March 7, 2023

Dear Melissa: Cravings and Mindful Eating in Stressful Times

Melissa, a long-haired smiling woman, and text that says Dear Melissa

Cravings are often more complex than they seem, especially when they’re invisibly linked to coping mechanisms in times of stress. The Whole30 can better help you understand these cravings and practice more mindful eating. This question from the Whole30 community—and Melissa Urban’s answer—can help you better navigate the emotional cycles that can perpetuate cravings.

Dear Melissa, I am doing my first Whole30, and my main “why” is focused on reducing my cravings, particularly around sugar. But what about savory cravings? For example, I often crave Buffalo wings, and it would be easy to recreate those with a Whole30 compatible Buffalo sauce. Should I stay away from recreating ANY craving on my Whole30? -Jessica B.

Dear Jessica, 

This is a great question! But I see a big difference between sugary “treats” like Larabars or dates stuffed with almond butter and chicken wings marinated in Buffalo sauce. Let’s break it down.

Finding New Options for Your Self-Care Toolbox

After a hard day at work, a fight with your partner, a stressful event, or a bout of loneliness or anxiety, it’s common to find yourself repeatedly and subconsciously reaching for sugar or carb-dense snacks or treats for comfort. If that’s your context, the Whole30 invites you to acknowledge those feelings and your discomfort, and use these next 30 days to discover other ways to relieve anxiety, self-soothe, reward yourself, and show yourself love. In that way, the Whole30 can help you build a robust toolbox for difficult times, such that you have many effective options to choose from in these moments. (In your Food Freedom, food can still be one of those tools, but it’s not the only one, nor one you still reach for automatically.)

In this situation, reaching for a Larabar instead of a candy bar isn’t actually changing that cycle. You experienced a negative feeling, and once again, you automatically reached for the sweetest thing you could eat on the Whole30, likely with the same intention of distracting yourself or numbing the discomfort. That’s why we discourage automatically giving into sugar cravings with compatible treats like dried fruit or dates with nut butter while on the program—because your brain doesn’t know the difference between a candy bar and a Larabar, it just knows “I felt bad, so I ate sugar to try to feel better.” And since that cycle can promote stress, guilt, shame, and counterintuitively, the urge to over-consume again, we really want you to actively work on changing that during your program and practicing more mindful eating during your Whole30 and beyond.

Savory Cravings

So how does this carry over to other cravings, like when I really want salmon and roasted butternut squash for dinner, or you really want Buffalo wings for lunch? It’s all in the context. The question I like to ask myself is, “If I have a really hard day, feel lonely and anxious, or get in a fight with my partner, am I tempted to overeat this food to numb, distract, or self-soothe?” When it comes to salmon, butternut squash, or Buffalo wings, the answer is no. I like these foods. I look forward to eating them. Sometimes I even crave them! But I’m not using these foods as a coping mechanism. (Even if I did, am I likely to mindlessly eat a plateful of salmon while standing at my kitchen counter doom-scrolling through Instagram? Um, no.)

There are plenty of replacements or swaps that you can think of as totally healthy substitutions on your Whole30. (Air-fried sweet potatoes, coconut milk, and burgers in lettuce wraps immediately come to mind.) Buffalo wings are a savory food featuring complete protein from the chicken and healthy fat from the oil or ghee in the sauce. It’s not super-normally stimulating in terms of flavors, and it’s hard to over-eat because of the nutrition and satiety factors. In theory, I see no issue with continuing to eat Buffalo wings or dipping your carrot sticks in Buffalo sauce during your Whole30, even if you’re craving them.

Four Questions for More Mindful Eating and Whole30 Success

However, to truly embrace the spirit and intention of the program, you have to consider whether it’s right for YOU. Before swapping out your traditional Buffalo sauce with a Whole30 Approved version from one of our partners and rushing to the broiler, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is this a food I tend to over-consume, or consume mindlessly?

2. Is this a food I tend to reach for automatically when I’m stressed, anxious, bored, or lonely?

3. Is this a food that tends to bring on guilt, shame, or stress after I eat it?

4. Is this food part of a habit or cycle I’d really like to change during my Whole30?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, PAUSE. Just because your “trigger” food isn’t typical doesn’t mean this isn’t worth addressing in your Whole30 and mindful eating practice. If you’ve been reaching for Buffalo wings after every break-up, fight with your mom, or tough day at work, I’d recommend you find another way to process those emotions during your Whole30, and skip the Buffalo replacement for now. But if you just really LIKE the flavor of Buffalo sauce and have no emotional attachment or habits associated with this food, then substitute away!

Best in health,