Non-Hungry Cravings

A huge topic that is beyond the scope of this blog and my book is what I’ll call “non-hungry cravings.” Most people experience at least some cravings for pleasurable foods even when they are not hungry. Those of you who have read my book or followed my blog know that I believe choosing to give in to some “non-hungry” cravings every now and then is perfectly normal. In order to recover from bulimia/BED, of course you must deny the body/brain the binges it’s been conditioned to crave; however, I don’t think denying it of pleasure completely is necessary.

     The fact that most people have food cravings, even when they are not truly hungry should come as no surprise. We are wired to enjoy food. Food is good; it’s meant to be pleasurable – after all, it’s how we survive. I don’t think there is a species on earth that views eating as a chore. The pleasure of eating is one mechanism that motivates us to stay alive. Unlike some nutritional experts, I don’t fully blame non-hungry cravings on an overabundance of “junk food” in society or a less than ideal diet; because even if you have perfectly healthy diet, you probably enjoy certain foods in particular and crave them sometimes when you are not truly hungry- even if they are the healthiest of foods. 
        
       When you stop binge eating and your urges to binge fade away, that doesn’t mean every food craving will disappear. I think keeping this in mind is very important, as is realizing that not every craving for pleasurable food is a craving to binge. Just because “non-hungry cravings” might feel similar in some ways to binge cravings, remember that “non-hungry” cravings are not eating-disorder specific. 

   However, it’s also important to realize you aren’t a slave to those “non-hungry” cravings either. If you have been successful in refraining from binge urges; I believe you can use some of the same techniques to refrain from any food cravings that are bothersome to you. However, I think learning to resist all “non-hungry” cravings is over-reaching and not necessary. I think it can even be harmful in some cases if it leads to a “dieting” mindset (having very rigid, restrictive eating habits; denying your body of sufficient calories), which as you know, can lead to more urges to binge.  

  If you are bothered by what you think are too frequent food cravings when you aren’t truly hungry, I would suggest first making sure you are eating enough. Even though you may have just had a meal when you find yourself craving a little more, maybe you simply didn’t eat enough. In other words, maybe your “non-hungry” cravings really aren’t that at all, maybe they are a signal that you aren’t feeding your body sufficiently. In this case, you may want to consider adding more calories to your diet; because if your body/brain gets the message that you are food deprived, the food cravings and even the binge urges may persist.     

    But, what if you are eating enough but find yourself having too many annoying non-hungry cravings?  Like I said, addressing all the possible causes is beyond the scope of this blog and my book, and I am certainly not a nutritional expert; but I will attempt to address some aspects of this broad topic here. 

     Food cravings definitely have a physiological basis. Hormone imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, insulin resistance, food allergies, hypoglycemia, adrenal imbalances, and even something as simple as thirst can cause an overabundance of food cravings. In order to break these food cravings, some nutritional/medical experts recommend not only avoiding the foods you crave, but also addressing the physiological factors that may be involved (by doing such things as taking nutritional supplements, changing the composition of your diet to include more protein and fat, getting more healthy exercise, drinking more water…etc). Of course, many therapists apply the “emotional eating” perspective here, asserting that you crave pleasurable foods in an effort to cope with/stuff down/avoid feelings. If you’ve read my previous blogs or my book, you’ll know that I don’t think that perspective is useful for a lot of people.  But the physiological basis of your non-hungry cravings might be worth exploring if you feel like those cravings are not in the range of normal. 

    There are three things I think are important to keep in mind, however, if you do attempt to address the physiological causes of food cravings. 

     First:  The pleasure problem. Some experts believe that if you crave a certain food too often, like chocolate for example, that food has a nutrient in it that your body is deficient in. Following this example…chocolate is high in magnesium, so in theory, if you take magnesium supplements, it should make your craving for chocolate go away. To illustrate, the following quote is from a book on adrenal fatigue – a condition resulting from stress that can make one crave “pick me up” foods like sugar/caffeine. 

