Wendy Shah, RD
Guest writer and podcast guest
Edited and updated by Sandra Gentleman, RD
Change your thinking habits to change your eating habits
Since 2008, over 3000 health care professionals have trained with the Craving Change program to help people make and maintain positive eating habits for their health and well-being. Craving Change was developed by registered dietitian, Wendy Shah and clinical psychologist, Dr. Colleen Cannon who have decades of clinical experience working with people who struggle with their eating. Based on the cognitive-behavioural model of psychology, the program gives people tools to help them understand why changes are challenging and provides step-by-step instructions for how to better manage their eating habits and food cravings.
It Takes ‘Skill power’, not Willpower
Eating is very personal. We all have our own, unique relationship with food. This relationship began from the moment we were born. We have many associations with food and we eat for a variety of different reasons. Some of us have been advised to alter our eating habits for medical reasons. At times, we may feel that what, when or how much we eat is a concern for our health.
The goal of Craving Change is to increase what is called your ‘eating self-efficacy’. Eating self-efficacy is the confidence and skills that you have to manage your eating behaviour, especially in challenging social situations or when experiencing negative emotions.
The Craving Change program has 4 components:
Why it’s Hard to Change
We are all eating under the influence of many factors that affect what, when and how much we eat. In our society, we are exposed to food and to messages inviting us to eat almost every hour of the day. In addition to exploring our food environment, the program considers your body’s response to different factors that can work for you or against you. It also helps you understand how some of your eating habits have been learned, and how they can be unlearned.
What Needs Changing
Your eating habits may be affected by certain circumstances, emotions, or thoughts that you are unaware of. The program provides a variety of worksheets and techniques for increasing your awareness of your personal eating triggers. Awareness is key to successful behaviour change.
How to Change
By following the Craving Change step-by-step instructions, you can experiment with over a dozen cognitive-behavioural strategies and learn skills to help you manage your personal eating triggers and responses.
Keep the Change
It’s one thing to change a behaviour, it’s another to maintain that change over time. The program teaches you evidence-based strategies to help you sustain your new, positive eating habits.
What is the Cognitive-Behavioural Model?
Here’s a short Psychology 101 lesson. The cognitive-behavioural or CBT model examines the link between how you think, how you feel and how you behave. It is the gold standard for interventions in countless health care settings including mental health and disease management. The cognitive-behavioural approach is effective in helping people who face a wide range of challenges, from A (anxiety) to Zzzz (sleep), including smoking cessation and eating behaviour change.
There’s no doubt that what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling affects what and how you’re eating. For example, many people describe themselves as an ‘emotional eater’. Craving Change tools and activities help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings. This is important if you’re keen to change your eating.
Skim under your Eating Iceberg
The CBT model can be described using an iceberg analogy.
An iceberg looks like a little island of frozen snow floating in the ocean. It’s big. However, under the surface of the water lies a much, much bigger chunk of ice. In fact, almost 90% of the iceberg is under the water where we can’t see it.
Think of the visible tip of the iceberg as your eating behaviour. This would be what, when and how much you’re eating. Take a moment to look at the iceberg image below. Imagine that you’re a busy parent with young children. You find yourself eating ice cream in the evening. This is your eating behaviour. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath your eating behaviour lie the answers to ‘why’ you’re eating the ice cream. This is what you can’t see. It’s what is going on in your mind.
Beneath your eating iceberg are thoughts (green quotations) and emotions (blue font). Thoughts and feelings that you are likely not aware of at the time. Yet, what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling can have a powerful effect on what, when and how much you’re eating.
You may feel fine about your regular habit of eating ice cream in the evening. That’s okay. However, if you are concerned that it could be a problem for your health and well-being you could try a cognitive-behavioural approach. You likely don’t need tips or recipes for more nutritious evening snacks. It may be more helpful to explore ways to address some of the concerns and circumstances under the surface of your eating iceberg. Simply recognizing that food may be serving as a coping measure or reward is a first step. You could then consider other ways to fulfill these needs other than eating.
Is this stomach, mouth or heart hunger?
