Few things are more maddening than cravings. You promised yourself you would have a good day of eating, but after dinner all you can think about is chocolate. You try to distract yourself, but this craving keeps on popping up. So you indulge in maybe a few too many (or 20) pieces of chocolate and immediately feel guilty and promise yourself you’ll be better tomorrow.

While we do want to minimize our sugar intake, the last thing we want in our journey to our healthiest self is to become obsessed with food and beat ourselves up over every bad decision. This is, in fact, hindering us from becoming our healthiest self by tanking our mental health. Here is the best analogy I’ve ever heard for this: think of teaching a child to walk. You don’t expect them to go from crawling to running a marathon in a day. You wouldn’t smack him and say “you need to do better” after his first steps! You would damage him for life! Instead, we cheer them on, we celebrate every small victory and that is how they learn to walk. So why do we punish ourselves after our first steps to health? Why do we think we need to change everything over night?

When you do finally indulge or in some cases go on a binge from restricting yourself for too long, the stress you release in your body from worrying about all the unhealthy food you just ate triggers a rise of cortisol in your body. From there, that “bad food decision” is more likely to be stored as fat than if we had just eaten it, been happy with it, and moved on. So I encourage my clients to eat the foods they love with mindfulness. Have your cake and savor the hell out of it. In the long run, a slice of cake every now and then is not going to derail you and may actually be what you need to be optimally healthy (read: sane). The key here is to strive for progress, not perfection.

The second point I want to express to you is that our cravings are not pointless. Our bodies are extremely intelligent and intuitive. A nutrient deficiency will lead to over eating. It’s likely that if you are craving carbs or sugar like crazy, it may not be that you need to eat more carbs and sugar, but rather you need to take a true assessment of your diet and see how you can amp up your nutrient intake. Carbs and sugar represent instant usable energy to the body. When you’re sleep deprived, stressed, or low in energy due to poor nutrition, you’ll likely see the outcome in your body as cravings for sugar. This is why, when starting out with a new client, my first approach is to add in nutrient dense foods rather than to take away what they’re currently eating. You will naturally start to feel better and see your cravings decline.

When I first cut meat out of my diet, I was craving sugar like crazy. I had all the desire in the world to eat healthy, but I felt powerless to my cravings. It wasn’t until I worked with a trainer who pointed out that, even though I was eating healthy foods, my diet was not well balanced. Vegetarians and vegans tend to be “carbotarians.” Once I made an effort to pay more attention, my cravings became minimal because my body felt well fed. I now know I need to reassess when I start to have cravings. This process looks different for everyone. I won’t tell every client that they need to cut meat out completely or cut carbs to a minimum because not everyone’s body works that way. I make recommendations, you tell me how it feels to you and we work together to find the healthiest solution for you. Everyone’s version of health is a slow process of trial and error, but health is not one size fits all. It is not do or die. It is not obsessive. And it is not controlling.

About Jenn Haralson

Jenn is a design nerd and food enthusiast who is obsessed with ultimate health. She hates diet food and putting on pants. She lives just outside of Austin with her husband and two dogs, Cosmo and Dot.