    “…it is much better to use your cravings for chocolate as a reminder to get your magnesium from some other source. The easiest solution is to supplement your diet with 400mg of magnesium per day. That physical craving for chocolate should decrease rapidly, often within one to two weeks after beginning the magnesium supplement.” (Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James L . Wilson, pg. 157-158)  

    To me, this logic sounds a bit similar to the logic that says to use a binge craving as a reminder that you have an unmet emotional need that you should address. While this nutritional deficiency theory is valuable, it fails to address the pleasure issue.  Does 400 mg of magnesium in supplement form taste as good as chocolate?  Does it provide whatever pleasurable benefits the individual receives from chewing and swallowing it and allowing it to alter their brain chemistry?  Whatever the reason someone starts eating chocolate too often in the first place, I can guarantee that the reward system in the brain becomes involved and lights up every time the individual takes a bite. Even if you correct the nutritional deficiencies or other theoretical physiological causes, your primitive brain might still send urges for the rewarding nature of the foods you crave. 

   Addressing physiological causes also fails to address behavioral conditioning, which is the second thing you should keep in mind. Following too many food cravings can become a habit. All the thoughts/situations/feelings that make you feel compelled to reach for pleasurable foods when you aren’t truly hungry become wired into your brain, and correcting nutritional deficiences or other theoretical physiological causes of cravings won’t necessarily turn off those automatic thoughts.  

     The third thing that is important to consider is the issue of self-control. The book I referenced above was one of the many books I purchased during my eating disorder that I thought would help with the binge eating. I self-diagnosed myself with adrenal fatigue (I did have most of the symptoms) and thought if the book claimed to help people overcome cravings for sugar/carbs, then it could help me with my binge eating. One sentence from it typifies why it didn’t help me much…on page 226, the author says,  “Do not eat foods that adversely affect you in any way, no matter how good they taste or how much you crave them.” The lack of control I felt over my binge eating at the time made following the author’s advice impossible. This is why I believe telling binge eaters to eat a specific diet, or eat/don’t eat certain foods in order to address theoretical physiological causes of binge cravings often fails. It fails to address the fact that binge eaters often don’t feel like they have a choice. 

     This is why I believe it’s so important to know (and experience) that you fundamentally have control over your eating behavior (whether we are talking about binge eating or non-hungry cravings), regardless of what is going on in your body and brain at the time; and even if there are surely some physiological factors involved.    

17 thoughts on “Non-Hungry Cravings

  1. Your suggestion to view urges to binge as the disorder itself, without trying to control all of the other variables (i.e. emotional triggers, relationships, mood, etc.), is one of the sanest things I have ever read about bulimia recovery. If you read any of Roy Baumeister’s work on willpower, he talks about willpower as though it’s a muscle that becomes exhausted (the “ego depletion” model of willpower) because every act of will draws from the same resource. In other words, if I spend all day trying to make myself finish my paperwork (and using a lot of willpower), I may come home and be unable to keep from yelling at my kids. Now imagine the bulimia sufferer wasting her precious willpower trying to control all of these other irrelevant elements, rather than conserving it for dealing with the bulimia itself (the urge)!

    Your approach has resonated with me because it seems to match how I have overcome other problems, like smoking and OCD. I had simply learned to devalue the thoughts and cravings associated with those problems. Great work, Kathryn!

  2. What an interesting insight! I actually have not read any of Roy Baumeister’s work, but I will definitely look into it. The “ego depletion” model certainly sounds like another reason why focusing on controlling other factors can be ineffective for many binge eaters.

    I am so glad my approach resonated with you. Thank you for your kind comment.

  3. Thank you for linking to this, Kathryn! This is incredibly helpful for me…especially since the holidays are rolling in and food cravings tend to go through the roof. I am certainly in the process of defining the difference between harmless non-hungry eating and harmful non-hungry eating–then using the concepts in your book to work with ending harmful patterns. You really are an inspiration. Thank you again.

