Natalia Levey, CNC, CHC is an author, speaker, certified health and nutrition coach and has been trained by top chefs in the world. She educates people worldwide about how to make behavioral changes resulting in improved nutrition and better energy. Natalia received her culinary training at the Art Institute of New York City, is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and is certified as a nutritional consultant from The American Association of Nutritional Consultants. She is the founder of Healthy Intent, a company dedicated to providing healthy food and lifestyle-based solutions for weight loss, vitality and more. She is also editor-in-chief of Healthy Intent Magazine.
Truly Alive: What is mindless eating? And can you share with my readers your recommendations to prevent it?
Natalia Levy: It is when you are not paying attention to what you’re doing around food. It’s grabbing something and eating on the go. It’s not paying attention to your food or the choices you are making – something too many of us do.
Knowing that a lot of people struggle with planning their meals, I recently put together a 52-week mindful eating class. The class facilitates and focuses on planning, preparation and intention. There is a graph that includes meals for a week and for special occasions. I feel that when you can visually see a plan that includes weekly meals, and as well as special occasions, your mind and emotions connect with the overview of that page and you get the feeling, “I can do this.” There is a link on my website for this class. Go to: www.healthyintent.com and you’ll see the link on my homepage.
TA: What is a functional medicine doctor? What benefits does that type of doctor provide regarding managing cravings and how can readers find one?
NL: I had the opportunity to study with the Institute of Functional Medicine in their specialty seminars on energy and mitochondria. I met with several incredible doctors. They look for the root cause of disease. Part of the training was creating a time line of your various experiences from gestation onward , including emotional and/or physical trauma, etc., that result in what and who you are now. Functional medicine doctors find links between life events and circumstances and symptoms. They then provide a support system; not just a prescription or band-aid. This could be a chiropractor, a naturopath, energy medicine practitioner, etc., for the purpose of transforming the issue into a healthy balance within. If you keep putting a band-aid on a problem, it may go away but it is also very likely to reoccur. The intention of functional medicine doctors is to heal.
TA: What is the difference between a physiological craving and an emotional craving?
NL: Physiological cravings have to do with functions of the body. For example, if gut bacteria are in distress, or if you are deficient in minerals, it may signal or create cravings. Whereas emotional cravings for comfort foods or drinks are the result of being yelled at by your boss; they are emotionally stimulated cravings and can be linked to emotionally-charged events or experiences.
TA: How can a person differentiate between real hunger and simple cravings?
NL: In the book, there is a table that walks you through the differences between the two. Hunger is a physiological need of the body. Hunger won’t go away until you have satisfied it. My grandmother was a young girl in Russia during WWII. They lived in the country and food was scarce, so they made patties out of grass. That was true hunger. Cravings are for specific foods and can be managed. Hunger has to be satisfied.
TA: Please explain the value of salt intake.
NL: Sodium is a mineral. Our bodies must have minerals to function properly. Salt from most sources is highly processed. Some parts are removed, and other things are added. I recommend pure salt. I get chunks of Himalayan salt and grate it myself for the highest quality salt.
This past summer, I was in a salt shop in Maine. They sold salt in blocks. They claimed you could lick them and not get sick because of their immune properties. It was fun, and they had all the kids lick various salt blocks. As a chef I like salt, but it must have certain properties. I go deeper into this subject in the book and online.
TA: Can dehydration trigger food cravings?
NL: Definitely! The commonly held belief of researchers and doctors is that most of us are dehydrated. The results are fatigue, poor circulation, low oxygen in the brain, and interference with the decision-making process. Caffeine and chocolate can increase or cause dehydration. A simple solution is to hydrate – drink more water.
TA: We hear so much about insulin resistance. What is it?
NL: In simple terms, insulin is a hormone that regulates sugar levels in our blood. People who are pre-diabetic produce an insufficient quantity of insulin to maintain a proper sugar level in the blood.
TA: Why do you recommend avoiding fat-free or low-fat products?
NL: A great book on that topic is by Dr. Mark Hyman, Eat Fat, Get Thin. He identifies good fats and bad fats. Good fats are essential! Avocados, salmon, sardines, omega 3s, coconut oil; these are healthy fats that the body needs for brain function and a host of other bodily functions. Stay away from shortening, hydrogenated fats, and foods fried in them. There’s more in Dr. Hyman’s book about the dangers of these. Natural fats are best – use as many good fats in your diet as you can for optimal health!
