Cravings: What (if anything) do they mean?

Posted on March 19, 2012 by Rich Patterson

Ask anyone you meet on a random day what food(s) do they normally crave and most will have one or two things that pop up in their mind. The most common ones I have heard? Chocolate, wine, caffeine, salty chips…..And if you are pregnant? Deli meats, donuts, fries (and occasionally the pickles!) … the list does not sound very positive in healthy eating terms, does it? But why is it that most of us “crave” foods that are calorie dense and / or not nutritionally rich? Or do we actually unknowingly “crave” healthy foods too, but we just don’t think or talk about it in terms of cravings? Is that baby growing inside when pregnant really making you crave those bagels (and doughier the better it seems, right?!) or is it a kind of wishful thinking that allows us to somewhat rid our guilt of consuming foods that would normally not form a part of our daily diet…? What about all the non-food cravings? Nurturing friendships, a fulfilling career, spiritual belonging… Case in point: I asked my husband what he is craving today and his answer was: patience (especially with our children). I find this topic of cravings hugely fascinating – it’s seemingly a shallow subject but has so many different layers to it.

So, let’s talk about the food cravings first. The thing to note here is that food cravings don’t just relate to taste (sweet, salty…), but also to texture (crunchy, creamy) as well as density it seems (bulky vs. light (as in almost fluffy)).And in discussing this very topic with a fellow health coach (owner of The Healing Dish) I was guided to a small piece of research linking moods to cravings:

"Researchers have found out that our moods can dictate what we eat," says JR, a medical doctor and recovering food addict. According to research, here is a list of food cravings and the moods they address:
If you crave: You may be feeling:
Meat, hard and crunchy foods Angry
Sugars Depressed
Soft, sweet foods like ice cream Anxious
Salty foods Stressed
Bulky, filling foods (crackers, pasta) Lonely, sexually frustrated
Anything and everything Jealous

So, I myself first and foremost crave something crunchy every day. I also crave something creamy and soft once a day (usually mid-afternoon or early evening) and I want to finish off my lunches and dinners with a sweet note (nothing huge, but a tiny piece of dark chocolate will fill the gap for me). In thinking through this subject, I realized that I actually crave a lot more than I thought I did. So, what does that make me? Am I angry (craving crunchy foods), anxious (soft foods) and jealous (as I seem to crave multiple things)?!?! If I am honest with myself, I think most of these cravings are not actually physical needs, but rather psychological – perhaps I have been “eating my emotions” without being fully aware of it. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle – I think about all the tasks that need doing in the day or if my stress levels are up, I crave something crunchy it seems; then having consumed a lot of crunchy food, my body naturally seeks to balance that out by calling for something creamy and soft. As for the something sweet? Well, given that it is usually chocolate I crave, perhaps it is the mood boosting chemical serotonin in the chocolate that makes me feel relaxed and satisfied after consuming it? Whatever it may be, I know that food alone does not satisfy those cravings (not in the longer term anyway) and I take comfort in me knowing what my cravings are, when I tend to have those cravings and most importantly, am putting my energy more into finding nourishing options to fulfill those cravings (current obsessions: crunchy shredded cabbage, avocados, sweet potatoes and dates).

The non-food kind of craving warrants equal if not more attention in my mind (and just to be clear, craving (i.e. wanting to eat) non-food items, such as chalk, dirt or clay is a whole different matter and should be consulted with your healthcare provider). Even as not a particularly emotional or tactile person, I crave warmth (coming from another human being that is and not the burning fire) and companionship (especially when eating!), sunshine and well hydrated skin. You could argue that these are just my “wants” and not “cravings” but what really is the difference, if any? It’s just perhaps easier to fulfill our food cravings because we can go out and get whatever it is that we happen to crave. And we are perhaps more conscious of it because if those cravings lead you to consume a lot of empty calories, it shows up pretty fast in our waistline. However, non-food cravings are inextricably linked to our food cravings (just look at the research table above!). If left unfulfilled, they will create a void, which many of us will seek to replace with specific food items – the age old problem of not treating the cause but the symptoms.

So, what does this all mean…? Well, I accept that I have certain food cravings. I try to understand when (time of the day, month, year) those craving occur and “be prepared” with healthy, more ‘natural food’ options, allowing myself to be in tune with my own body. I also try and spend a little time periodically re-assessing different aspects of my life to prevent emotional eating (and trust me, I am one of those people who eat when confused, anxious or depressed rather than losing appetite). I am making more conscious effort to be more spontaneous, spend more time actually playing with my children and interacting with my spouse and mindfully drinking more water (because what we think are food cravings are also very often our bodies’ cries for water). I encourage you to spend a little time to perhaps identify and understand your own food, emotional and physical cravings. If you feel at the end of the exercise you are ideally balanced, then great! If not, think of small steps you could take to fill the voids that you see, come up with some healthier alternatives to the chocolate, caffeine, wine, donuts; try listening to calming music or indulge in a soaking bath instead; laugh out loud; make exercise an integral part of your daily routine; eat at least one meal a day around the table as a family…whatever you feel works best for you. As always, experiment and have fun!

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