  4. Dear Kathryn. I am so grateful for your book! For the first time I find that someone actually understands the way I feel and live(bulimia over 17 years). I know your book by memory now, but I still was not able to stop from binges even I tried to do all things you say in your book. At some point the urge are just too strong to fight it. Any advice?

  5. Hi,
    I am glad my words resonated with you, but I am sorry you have not had more success in stopping binges. I hope you are not discouraged, because I do not expect what worked for me to be an instant cure for everyone. I will write a few things here that have helped others, and I hope they can help you too.

    You said that at some point, the urges are too strong to fight. To me, it seems that if it feels like a fight, maybe you are not well detached from your urges; because it should not feel like you are struggling with your lower brain (that will usually make the urges stronger). Maybe try “practicing” detachment at times when you are not experiencing urges. You can write down(or just think about) all the thoughts that hook you and get you to give in. Then say those thoughts to yourself and practice distancing yourself from them – hearing them as if they are not really you and realizing those thoughts aren’t worth fighting with because they are are just junk. You can even look at your hands while you say the thoughts that usually hook you, contemplating the fact that no thought or feeling can make your hands move to pick up food without your voluntary consent. Doing this little exercise might give you more confidence for when the urges actually arise. Writing down all the enticing thoughts/feelings will also give you more awareness of how your habit operates, so that the urges do not catch you off guard.

    I think it’s so important to be able to dismiss ANY thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. This includes thoughts that are so reasonable and logical that they seem like your own, and thoughts telling you that the binges are worth it. I don’t mean you have to disagree with those thoughts or fight with them; you only have to let them come and go without assigning them any value whatsoever and without letting them affect your actions.

    Another important thing to remember is that even though you want to quit; at first, there are going to be times when binge eating seems very appealing. I think it’s important to accept that, and realize that at times, you will feel deprived of the pleasure it once brought you. However, it’s not really “you” that’s deprived – you are depriving your lower brain and a life-draining habit, and “you” are getting stronger with each conquered urge.

    If you can get past the first 2-3 weeks, you will likely find that your thoughts encouraging you to continue the habit decrease significantly and you truly comprehend and experience fully the power of being separate from your urges. At that point your motivation to put this behind you for good should become a much stronger force than any nagging urges.

    I hope this makes sense and helps some.

    1. Thank you for the tips. I will definitely try to focus on looking at my hands when I experience urges and know in my head that no thoughts can make my hands go grab more food without my consent.

      I also will try to listen to my urges with detachment more. I know my problem is that I keep fighting them. Kathryn, when you stopped acting on your urges to binge, did the urges get less intense each day? Or did it take a month or two before the urge intensity weakened?

    2. Hi Trisha,
      It did take some time for the frequency/intensity of my binge urges to lessen. I don’t think it was a linear process though; some days during the first several weeks the urges wouldn’t be strong at all, but other days I would indeed have strong cravings.

      I believe the intensity of my urges to binge was related to how well I separated myself from them. If I could remain detached, the urge intensity wouldn’t be strong at all; but if I began relating to the cravings – thinking that “I” truly wanted to binge – then the urges felt more powerful.

      After a month of being binge-free, the urges surely had weakened, and after 3-4 months, the desire to binge was nearly nonexistent (even if I did have random thoughts pop up from time to time encouraging me to binge).

      I hope that answers your question, and I hope you are able to have success in resisting the urges to binge.

    3. I’ve been making my own diet pgrraom and I know it’s unhealthy. I only eat once a day around 4pm or 5 pm and most of them are less than 1000 cal and sometimes less than 500 cal. The results was amazing, my waist dropped from 44 inches to 31 inches and it took me only about 3 months. However, it hit me the other day when I knew something wasn’t right. It was a mess, it scared the hell out of me. I swear I thought I’m going to get a stroke or major heart-attack. Now, I’m trying to let go of this unhealthy diet and back to being chunky and happy, instead of Skinny and miserable. But, I still can’t let go of this diet, I’m so hooked. Whenever I eat a large portion of food I start to feel guilty and the diet card plays again. I’m back to square one. Is there a medication to boost my crave on eating or any tips for me to start eating 5 times a day.