TA: How do emotional upsets contribute to food cravings? What processes can we use to switch from food-related rewards to non-food related rewards?
NL: This is probably the largest cause of food cravings. A lot of choices we make with food are emotionally based. It often starts in childhood as part of a reward system, like a lollipop after a visit to the dentist. In the book, I talk a lot about changing the reward system, which means changing the emotions attached to that reward. Cravings can be triggered by stress or a desire to celebrate. We are able to change layers of emotions, often held for decades, attached to certain rewards of food as a salve or celebration. If you pause for a moment, you can assess and allow for conscious choice. We can switch cravings to non-food rewards. In the book, you’ll find a detailed 5-step system on how to change your programming around rewards, permanently.
TA: Is there a genetic or environmental component to our food cravings?
NL: Dr. Jeffrey Bland is one of the pioneers of the functional medicine movement: jeffreybland.com. I have learned a lot from his books. According to research, we can change between 70-90% of the way our genes express themselves. If we change our environment, our thought processes, our choices, and start believing that we can, – think about the ripple effect this can have in our gene expression. It can transform a person’s life.
Our emotional environment is a significant influence too. Stress prevents the release of necessary digestive enzymes. If you typically get upset about the news, don’t watch it or read about it while you eat.
Also, in our environment we are exposed to packaging, ads/advertisements (we are actually bombarded in this culture) food photos and TV commercials and restaurant environments. These are all designed to stimulate and induce you to crave and buy, buy, buy various food products.
TA How does stress affect digestion?
NL: Stress shuts off your hormonal system and ; which then stops communicating with your body. Gut bacteria also get upset because their environment becomes less than optimal. Stress interferes with sleep as well. Too little sleep can make you grumpy (as well as negatively affect you in a host of other ways). Lack of sleep and poor hormonal balance can lead to making less than better choices. It can become a vicious cycle.
I offer several stress management techniques in detail in the book, including one that I personally use. I am keenly aware of how my day goes – so when stress hits me, I do a ‘check in’ with myself. In fact, I do a check-in 3 times a day. I also do a quick meditation in the shower. This sets me up with positive emotions which are a great stress reducer and a wonderful way to start the day. Then I “check in” again at lunch time to assess, how do I feel? At night, I do a little ritual. If I don’t, I don’t get a good night of sleep. I say, “this is going to be the best night ever. Every cell is going to get a fully regenerated. I am going to wake up happy, energized and renewed.” That is my script and routine. By doing this, I am reprogramming my body to not allow stress to affect it so much.
We can mitigate the negative effects of stress by doing random acts of kindness (being in service to others), meditation, positive affirmations, etc. When we do this, we are training our subconscious to step up and take over when our conscious part gets overwhelmed by stress and gives up. Mindfulness training is very effective and constructive. The more people become aware of this, the more (as a society) we will be calmer, more centered, positive and effective. We will also have more fun.
TA: Why is it important to keep a food diary?
NL: They are fabulous. This way, you have memories that take you back to several months prior. I don’t have that kind of memory. If you have a tool that can help you analyze the situation, similar to functional medicine doctors, you can make better decisions on how to move forward around food. An example would be an allergic reaction or tiredness. You can look back to other similar incidences for pattern recognition and conceive possible solutions. Additionally, you can assess how you or your body feels after certain foods are eaten, make connections and purposeful changes. You have data instead of blind guessing.
TA: How do food cravings interfere with clear thinking?
NL: Typically, when food cravings hit, you feel like you have to have whatever you are craving. Too often I hear people say, “I grab a bag of chips and before I know it, I am staring at the bottom of it”. When I was pregnant while living in New York, I craved fried Italian dough covered in powdered sugar. At the time I felt like I had to have it. What made me crave it even more was that I could only get it at an Italian street fair, in New York, in the summer. I was keenly aware that I could only get it at this time of year. Then, my hormones were also interfering with a healthy decision-making process. Now that I have the tools to make food choice assessments, I ask questions. “Am I craving the memory, craving the taste? What am I craving and how can I substitute it with a better choice?” Cravings stimulate a compulsion to act before consciously thinking about it. By taking a pause to deconstruct the reasons, we allow an opportunity to make a different choice.
