All-consuming, and seemingly with a life of their own, cravings can have a pretty marked impact on our lives. That intense desire to seek out and consume all chocolate within a 10-mile radius? The kernel of an idea that starts as "chips would be good right now" to "if I don't get chips immediately, I may do something drastic"? Feeling overwhelmed by the need for something greasy, creamy, doughy? We've all been there. Many of us are there every day! Finding a way to indulge cravings without losing all connection to mindfulness can be tricky... But understanding how and why our cravings happen in the first place can be a great step to taking charge of them -- and our reaction when they strike.
My grandma used to tell me that cravings for ice cream were a sign from the body that we really just did need some ice cream... And that was reason enough to indulge it! Perhaps she was onto something with the idea of indulging when the urge hit: although she always had maple walnut ice cream in the freezer, she didn't have it often, and stayed at a trim 145 pounds on her 5'7" frame her whole life.
She was definitely on the right track, and in line with what we now understand to be the basis of cravings: they are the body's way of signaling some kind of deficiency.
Unfortunately, we don't always speak the same language as the body, which means we don't always receive the message clearly. A craving for ice cream doesn't necessarily mean the body is ice cream deficient: the sweet frozen goodness is the stand-in symbol for something else. (We "feel" the craving and experience it as wanting ice cream, although the body is asking for something else.) It could be anything from a nutrient to an emotional imbalance to dehydration. Find your cravings below and see what your body might be trying to tell you.
- dehydration (thirst often feels like hunger, and the easiest substance for the body to convert to energy is sugar!)
- excess salt in the diet (aim for balance to even out your sodium levels)
- protein deficiency (the body will look for another source of energy (ie. sugar) if it's not getting enough protein for power and regeneration)
- mineral or nutrient deficiency (chromium, carbon, phosphorus, sulfur or tryptophan are common ones; experiment with sweet veggies, natural sweeteners, whole grains, beans, and fruits to make up the difference!)
- unhappiness, stress, or a lack of fulfillment in relationships or career (lacking 'sweetness' elsewhere in your life can manifest as sugar cravings)
indicator of adrenal fatigue, which means the adrenal system can't effectively regulate the dispersal of hormones in the body (vitamin C, found in brightly colored fruits and veggies, can help support this system; potassium can too, readily found in potatoes, apricots, and bananas). Cutting down on caffeine and upping water intake can help, too!
- stagnated digestion (bitter foods tend to aid digestion by cutting through sludge in the digestive tract - avoid bitter beers and coffee, and try dark green veg instead)
- other foods of late have been too dry or heavy and the body seeks balance (think of what you've eaten recently (lots of bread? baked foods?) and consider that the body might just be asking for something to even it out)
- not chewing sufficiently (the body asks for crunchy things to encourage us to chew, to promote optimal assimilation and digestion)
- dehydration (so the craving for a milkshake might actually be the body asking for water!)
- the body is using its resources well and the signals are coming across clearly (this is ideal!) -- when we interpret the body is asking for real food, it means it is effectively what you're giving it, and that it needs more of that good fuel to continue operating at a high level
Often, if we really tune in to what the body is asking for, nutritious foods are at the top of the request list! But the food itself is not the only factor when it comes to understanding our cravings.
The circumstance under which the body "asks" for things can also be a good indicator that the food you're craving might not be the specific thing its looking for. Consider: are you feeling stressed? Emotional? Lonely? Happy? We experience a wave of neurological chemicals when we experience certain emotions, and often, the experience of these emotions can lead us to feel crave foods that will block or magnify them. Sugar elicits many of the same ecstatic responses in the brain as cocaine - so in happy situations, we seek to celebrate and amplify our joy with more of the same feeling! Other foods can promote to 'lose ourselves' in food, which contributes significantly to increased eating when we feel sad or stressed out. The calming feeling is one that easily becomes habit-forming, leading to emotional eating and increased cravings for foods that provide this pseudo-tranquility.
Consider, too, where you are, who you're with, and what you're doing when these cravings strike. We tend to experience cravings tied to location or activity; for instance, familiar circumstances where food is often part of the activity (watching TV?), where you experience boredom (3:00pm at your desk, knowing the candy drawer is mere cubicles away?), or where there are salient food cues (the movie theatre, leaving a bar at 1:00am, in your parents' kitchen). These can also be tied to certain people ("that group of friends I always go with for pizza!") -- seeing them or expecting to see them encourages the conditioned part of your brain to light up in anticipation of the forthcoming goodness, activating a craving that might otherwise have stayed tucked away.
Did you recently enjoy a loaf of crusty bread or a Toblerone bar? Find yourself wanting more the next day? The next week? Often, our cravings are activated simply by one encounter with the particular food. This is often called "the inside coming out", where the substance in the system continues to influence hormones long after it has been consumed. These are often the trickiest to get a handle on, because one run-in can lead to weeks of stubborn cravings. Identify what your triggers are and, if you know you won't be able to deal with them in a level way, think of what else you can have in its place. (For me, it's chocolate: one bite, and I am craving it for weeks. I've switched to baby carrots, and you know what? It worked! I can enjoy my carrots and stop - satisfied. It has come to feel like an indulgent treat!)
Keeping track of cravings (when they hit, where, with whom) can be a great way to track why they come up and give us a starting place for implementing ways to curb them. Of course, I'm not suggesting we never indulge these cravings (sometimes you just need that dark chocolate!), but feeling like you're in the driver's seat can mean the difference between feeling guiltily out of control and truly luxuriating in doing something nice for yourself. Understanding where cravings stem from can help us to know what the body really needs -- and find a way to feed it that instead!
Looking to better understand your cravings? I would love to chat with you to see how your food is affecting you - and how you can take control of those cravings for good! Send me a note here!