  6. Hey Kathryn, I recently found out about your book through google, and am really excited about the concept of brain over binge. It makes so much sense to me, and I can’t wait to read your book which I just ordered.

    I am a bit confused about where this leaves the therapy I have been going to for just under a year. I am wondering if sometimes the binge urges are the ‘neurological junk’ resulting from a conditioned habit (and I loved the image of it being like a path which needs to be avoided for it become overgrown, for the urges to weaken and stop being sent out). However, I wonder if sometimes there if an emotional trigger for the first binge in a while, or in certain situations, which then lead back to the ‘neurological junk’ urges once it has been repeated a few times, reconditioning the old habit. Because I went several months without bingeing, and it became extremely easy not to binge, but when I did binge again after 5 months, I got bad cravings the next day again, which I ended up giving into, and then it seemed to reawaken the beast!

    One other thing which I am trying to understand, is on how to know sometimes if a binge urge is just ‘neurological junk’ and will go away if ignored enough, and when it is a symptom of slight undereating or nutritional deficiency (e.g. not enough fat, or carbs). Because these days I try not to undereat, and the 5 months from March-September this year I managed to stop bingeing for, I feel like I was eating enough. But what happens if I inadvertently go a few days undereating a bit on calories or certain food groups? Anyway, I’m trying to figure all this out, but I am grateful for your Brain over Binge concept. It feels like you’re onto something!

  7. Thanks for writing. I’m glad you had success in quitting binge eating for 5 months. That really gives you a head start because you know how effortless it becomes after a while.

    I talk about this in my book, but it took about 9 months for all remnants of my binge urges to go away. This doesn’t mean I struggled with strong urges for 9 months; because after a few months (like you said) it became extremely easy not to binge. Automatic thoughts/feelings would still pop up from time to time, very infrequently; and it simply became a matter of refusing to give those thoughts any attention or consideration whatsoever.

    About whether or not the habit can be reconditioned, here is an except from the chapter titled “Is Relapse a Possibility” which addresses that question:
    _____________________
    “My urges to binge were the one and only cause of my binge eating,and my urges to binge are gone; therefore, I won’t binge again. Due to my brain changes, it’s doubtful that I’ll ever feel
    an urge to binge again; however, it is certainly possible. I’m sure my lower brain remembers my past at some level and remains capable of producing urges; but that doesn’t mean I’m at risk for relapse.

    In order to relapse, I would have to not only experience an urge to binge, but choose to act on it. The cause of a relapse is the same as the cause of any binge eating episode: an urge to binge. Now that I know that my urges are the real problem, and now that I know how to deal with those urges, I have foolproof protection against relapse. To prevent relapse, all I have to do is never act on an urge to binge, ever.

    Granted, if I did act on urges to binge one day, I could probably redevelop the habit of bulimia rather quickly. Just as an out-of-practice musician can begin to play much more easily than someone who has never played, I could probably reestablish my binge-created brain-wiring problem easier than someone who has never had bulimia. But to develop my habit again, I would have to choose to. My brain cannot reestablish
    old patterns of neural activity unless I willingly take action.

    But why would I do that? Now that I have tasted freedom from my urges and compulsions, there is simply no chance that I would ever binge again.

    Now that I know my binge eating was never a way of coping with life, I will never let difficult life events turn into excuses for binge eating. Now that I know binge eating wasn’t a symbolic way of fulfilling emotional needs, I will not delude myself into thinking I could find comfort in binge eating.”

    ____________________________

    About therapy, I can’t advise you one way or another; but I don’t think therapy is incompatible with information in my book, and if you feel like therapy is benefiting you in some way, then that’s a good thing.

