Did you know that 70% of people who try to go vegan give up and go back to eating meat? Here are some helpful tips to help you stay on track.
That’s a staggering statistic, but why is this? It is not because they no longer believe in being vegan. It is not because they don’t care about their health anymore, or because they don’t care about their impact on the planet. It is not because they no longer feel compassion towards animals. It is because change is hard.
If you are finding it a struggle to go vegan, don’t beat yourself up. You are definitely not alone and there is nothing wrong with you. Changing a habit is almost always difficult and going vegan is no different.
Think about it. When you decide to go vegan, what you are really deciding is to overhaul habits you have had for a lifetime. And eating food is not only for sustenance. The foods we eat carry memories, associations, traditions and emotions. That is a lot to overcome. But there are techniques that can make the transition easier.
One of these techniques is learning how to overcome cravings by allowing them without responding or reacting. Typical advice on overcoming cravings is to distract yourself, to distance yourself from the food, to drink more water, to get more sleep.
The problem with all these tactics is that they only serve to mask your craving problem rather than get rid of it. And although they may work for a while, in the long run the underlying craving will still be there.
A better approach is to get rid of cravings for good. To retrain your brain to have a different response to the foods you currently crave so that you stop craving them altogether. You want to get to that place where you see a former favourite food, but you no longer even want it.
How cravings work
Most cravings go beyond the need to satisfy your hunger or your nutrient requirements. Most of them revolve around the pleasurable memories and associations of eating.
You see or smell a food and it triggers a specific thought – “ooh I want that” or “that smells just like home”. Then that thought triggers a feeling, an urge or desire to eat the food. And this leads you to take an action to relieve that uncomfortable feeling. So you take action and eat the food, and your brain is then rewarded with a rush of feel-good chemicals.
Do this enough and your brain quickly learns: feel urge – eat food – and get rewarded. You become conditioned to automatically answer your food trigger with eating the food. This cycle can become so strong that it almost feels involuntary, like you just can’t help yourself. But you can, you just need to interrupt the cycle and break the pattern.
Breaking the cycle
Just as you conditioned your brain to reward itself when indulging a craving, you can condition it to do the exact opposite – to see the food and have no interest in eating it.
When you feel a craving you have three choices. You can give in to the craving and eat the food. This is not an option if you are trying to give up that food as it will only reinforce the reward cycle.
You can resist the craving, use your willpower or distract yourself. This can work in the short term but it will not retrain your brain to no longer desire the food. You will feel the same urge each time you are triggered by the food.
Allow the craving to go unanswered. This is the permanent solution to getting rid of a craving for good. Feel the urge, acknowledge it, but don’t eat the food. This will start the process of retraining your brain to respond differently. Once your brain starts to learn that desiring that food no longer ends up in the reward of eating it, the cravings will begin to recede. Do this enough times and the urge to eat the food will disappear. The cycle will be broken and you will be free.
How to allow a craving
So to permanently get rid of a craving you need to allow the craving and not answer it with the food reward. Simple in theory, but how to put into practice?
Cravings are uncomfortable. They can make us feel agitated and anxious. Our natural reaction when we feel this way is to relieve that discomfort by giving in to the craving. But this perpetuates the trigger reward cycle. To break it you need to allow a craving and not respond, to not eat the food. This will be uncomfortable at first, but it is the only way to retrain your brain.
Three techniques to try
Feel the craving
When you feel a craving arise, instead of trying to resist it or ignore it, become present with it. Feel the craving in your body. Concentrate, does it create a tightness in your chest, agitation or restlessness in your limbs? Where do you physically feel the craving? Get curious and really focus on your bodily sensations and how the craving moves through your body. Allow those feelings to be there without having to react to them. Know that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. Feelings can’t hurt you and they will pass.
Watch the craving
You are not the craving. Detach yourself from the craving and become an observer instead. From this place of observation, watch the craving happening to you. What thoughts does the food trigger in you? Watch them as they are running through your mind.
Remind yourself that just because you have an urge or a craving you don’t have to respond to it. Just because you want the cheese, you don’t have to eat the cheese. That uncomfortable feeling, of wanting but not getting, will go away and you will quickly learn that cravings, like any other feelings, are transitory. They come and they go and you don’t have to react to them if you don’t want to. You always have the control.
Track your thinking
Your cravings are an urge or desire, they are a feeling. And just like any other feeling they are triggered by a thought. Let me be clear. Your cravings are not triggered by the food, they are triggered by your thought about that food. Getting to the bottom of these thoughts is very helpful in understanding and overcoming your cravings. If you can examine your thoughts, you will be able to determine whether they are helpful or not and if you need to change them.
As you get started, I would recommend that you keep a journal and take note of your cravings, how long they lasted, how they felt, and how you felt. I have created a workbook to help you and you can download it at www.successfullyvegan.com/cravings-workbook
Remember you always have the power to choose your reaction to a trigger. What you need to do is create a space between the stimulus of seeing or smelling the food and your response of eating it. That space can be found in allowing for the feeling with one of the above techniques and most importantly not responding.
This will be difficult at first. It is not going to be comfortable. But if you are consistent, the urgency and desire for taboo foods will lessen every time you practise this technique. And before you know it, your cravings will be gone.
Unlike other craving advice which will tell you to avoid or distract yourself from cravings, to make this work I want you to actively seek out tempting situations. I want you to practice allowing the urge and not reacting.
View your cravings as opportunities to practise rather than as a sign that you are doing something wrong. It is completely normal to crave foods that your mind and body are used to eating. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it is just a pattern that you are in the process of unlearning. Being aware of what is going on is the most important step to making the changes you are looking for.
And remember, this is a process, if you slip up, don’t beat yourself up. Take note of how you felt, of what you were thinking and decide what you will do differently next time.
The quicker you rack up your practice, the faster your brain will be reprogrammed. If you can let your urges go unanswered 50 times, the urge to eat that food should be gone. And you will be free of those pesky cravings.
The best news is, once you learn this technique, it doesn’t only apply to going vegan. You can use it to overcome any cravings or bad habits.
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Georgia is a success coach, helping people to reach their goals. With a background in psychology, coaching and plant-based nutrition, she has the perfect blend of skills to help people successfully embrace a vegan lifestyle. To find out more, visit www.successfullyvegan.com.