I love ice cream. I love ice cream the way most people love their next breath of air. And I would eat ice cream morning, noon, and night if it weren’t for those pesky tens of thousands of accumulated calories. Even though I know it’s not the best food choice, I often get cravings for it that will last for days. Which is why I was probably thinking about ice cream when I read this story:
Two monks were walking down a muddy road after a heavy rainstorm. As they walked, they came upon a beautiful woman who was unable to cross the deep puddles to the other side of the road. The elder monk lifted her up and bore the beautiful woman across the road before continuing on his way to the monastery. Later that evening, the younger monk asked the elder monk, “Sir, isn’t it true that we monks may not touch a woman?” The elder monk responded, “Yes, that is true.” “Sir, then why did you carry that woman across the road?” The elder monk smiled, “I left her on the side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”
Luckily, ice cream is not a moral issue and I am not a monk. But as this ancient story illustrates, cravings are a part of life. They do not indicate that you’re weak or doing something wrong, instead cravings are simply proof that you’re human. And luckily, there is a very simple strategy to deal with what my mom calls, “wanting what you don’t want”—Give into it (a little). This works for three reasons:
1. Willpower is a limited resource According to the research of psychologist Roy Baumeister,we don’t have an endless supply of willpower. In the story, instead of obsessing over the woman, the younger monk could have spent all day in prayer and doing good for others. Similarly, the brain power you spend denying yourself ice cream is brain power you could be using to make lots of better food and lifestyle choices. In fact, experiments have shown willpower is linked to available glucose. So you might simply be low on willpower because your blood sugar is low, and giving into the craving (a little) will make it easier to resist and make better food choices in the long run.
2. Not doing something is harder than doing it Another major neurological factor in the success of giving in (a little) is that humans are really bad at not doing things. For example, don’t think of a pink elephant. Now don’t eat ice cream. See? If you tell yourself you can’t ever have something, you’re far more likely to want it—in psychology this is called “reactance.” Telling yourself you can have something, even just a little bit, actually makes us feel less controlled by the craving, and we’re more likely to be able to avoid it in the future.
3. Giving in a little bit trains your willpower By having a taste of what we want, we are teaching our brains that what we want is not a scarce resource and that there will be ice cream in the future. In 2012, scientists at the University of Rochester revisited the famous 1972 “marshmallow experiments,” and demonstrated that children who were given reliable access to marshmallows could actually resist eating marshmallows 4 times longer than children who were given irregular access to marshmallows. Which means giving into cravings every now and then actually improves your ability to resist cravings in the future.
On a practical level, I have 3 tips:
1. Portion it out.
2. Enjoy it.
3. Put it away.
When I am desperate for ice cream, I make my patented “Stevo Sundae,” vanilla ice cream with a shot of bourbon poured on top. I sit down and do nothing else but eat my sundae so I can enjoy it more. And when I’m done, I go through the ritual of cleaning my bowl and putting the pint away, which tells my brain, “Hey, I’m done!” And if I want more, I remind myself that if I really, really want it, I can have a little bit tomorrow.
What do you do when a craving hits? Share your strategies in the comments below.