Here’s a simple technique to help you start tuning into why you are eating. First, it’s important to understand that we eat for many different reasons. For example, we often eat if we’re celebrating, bored, stressed, lonely, tired, procrastinating, or feeling overwhelmed. We also like to experience the pleasure of food – its appearance, smell, taste, and texture. Eating is a way of connecting with others and it can be soothing and comforting. Of course, we also need to eat food for nourishment and energy. All these reasons for eating are normal and okay.
Let’s consider that we can have three types of hunger for food:
This is the physical need for food. It’s been over four hours since you’ve eaten. Your stomach may be growling. Stomach hunger also refers to times when you might eat for a medical reason, for example to prevent a low blood sugar if you take insulin. You are eating for the well-being of your body.
This can be described as a food craving. Have you ever stood in front of the fridge or cupboard looking for something to eat with a certain taste, texture or smell? “Where are those salty, crunchy chips? No, that’s not it. I want creamy . . . where’s the ice cream?” You crave the sensory pleasure of food.
This type of hunger refers to when you are eating in response to your emotions or how you’re feeling mentally, not physically. Heart hunger can also refer to a learned behaviour around food and eating such as growing up having dessert after every meal.
To learn more about your eating behaviour, try this simple technique. When you’re thinking about food or you’re about to eat, ask yourself the question, “Is this stomach, mouth or heart hunger?” Do so with curiosity and interest. Avoid any judgement. Each type of hunger is normal and acceptable. If you are concerned with your eating behaviour, simply becoming more aware of why you’re eating or thinking about food can help you understand your relationship with food. What are your eating triggers? How do you respond to these triggers?
Don’t be surprised if you discover that you often have ‘heart hunger’. This is very common. The problem is that eating seldom provides an effective solution for heart hunger. For example, if you feel bored and go to the kitchen for a snack, this gives you something to do for 10 to 15 minutes, but afterwards you’re still bored. And, for some people, they then also feel discouraged or frustrated with themselves for eating when they weren’t physically hungry. Knowing this about yourself gives you an opportunity to try something different to satisfy your heart hunger. If you tune into your thoughts as you’re walking over to the kitchen and realize that you’re bored, try a different activity first before you eat. For example, phone a friend, walk around the block, do some stretching and deep breathing, or watch some entertaining videos online.
Our Thoughts are Powerful!
How can something invisible have such a powerful effect on our behaviour? Our thoughts definitely influence what, when and how much we eat. Have you ever thought . . .?
“It’s been a rough day. I deserve a treat.”
“I shouldn’t have had that donut. I’ll have to get back on track tomorrow. I may as well eat what I want for the rest of the day.”
“Boy, this is a big serving, but I don’t want to waste food. I better eat everything on my plate.”
“I know that this food isn’t great for my health, but I can’t pass up this great sale.”
It can be very enlightening to listen to the conversations that you have in your head. What are the messages that you hear? Are they accurate? Are they helpful? How would your eating behaviour be different if you challenged and adjusted your thoughts? These are topics that are discussed in the Craving Change program.
Learn More and Find a Craving Change Clinician
To learn more about the Craving Change program and CBT strategies, visit www.cravingchange.ca/public. Make sure to read the ‘Stories’.
Craving Change Clinicians include dietitians, social workers, psychologists, and other health care professionals. Trained clinicians offer one-on-one Craving Change services and/or group workshops. Many provide online (virtual) services. This means that you can work with a clinician located in a different city or town than where you live.
The clinicians work in a variety of settings including:
- Private practice
- Health care organizations such as Family Health Teams, Primary Care Networks, community health centres
- Diabetes education centres
- Bariatric surgery clinics
- Companies- for instance Canada-wide with Loblaw in-store dietitians
Click here for the Find a Clinician page plus more information about the program, individual counselling, workshops, cost and program resources.
You can also check out the illustrated children’s book entitled, ‘Is this stomach, mouth or heart hunger?’ at www.cravingchange.ca/4kids. Here’s where you can download free worksheets and activities that address the three types of hunger. The book and resources are written for children but many adults tell us that they find them helpful as well.
Listen in to Episode
#74 on My Wife The Dietitian to learn all about Craving Change