Updated: Jan 29, 2020
By Kacey Legnitto, MS, RD, CEDRD
I often talk with my clients about how to decipher if something is a craving or a form of restriction. By definition, a craving is “a powerful desire for something”. Restriction is defined as “a limitation or control of someone or something, or the state of being limited or restricted”. Deciphering between a craving and a restrictive thought can be very difficult when recovering from disordered eating or an eating disorder. Especially given that we live in a culture that currently praises restrictive eating and idolizes a certain body size. Untangling these two concepts is different for each and every person. To figure out what a craving versus a restrictive thought sounds like to you, some guiding questions are listed below.
What sounds good?
Often when asking ourselves this question, a craving may initially pop into our mind. This first thought typically, but not always, comes from a place of craving. Sometimes the thoughts following the initial craving may come from more of a restrictive place and these thoughts may try to convince us to eat anything but what initially sounded good. The problem with this is that if we avoid the craving, it may lead to us feeling unsatisfied after a meal or reinforcing a negative and/or restrictive food thought. This can often lead to increased food preoccupation, food-seeking, binging, and/or feeling out of control around food.
If struggling to know what sounds good to eat, here are some questions you can ask yourself to help guide you. Do I want something warm or cold? Chewy, soft, or crunchy? Salty, savory, or sweet?
Were they any “shoulds” or “ cannot” thoughts involved?
Often when a restrictive food thought is present, the words “should”, “shouldn’t”, “can’t”, or other forms of these words are present. These words are indicators a food rule or restrictive thought around food is present. Next time you notice yourself thinking “I should eat this” or “I shouldn’t eat this”, be on the lookout for restrictive thoughts around food and/or food rules you have implemented around eating a certain way.
What would I tell a friend or loved one about eating this or that?
Often we may tell ourselves something that we would NEVER tell a friend or loved one. This can be a good question to check in with yourself to see if you are treating yourself the same way you would treat someone you care about. Here is an example of what that dialogue may sound like: “I cannot eat “x” (insert food here that feels challenging to you) because I do not deserve to eat that and I need to have more willpower around that food to look and be better”. Pause. Would you ever tell a loved one that they do not deserve to eat something and need to have more control around that food to look and be better? Why not? Play. “Well because no person is a good or bad person based on what they eat or do not eat. They get to choose what sounds good and feels good to eat for them, in their own body, and in that moment. No person needs to restrict themself to be accepted. Because restricting this food may lead to them not feeling satisfied and that can lead to their body not getting their needs met, both physically and emotionally. Often a craving is our body's way of communicating something to us and meeting that need is important. Because food tastes great and having pleasure in eating is essential.” If you can, practice having this dialogue with yourself and then also practice giving yourself that same trust and compassion you would give a loved one.
Are you choosing this food choice based on fear of how it affects your body shape/size?
This question can help tease out restrictive thoughts. If we are eating something for the main reason of changing our body size, this can be a great indicator that a restrictive food thought is present. If you notice the answer to this question is yes, do not beat yourself up. The desire to be thinner is such a common and understandable feeling when living in this culture that promotes disordered eating and values certain bodies over others. You are not alone. Becoming aware of this can be so helpful in separating what society is telling us to eat and look like versus what will meet our individual needs to truly feel great and flourish. This includes finding pleasure in eating.
If I eat this will I be left unsatisfied, thinking about food, and wanting more?
If the answer to this is yes, then next ask yourself what might satisfy you at this moment so that you are not left with intrusive and lingering food thoughts? Often responding to a craving helps us quiet our food brain and be more present in our day-to-day activities. Cravings are often there for a reason and responding to them can help us meet our needs.
Do you notice yourself avoiding a certain food or not allowing yourself to eat something?
If the answer is yes, this is a great chance for you to check-in with yourself about why that is. It sucks feeling like we are not allowed to eat something. The truth is, food is not intended to bring about stress, guilt, and/or shame. Rather, food is meant to nourish our bodies and bring about pleasure and satisfaction. It can also be a time for bonding, connecting with others, and exploring and sharing different cultures. What do you want your relationship with food to look like and how can you take steps to move towards this relationship you desire?
One of my favorite quotes is by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN. It reads, “Self-Care not Self-Control”. Try keeping this mantra in your back pocket when decoding if a food choice is coming from a place of honoring a craving or a place of restriction.