How to Heal Your Relationship to Food Cravings With Mindful, Pleasure-Based Eating
If you’re human, you’ve probably had a food craving.
From jonesing for your favorite sweets to comforting memories of mom’s home cooking, there are plenty of reasons you might have the urge to reach for a certain food.
While you may desire a certain food due to its nutritional content, much of the time food cravings can have emotional roots.
Instead of looking at cravings as something to resist, ignore, or stamp out altogether, it’s possible to gain insight from food cravings as a way to meet the deeper needs hiding underneath.
Here’s how to mine the wisdom your food cravings hold to find peace in your relationship with food.
Why food cravings aren’t the enemy
If diet culture is to be believed, food cravings are something to be controlled and resisted. But what if there’s another approach?
While food cravings can have many causes, they can often indicate that deeper feelings and stressors that are lurking under the surface.
Instead of restrictive dieting, intuitive eating embraces desire as something to be celebrated and enjoyed.
According to a 2021 review, intuitive eating is considered an adaptive mental health strategy that’s connected to several positive outcomes, including increases in:
- positive body image
- overall well-being
A 2020 study followed 1,491 participants from adolescence to young adulthood. At an 8-year follow-up, continued intuitive eating practices were associated with lower incidences of a number of disordered eating behaviors.
This included lower odds of:
- high depressive symptoms
- low self-esteem
- high body dissatisfaction
- unhealthy weight control behaviors like fasting and skipping meals
- extreme weight control behaviors like taking diet pills or vomiting
- binge eating
According to Geneen Roth, author, speaker, and compulsive eating workshop leader, an intuitive approach to food cravings can transform them into a source of liberation.
In her book “Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything,” Roth details her own journey with disordered eating and how she came to lead workshops to support others going through the same thing.
Her philosophy is based on the idea that dieting isn’t so much about food and weight loss as it is about a sense of inner lack.
“Compulsive eating is only the symptom; believing that you are not worth your own love is the problem.”
— Geneen Roth, “Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything”
Roth teaches that embracing the desire for food as natural, safe, and trustworthy is to reclaim the inner voice that’s often overridden by popular messaging about dieting, weight loss, and what it means to ‘eat healthy.’
“It’s never been true, not anywhere at any time, that the value of a soul, of a human spirit, is dependent on a number on a scale,” writes Roth. “When we start defining ourselves by that which can be measured or weighed, something deep within us rebels.”
Similar to Roth, food freedom and holistic wellness coach Sloane Elizabeth first experienced her own difficulties with food before she became a guide to others.
“I had my own history with disordered eating and body image struggles, and that’s what ultimately inspired me to help other women,” she says.
For Elizabeth, food cravings were actually covering up a fearful need for control.
“I realized that it wasn’t really about the food at all, but it was about control issues and perfectionism,” she says. “Food just so happened to be the thing that I used to express that fear.”
Though she was encouraged by the increasing popularity of intuitive eating, Elizabeth felt there was another layer to be unpacked.
“I was just seeing kind of more surface-level stuff about intuitive eating, like ‘just eat what you’re craving’ and that’s kind of it,” she says. “That wasn’t enough for me to heal.”
“I realized that it wasn’t really about the food at all.”
— Sloane Elizabeth
The truth underneath compulsion
If food cravings are covering up deeper feelings, repressing or controlling them doesn’t ultimately solve anything.
According to a 2020 review, food deprivation increases cravings for the foods being avoided when it comes to specific foods. The study notes these cravings are a conditioned response brought about by learned cues rather than nutrient or energy deficiencies. This means they can be unlearned.
While it’s difficult to say exactly what these cues are, they likely have emotional undercurrents.
“The root of the issue lies in the subconscious mind,” says Elizabeth “Typically, it’s fear of something — not being lovable, fear of not being worthy, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being in control.”
Roth has a similar approach.
To get at the root of the desire for food, she guides her students to get curious and deeply listen to their own desires. This also involves coming to recognize that the idea that food will fix anything is a “lie.”
“Inquiry…allows you to relate to your feelings instead of retreat from them,” she writes. “Our work is not to change what you do, but to witness what you do with enough awareness, enough curiosity, enough tenderness that the lies and old decisions upon which the compulsion is based become apparent and fall away.”
Instead of forcing superficial change, like swapping a cookie for a rice cake, Roth encourages her students to face the real reason they’re reaching for food as a source of comfort.
Once faced, the fixation with food becomes far less powerful.
“When you no longer believe that eating will save your life when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed or lonely, you will stop,” she writes. “When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart.”
“When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart.”
— Geneen Roth, “Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything”
7 techniques to learn from food cravings
So, you may get the idea that food cravings can be covering up deeper emotions, but what next?
The techniques below can help you mine the wisdom hidden behind the desire to eat to cover up your feelings.
Sit with the craving
It’s only natural for cravings to arise from time to time. Instead of repressing, ignoring, or immediately gratifying them, try sitting with the sensation of craving to tune in to the message it has for you.
“Your cues, including your cravings, give you insight into what your body is asking for,” says Elizabeth.
You can apply three steps to put this into practice.
- Sit with the craving.
- Explore meeting the need.
- If the desire is still there, enjoy the food.
First, sit with the craving. Feel where it is in your body. Notice what sensations, memories, or images arise along with it. As you do so, you can ask yourself where the craving comes from, without trying to ‘figure it out.’ Just let any information arise naturally — or not.
