This post describes the simple meditation technique that helped me learn to ignore my sugar cravings so I could can eat a healthier diet. It is excerpted from my book that describes how I kicked my own sugar habit.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll define “sugar cravings” as the sudden urge to eat something made from concentrated, processed sugar or starch. If you aren’t in control of these urges, here’s what usually happens:
- A thought comes into your mind – such as “Hey, I think there’s a bag of cookies in the cupboard!” This thought appears suddenly while you’re doing something else, like watching TV or surfing the web.
- Then you almost automatically get up from your chair (or drive to the store) to follow through on that thought. A moment later you discover that you’re eating that cookie, or buying that ice cream, even though you firmly intended to eat better or lose weight.
We think, we act, and then we regret it.
To put that process under our conscious control, we need to “stay awake.” That allows us to notice the urge to go find a cookie or cook up a batch of pasta or make ourselves a piece of toast when we’re not really hungry – and then let that thought disappear without action.
After all, it isn’t the cravings that make us fat and unhealthy. It’s what we do when we feel those urges or think those thoughts — it’s our actions that undermine our good intentions.
When you should not use meditation to overcome the desire to eat:
It is particularly important that you not use this technique to ignore true hunger pangs if you’re on a low-calorie fad diet. It has been know for over 90 years that low-calorie diets actually make you fatter, because you will end up binging on food. There is no technique — not meditation, hypnosis, will-power or drugs — that can prevent you from regaining the weight you lose and then adding extra pounds after a starvation diet. This important point isn’t discussed nearly often enough, so I’ll be putting up some posts about it in the near future.
Why true awareness can help you stay committed to a healthy diet.
Thoughts come into and go out of our minds endlessly. Some of those thoughts are creative, and can lead to new ideas and inventions. However, most of our thoughts are just the mundane rehashing of the day’s events, or daydreams, minor worries, and plans for how we’ll get the next task done.
And — usually at regular intervals throughout the day — we have thoughts that suggest that we need to go buy a fancy coffee and a muffin at the local Starbucks; or stick a coin in the candy machine; or cook up some comfort food heavy in starch and fat.
Being “awake” allows us to notice when a thought is particularly exciting and useful; when thoughts have become repetitive and even damaging; and when thoughts are manufactured by our unconscious mind in order to feed an addiction. Sugar cravings fall into that last category.
Once you become aware of the fact that you have complete control over how much attention you give to any thought, you can also control whether or not you act on your cravings. Your decisions will now be under your conscious control.
This meditation technique isn’t just for controlling sugar cravings — you’ll soon discover it’s much more powerful than that. However, it is an excellent way to stay in charge when you’re changing to a new, healthier way to eat, because you’ll soon be able to experience urges, cravings and thoughts about food without automatically acting on them.
First, learn to really notice what you think about.
You can do this exercise while walking around the block. (If you don’t have time to walk right now, you can do this exercise on your commute to work. It will actually make you a better driver).
Noticing the world around you as you walk or drive is more difficult than you might realize, because so often our minds are inwardly focused. We may be looking at something in the outside world, but we’re seeing an image or thought that’s inside our heads.
Once you start paying attention, you notice that your mind is almost never empty – and there isn’t any reason why it should be. You aren’t trying to empty out your brain – you just want to practice noticing what you think about.
This can be a rather enjoyable exercise if you lighten up and use a bit of humor. Remember – you aren’t trying to change what you think, you’re not trying to stop thinking, and you are not judging what you think. Just notice, as though you were sitting back and simply watching what happens on a stage.
Perhaps you notice yourself thinking that the neighbor’s window trim need painting. Remember – notice the thought, and then let it go, and wait for the next one.
Your next thought may be about the treats you forgot to buy for a birthday party at the office. You notice, and let it go.
Next you think that this is a silly exercise. You notice, you let it go.
You may find that the same thought keeps coming back, over and over. Perhaps you got in a fight with someone at home, and you replay the argument, adding those perfect come-backs that you didn’t think of at the time.
That’s ok – but remember to let go of it just as soon as you notice yourself thinking about it. And also notice how long it takes you to notice when you are thinking about a highly charged subject, or when you are focused on something that you have often worried about in the past.
And then let it go — and wait for the next thought to pop up. It won’t take long.
You’ve just learned that you have complete control over how much attention you give to any particular thought.
Pretty easy so far, right?
Now, begin to take some interest in the environment that you’re walking through. Just after noticing a thought and letting it go, turn your focus to the trees and houses or buildings you see, and feel the sidewalk beneath your feet.
Feel the breeze that is gently playing with your hair, and hear the birds singing in the trees. Then notice that another thought comes into your mind, and that you are no longer focused on the things around you. Gently let the thought go, and once again turn your attention to the world you can actually see.
Keep on the noticing, letting go, being aware, and then thinking your thoughts, for as long as you are out on your walk.
One trip around the block, of course, is not enough. Set aside some time every day to practice this technique. The time you normally spend commuting to work often works well for this. Or commit yourself to taking an hour a day to walk and practice this simple meditation technique — the exercise will be good for your body, too.
After you’ve done this simple exercise, you should be aware of two things:
- You can only concentrate fully on one thing at a time, and
- You can change what you are thinking about and concentrate on something else. (Your control over this will increase as you practice).
Using your new skill to take control of your eating decisions:
Now that you have become more aware of your thoughts and daydreams, you should practice replacing any thought that doesn’t bring you closer to the goals of your day. This can actually be any goal, not just about weight loss or staying away from sugary foods.
For instance, if you find you are worrying about a conversation you had with your mother on the phone last night, but you really need to be putting together a plan for a presentation at work instead, now is the time to practice taking control of your conscious mind. Gently say to yourself “No, I would rather think about something else.” And then put the new thought into your mind, just as you did when you were out walking.
Since you can only concentrate on one thing at a time, it makes sense to concentrate on the ideas and thoughts that do you the most good, and let the others evaporate. (You’ll be amazed at how much more you can get done when you no longer waste time on old, repetitive ideas and useless worries that you can do nothing about.)
If you practice this skill with thoughts and daydreams that have nothing to do with food, you will build up the mental strength you need the next time you’re confronted with the snack aisles at the supermarket, or a fattening lunch menu, or a well-meaning relative who insists that just one piece of pie won’t hurt you.
You will have cravings and urges and rationalizing thoughts that try to convince you to eat foods that aren’t good for you — but you don’t need to act on them. Thoughts just pop into your mind all the time – but you don’t have to keep them there.
You can choose what you think about, even though food urges and cravings tend to be very difficult thoughts to ignore. That’s why you want to practice throughout the day, on all types of thoughts — it’s like running a few miles every day in order to get ready for the marathon.
Keep practicing – and soon you’ll discover you have far more control over your sugar cravings than you thought you did. I used this same enjoyable technique myself, and it really does work as long as you practice it regularly, and as long as you use it in conjunction with a healthy, nutritious diet filled with filling, unprocessed food.