Do you ever have one of those days where no matter what you eat, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what you tell yourself, your brain seems obsessed by one particular food or drink that is not part of a healthy PCOS diet? You try valiantly to distract yourself, but your mind is repeatedly hijacked by thoughts of how you can make a detour on your way home to your favorite deli or bakery or coffee shop, or how you can justify an extra ‘little something’ after lunch?
I’m pretty sure we all have days like this when we are plagued by ‘cravings,’ but the big question is how do you react? When you realize you’re in the clutches of a craving, do you give yourself a stern talking to, ramp up the will-power and battle with yourself harder, or do you make time to take stock and listen deeply to what your body is trying to say to you? Do you treat your cravings as friend or foe?
Quit the drama!
I spent over a decade studying addictive behaviours as a research psychologist. Now working as a health coach, I am fascinated by food cravings, both on a personal and a professional level. Understanding cravings is a critical step for women who want to make peace with their bodies and quit the daily battle to be ‘good’ or feeling wracked with guilt for succumbing to something ‘naughty.’ This is particularly tough for women with PCOS due to their compromised ability to process sugar effectively. Wonky blood-sugar levels can result in monster sugar cravings – something pretty much every woman with PCOS I have worked with has struggled with.
In fact, cravings are often blamed for years of failed attempts to ‘diet’ or truly commit to a clean, healthy, lifestyle. Great chunks of precious time can be spent fighting private battles with ourselves – trying to suppress urges to eat certain foods branded as ‘naughty’ or ‘forbidden.’ A while ago, I did a little informal online survey of cravings among women with PCOS. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the hands down winners were sweet things and chocolate, with fizzy drinks, coffee and fatty foods (such as crisps) following close behind.
Thankfully, if you follow some simple steps, you can release yourself from this odious trap and enjoy a much more peaceful relationship with your body that doesn’t rely on cast-iron willpower. Honest!
My fat fighting began at 13
I was 13 years old when I heard about Rosemary Conley’s “Hip and thigh diet”. Her basic message was that eating fat makes you fat and so if you want to lose weight you should eat a low-fat diet. As an impressionable early-pubescent teen, I embraced this idea enthusiastically. I wasn’t overweight, but like many young girls I felt awkward about the curves I was developing and was terrified that I become overweight. So I enthusiastically obliterated as much fat as possible from my diet. No butter, no cheese, no oils, no grease. No peanut butter, no milk chocolate and I became expert in making fat-free cakes (I had an exceptionally sweet tooth!).
I craved chips
It wasn’t until I reached my early 20’s and my puppy-fat had disappeared, that I remember being plagued by strong cravings that weren’t focused on sweet stuff. Instead, I was obsessed with salt and vinegar chips and creamy things. I had been vegetarian since age 17 and then lived with a vegan for a couple of years too, so I was eating a diet that was virtually fat-free – and I still saw fat as ‘naughty.’ So I kept up the denial – trying to be ‘good’ and refusing to listen to what my poor body was asking for. Battling with myself was a daily challenge.
I was diagnosed with PCOS around this time as I rarely had periods and suffered from mood swings and skin outbreaks. I received the usual doom and gloom message about fertility problems, and sure enough, a few years later, my husband and I found ourselves on a roller-coaster of unpleasant drugs and fertility treatments which culminated in my worst fear – IVF.
Learning to listen not fight
Fast track forwards several years, and when I emerged from the blur of pregnancy and having a sleepless babe/toddler/pre-schooler, I had a new respect for what my body was capable of creating and withstanding. I made a conscious decision to STOP trying to control it and instead I learned to listen. I cleaned up my diet and began to eat meat again (fat and all) and was astonished to find that after 20 years of mayhem (up to a year between periods), my cycle stabilized and has remained regular as clockwork ever since (8 years and counting).
What I didn’t realize back then, is that fat is actually an essential part of a balanced diet and very necessary for certain hormones to function properly.
Looking back, I guess my cravings for chips and fatty foods were probably my body trying to tell me that my obsession with low-fat eating wasn’t working. It knew that fat is essential part of a healthy diet – sadly it took me a bit longer to realize this. I sometimes wonder if had I listened and found a healthy way to give my poor body what it wanted, my periods would have returned sooner, and maybe I would have been able to avoid the emotionally and physically draining fertility treatments that eventually broke my marriage? Who knows, but I wish I had trusted my body more rather than using so much energy fighting with myself.
Happily, these days, food cravings are pretty rare for me, but when a craving does strike, I make time to listen and try to decipher what my body is trying to tell me. Believe me – it’s much less stressful and much more effective!
Listen don’t battle
My point is this: cravings are our body’s way of communicating to us when something is out of balance. Ignoring a craving is like ignoring a distressed baby. One of the most powerful things you can do if you’re struggling with cravings is to make a conscious effort to listen and try to understand what your body is trying to communicate to you, rather than making it a battleground. By trying to connect with your craving and really understanding what triggers it and why, you can glean invaluable nuggets of information, helping you to understand what changes you need to make to improve our health.
It can take time and skill to really understand what underlies a craving, but some are simple to decode. I often encourage clients to keep a “Food and Cravings” diary. By getting into the habit of asking yourself a few simple questions when you notice you are craving something, slowly, bit by bit, you’ll notice patterns emerging and they will begin to make sense.
Click here for 6 Questions to ask yourself when you are having a craving.
Sometimes the ‘cause’ or thing that is driving your craving becomes obvious immediately. Other times you may find you need to dig a little deeper to really understand what is going on for you. You may want to start by cutting out addictive caffeine and sugar from your diet for a couple of weeks (usually long enough to conquer any cravings that are due to addiction or habit) before lasering in on any residual cravings that might be more complex. Journaling can be a really useful tool for doing this, as can talking it through with a health coach. I’d love to read your insights into this process – what do you think is behind your most common cravings? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Annabel Boys is a health coach and Body Stress Release practitioner based in the UK. She gained her doctorate in addictive behaviours from King’s College London and trained as a holistic health coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. She now specialises in working with women and food cravings (with a particular emphasis on PCOS). Dr. Boys is the author of an ebook titled “PCOS-friendly Eating – the ultimate Do’s and Don’ts” and runs online group coaching programmes as well as offering one to one intensive coaching programmes. See www.healthcoachforwomen.co.uk or link with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/dr.annabel.boys or Twitter @annabelboys