TA: Can nutritional supplements decrease food cravings?
NL: Yes. Supplements can help. Functional medicine doctors can identify imbalances or deficiencies of certain minerals or vitamins and help re-establish sufficiency or balance.
TA: Why do some people crave “sweets” after consuming “salty” foods?
NL: Not everybody does. Some people don’t like sweet foods. Some people don’t like salty foods. To answer your question, it may be to achieve balance. Your body is always seeking to maintain balance. For those people who have that craving of sweets after salty foods, their body may be attempting to return to balance.
TA: Why do people who sleep less, tend to be overweight?
NL: When you do not get enough sleep, your body does not have enough time to recover. Our body functions in a constant renewal process. Our cells are continually growing, reproducing, dying off and waste being eliminated. This renewal process requires a certain amount of time to rest. There are certain regeneration functions that only process when our bodies sleep. Shortened sleep cycles decrease these specific regeneration/renewal processes and diminishes bodily functions. Retention of various resources may be the body’s attempt to compensate for the diminishment or imbalance. And, many people who are awake longer may tend to eat more. A sufficient amount of sleep is important.
TA: Do people in pain have strong food cravings? And if yes, why?
NL: It depends on the type of pain. If it is emotional pain, yes. However, if it is a physical pain, usually no.
TA: Can you speak to the emotional pain stimulating food cravings?
NL: There are different levels of emotional pain. When people get into depression, food does not usually brighten them up. Emotional pain from being hurt or distressed, or from certain events can stimulate food cravings that can be quite severe – such as the loss of a loved one When I lost my grandmother, my food cravings were quite intense. I had food memory associations,; but they were of healthy foods. Memories of growing fresh vegetables together or picking mushrooms or berries in the Russian country side came up. I wanted those foods because it was a way of remembering her and feeling close to her. In this case, they were healthy food cravings. More often however, food is used to soothe emotional pain and if this coping method has been used for a long time, especially since childhood, cravings can be overwhelmingly strong.
TA: Can you speak to the role triggers play in overeating and how to identify them?
NL: A lot of cravings are predictable. I am 39. With the knowledge I have now, I can identify when the craving is going to happen, unless my hormones or nutritional needs are out of balance. Then I might be caught unaware. Most situations are predictable. For example, the triggers I am familiar with include when I walk into a Russian grocery store. I know I am going to crave certain little cheese cakes that are covered in dark chocolate. But am I going to buy them? Not necessarily. Or, I am conversing with a salesman who points out to me all of these new flavors of something and says, “you have to try it”. These are some of my triggers. Identifying triggers means looking for the connection between when cravings arise and the stimulus. And identifying them in this way, tips the scale for you. You can then choose a different response and not feed the craving.
TA: How can our imaginations rewire our brains?
NL: Do you have a secret or a HHollywood crush for somebody that is unattainable; but is a fun thing to fantasize about? If so, picture that person and your fantasy when a craving hits. Let’s say I am at the donut counter and I imagine that person rings me on my phone, inviting me to a dream event that I have always been wanting to attend – like walking the red carpet at the Oscars. He says, “I will pick you up in 2 hours”. Or he says, “Let’s go to this gallery show opening”. Imagine something like that happens. Would you go for the donut? No! Your mind is going to completely switch to going to this other event. This is how you can use your imagination to rewire your brain.
TA: Is there anything else you would like my readers to know about?
- In May 2017, I gave a talk at an elementary school on how parents can connect with children in the kitchen and encourage them to eat healthy snacks and food. Also, as a result of filming my cooking classes, it is now my mission to offer one particular class to schools and children all over the world as a gift. It’s the episode of me making 3 types of healthy snacks like energy balls, available online. I feel very passionate about bringing our families back into the kitchen where parents really connect with their children in healthy ways. The choices we make as adults start in childhood. Any person or school representative can email me to learn about how their community or school can get access to that class: email@example.com.
- My mindful eating plan is a 52-page free download. You can submit a request to the email above.
- I feel honored and proud to be one of the bloggers on DailyOm.com next to Deepak Chopra and other very talented authors. Also, my course is available at: https://www.dailyom.com/cgi-bin/courses/courseoverview.cgi?cid=783&aff=
“I’m very grateful to my community and happy to see everyone become the BOSS of their health.”