Second, explore whether the feeling of craving can be met or lessened in other ways.
These can include:
- drinking some water
- taking a cat nap
- going for a walk
- calling a friend
- taking a warm bath
After you try a few ways to meet the desire, you may discover the need for the specific food you had in mind isn’t so intense. This may indicate that your craving didn’t come from hunger after all.
Once you’ve taken space to experience and explore the craving, you can decide whether you’d like to go ahead and eat based on what you’ve discovered.
If you do choose to eat, make sure you allow yourself to enjoy the experience. This practice isn’t about willpower at all — it’s about exploration. There’s no way to do it wrong, whether you decide to eat the food or not.
Be aware of the belly
Roth teaches her students to give attention to their bellies, especially because this can be an area of the body that many students try to cover up, hide, or ignore altogether.
“You begin the process of bringing yourself back to your body, to your belly, to your breath because they…are here now,” writes Roth. “It is only here, only now that you can make a decision to eat or not eat.”
The steps to Roth’s belly meditation are as follows:
- Become aware of the sensations in your belly. These can include numbness, emptiness, fullness, tingling, warmth, or anything at all.
- As you continue to focus on belly sensations, begin to count the breath. This helps prevent the mind from wandering. Whenever you get to seven, start over again at one.
- Once you feel in touch with the sensations in your belly, feel into whether you’d still like to eat. Either choice is OK.
Delegate the decision-making
According to Elizabeth, this is the part where many of her clients get tripped up: The question, ‘Should I eat or not?.’
She says this can often lead them to spiral and feel overwhelmed with the decision. As a solution, she suggests delegating the task.
“When it comes to my metabolism and burning calories, thankfully my brain doesn’t actually have to be the one in control of that,” she says. “My metabolism can be the one in control. Let me see what happens when I delegate that, when I release that control and trust that my body is going to handle it.”
This involves trusting that the body — including the part of the body responsible for cravings — knows what it’s doing.
“If you can…believe that everything is under control, instead of you being in control, then there’s a lot more peace,” says Elizabeth.
She suggests thinking of the entire process like running a company.
“Your brain is the CEO, and you have a team,” she says. “You trust that your employees are working well for you and therefore the entire business organization is under control.”
Learn your cues
Practicing sitting with your cravings and feeling your belly sensations can help get you out of your head and into your body. The more you practice, the more likely you’ll be able to interpret your body’s cues.
“Diet culture gets us really wrapped up in the aesthetic side of things,” says Elizabeth. “We start trusting other people’s tropes, the magazine tropes, the diet culture tropes, and we lose our intuition.”
Learning about your cues can help you get back in touch with it.
“Cues are available at all times, but a lot of people are numbing them. Whether it’s hunger, fullness, or craving, they’re numbing their desires,” says Elizabeth. “The body basically starts screaming to get your attention.”
Once you start turning your attention to the body itself, rather than an outside object of craving, you can begin to get more in touch with your true desires.
Celebrate your cravings
Elizabeth notes that clients often feel scared of their cravings. They sometimes mistrust the idea of intuitive eating because they’re afraid that if they eat whatever they want, they’ll lose a sense of control.
Instead of fearing cravings, she suggests you celebrate them.
“Celebrate the fact that a craving is a line of communication to your body,” Elizabeth says. “It’s a beautiful thing to have that connection to your body.”
Ask ‘what else am I hungry for?’
An integral part of understanding your cues is getting curious about them. Elizabeth suggests asking what else you might be hungry for.
Let’s say it’s breakfast time and you’re craving cake.
“You intuitively know that eating cake for breakfast wouldn’t actually be the most aligned for your health,” says Elizabeth. “Then you get curious and say, ‘okay, well, if we go a little deeper into this craving, what is it that I’m actually hungry for?’”
This could be any number of things, like:
The more you ask, listen, and stay with the craving, the more likely you are to get an answer.
Keep the food you crave in the house
It may fly in the face of everything you’ve ever heard about eating healthy, but Elizabeth suggests keeping the foods you crave available in the house. This helps to reinforce the idea that food isn’t such a big deal.
“The cravings can feel really intense when you’re limiting them because you’re only allowed to eat dessert on the weekend,” says Elizabeth. “You’re going to be craving that dessert Monday through Friday until the weekend comes.”
Instead, have a little bit of what you’re desiring any time throughout the week.
“When you’re allowing yourself to eat what you want to eat, the cravings no longer seem that special,” Elizabeth says.
Tips for enjoying your food
Roth outlines several tips for truly being present and enjoying your food.
1. Eat when you are hungry.
2. Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
3. Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations, or music.
4. Eat what your body wants.
5. Eat until you are satisfied.
6. Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.
7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto, and pleasure.
Doing these can help you truly experience the pleasure of eating, as well as take away any sense of the shamefulness or specialness of food.
“When we give up dieting, we take back something we were often too young to know we had given away: our own voice,” writes Roth.
By listening to your cravings and treating them with curiosity, respect, and trust, you can begin to reclaim that voice.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, yoga teacher, and Ayurvedic Wellness Coach. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.
This article was originally published on Healthline.com.
- Elizabeth S. (2022). Personal interview.
- Hazzard VM, et al. (2020). Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010–2018. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4
- Lindardon J, et al. (2021). Intuitive eating and its psychological correlates: A meta-analysis. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.23509
- Muele A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0
- Roth G. (2011). Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. New York, NY. Scribner.