    The questions you asked in your last paragraph are what make binge eating a bit more tricky than quitting a habit like smoking, and I do address those issues in my book. Yes, I do think that when you first quit, urges can arise because of inadvertent undereating/nutritional deficiencies; but the good news is that – even if that happens – you don’t have to act on the urges. When normal people inadvertently undereat or have nutritional deficiencies (I sometimes inadvertently undereat while chasing my 3 kids around!), we may have food cravings; but not urges to binge. So, in that sense, the urges that arise because of undereating/deficiencies in a bulimic are still “neurological junk.” There is never a need to binge, even though the individual may need to fix some problems in her/his diet.

    I hope that makes sense and at least partially answers your questions.

  8. Yes that helped, thanks for the reply! I’m really looking forwward to reading it, but might take a while as i ordered from amazon US, and I live in the UK. But I’ve learned a lot already just from reading your blog and website, so thank you.

  9. Hi Kathryn,

    It must have been fate when I stumbled across your book online, then your blog, because I was going through a really bad period of binge eating and purging everyday and I was literally exhausted. I promptly downloaded your book onto my Kindle and it has changed my life. I just wanted to tell you how much your book, blog and way of thinking has helped me to take control of my own disordered eating. I have been an overeater/binge eater/bulimic for the last nearly 10 years and I have always felt out of control around food. I have a similar story to you of how it all started and I always thought I was never ‘bulimic’ as I binged and then dieted restrictedly instead of purging. Unfortunately, this year I began making myself vomiting after years of trying and things escalated quickly. I thought I had found the magic answer! I could eat whatever I liked and not put on weight. However, it began to take over my life and I was literally at my wit’s end until I found your book. I am happy to say I haven’t purged since and I am eating regularly, without bingeing. I am still struggling with these ‘non-hunger’ cravings and I have episodes over eating. From reading this post, I am going to apply these tactics and the same thoughts to overeating.

    THANK YOU Kathryn!!!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that my book has been helpful to you. Congrats on your success! I hope you have the same success applying these tactics to overeating/non-hungry cravings. Thanks for taking the time to write; it means a lot to me.

  10. Kathryn,

    i feel like i have the detachment part down. I’ve given up dieting last month. but since i’d been doing for seven years i feel the need to eat when its unnecessary. Like, “oh i’m not dieting anymore so i can have this pizza”, even though i’m physically full. I use detaching/separating myself and say “you’ve been dieting so your brain is still in restrictive mode thinking it needs it” is this normal?

    1. I do think this is a normal reaction that should gradually subside. When you first give up dieting, you will probably have more non-hungry cravings than those without a history of dieting/binge eating. But, as your body gets the message that you are indeed going to feed it properly and not diet again, your lower brain will gradually stop asking for more when you are already physically full. I think you are definitely doing the right thing by detaching from these messages; however, if every now and then you choose to have something extra, I think that’s fine as well. Everyone has to discover their own balance of following/not following any non-cravings they may have.

      I think some of the information from the FAQ section on my website might help you, specifically from the “Eating Normally” section (the FAQ’s are located here: http://www.brainoverbinge.com/faqs/).

  11. Because I am trying to allow my thoughts to be fleeting – like ships passing in the night – I am not too focused on how many days have gone by since I have been “binge free.” (If I were to guess I would say five or six.) My whole life prior to finding “Brain Over Binge” was a 21-Day Challenge, a 3-Day Fast, a 30-Day Detox… and I failed every. single. time.

    I will say, however, that tonight I noticed something different than an urge to binge – it was anxiety over an extreme urge to restrict. The trigger? Looking at Facebook pictures of acquaintances and comparing myself to them. I found myself thinking, “Girl, what have you been doing these past several days of ‘normal’ eating? You’re going to look like a cow – get a hold of yourself!” This is something that I haven’t read about yet in the book – the urge to restrict (I could never purge via self-induced vomiting or laxatives, just always found a new diet or diet pill to wipe the slate clean). Do you have any advice for this type of compulsion? I tried to view it as brain junk but it came out of left field.

  12. Hello Kathryn, thank you for sharing!! Do these non-hungry food cravings (not the initial physiological reason for the craving but the actually craving feeling itself) come from the lower brain? Thank you again

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