crusty, goodness myself. Or, if I’m craving something because I need more calories, or more of a specific nutrient.

    I do notice for sure that I crave SALTY and unhealthy foods after a long run, the key for me is to eat something QUICKLY so I can refuel a bit while I decide what I actually want. Sometimes mac & cheese IS the answer!

    1. I agree that eating after exercise (when you need the calories) and to prevent yourself from getting too hungry is key! Mac and Cheese can be a great answer!

  10. My cravings definitely vary, but I usually try to listen to them within the week. Sometimes scrolling through instagram I start craving really healthy food or delicious sweet treats. But I’ve noticed if I’m not hungry I have much fewer cravings. I totally agree though, they are something we should NOT ignore!

  11. So glad I popped over! My dad is a chiropractor and he’s done a lot of research and studying in nutrition for his patients and one thing he’s always telling me is the point you made about being deficient in something! So true! I love that you brought it up too! Also, when you’re pregnant, they’ll tell you if you crave ice, you’re low in iron. But I guess that’s pretty common knowledge 😉

  12. I am so so thankful you posted this; having a dietitian that I love and respect offer advice on these tough issues (especially when it’s tough to listen to cravings after struggling with ED thoughts and behavior) is absolutely invaluable. I’ve learned that for some reason my body often craves fats, and that’s why I eat so much nut butter. It definitely varies with each day, but I try to go more with what it seems my body needs instead of always making myself eat what doesn’t sound good?

  13. “Often times, when we tell ourselves we can’t have something, we want it more.” TOTALLy agree with you on this. This is something I remind myself of daily!

  14. Love this post! I am all about honoring my cravings- usually once a month or so I really really crave a burger and I always so it’s because my iron is probably low (especially as someone who doesn’t eat much meat). You’re right we are all emotional eaters and sometimes we need to just give into those cravings whether it’s macaroni and cheese or a brownie sundae. (PS that Ice cream looked amazinggg!)

  15. YES! Sometimes I just want some pizza or french fries for no reason and I get it! Food is meant to be enjoyed! I also think that by not making a big deal out of “unhealthy” cravings, keeps me motivated for the rest of the time to not be chowing down on french fries every day!
    I motivate myself by making a to=do list and tackling things one small step at a time.

  16. So true. I always know I’m not getting enough protein when I have a huge craving for black bean soup! And talking to my mom always helps me tackle scary tasks. Sometimes venting and a pep talk is allyou need!

  17. I sometimes have a craving for a specific cereal that I might see in the grocery store. So I buy it, I eat the box in a day or two and then the craving has been satisfied. I try not to get too hungry, but need to work on hydration. I think a big one for me is thinking I’m hungry when I’m thirsty. Hangry is a thing…and so is “thangry” hahaha (thirst+hunger)

    I motivate myself by remembering all the hard things I’ve already done. Also, repeating a mantra or a belief about yourself helps too. Like “I can do hard things” etc