In The House at Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne wrote that for Winnie the Pooh, “Although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
Geneen Roth, author of Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, included this quote in a recent O Magazine email and I was so struck by its simple truth. I’ve certainly experienced that moment of anticipation that trumps the actual tasting, and I’ll bet you have, too, if you really think about it.
We crave all sorts of things, from sweet to salty, cold to hot, creamy to crunchy, yet only rarely does the eventual indulgence live up to our imagined bliss. That’s one reason why its so important to understand the source of our cravings.
Most of us try to deny our food cravings and so we test our willpower in an effort to avoid caving in to the desire. Sometimes that’s a good approach, but other times it’s actually not! Biologically-driven cravings are often worth listening to; they are one of your body’s ways of telling you what it needs. Psychologically-driven cravings are trickier, and it’s especially important to deconstruct them to determine whether or not to listen to them. Giving in to a psychologically driven food craving almost always results in disappointment as it doesn’t truly address the desire.
In my studies, my work with clients, and my own experience, I’ve observed at least four major sources of cravings; two are biological and two are psychological.
Biological Sources of Cravings
These cravings that are driven by a nutritional imbalance in your body. Your body sends you a signal (in the form of a craving) to tell you how to equalize the imbalance. For example, if your body needs iron, then you may crave beef or if you need potassium, then you may crave a banana. These are the cravings you definitely want to pay attention to, as “giving in” to them will help to restore the balance your body is seeking. You’ll know it was an imbalance driven craving if the food tastes WONDERFUL and you literally feel better after giving in to it.
These cravings are based on what your body is used to eating. On a cellular level, we really are what we eat! Therefore, we crave more of what we already have in us. Here’s how it works. You may not have eaten Thai food in 6 months, then you have it, and then you want it again 3 days later! That’s a habit based craving. And the more you have one food (peanut butter toast for breakfast, pizza for lunch, dairy, Twizzlers) the more your body will demand it. This can make it hard to change bad habits, but there is hope! The habit principle works just as strongly with healthy foods, so once you have good habits established, those will also be the source of cravings! Heirloom tomatoes, anyone??
Psychological Sources of Cravings
These cravings are driven by an unmet emotional need. For example, someone craving intimacy can develop intense cravings for sweet foods – isn’t that fascinating?! When I was first out of college, single, and living in Atlanta, a city where I knew no one, my sweet cravings were at an all time high! For months, I ate my way from one sugary fix to the next, but never connected what was at the source of those cravings. I would have been far better off spending my time making friends than shoveling down Swedish Fish and frozen yogurt, but I hadn’t yet made the connection. Live and learn!
Nostalgia-based cravings are rooted deep in our memory. These are the cravings for creamsicles in summer because you always had them at the public pool when you were growing up or for roast chicken and mashed potatoes on a wintry Sunday because that’s what Mom used to make. There’s no biological reason to give in to a nostalgic cravings, and when we do, the food often just doesn’t taste right. That’s because what we’re really craving is the experience that used to surround the food we’re craving, not necessarily the food itself. And sadly, those experiences are awfully hard to recreate.
Cravings are not the enemy and they don’t make you weak; they’re just a normal part of every day life. The key to managing them is to determine what is driving them and then to use that knowledge to make good decisions about when to feed them…and when to exercise your willpower instead to make a healthier choice.
So, what are YOU craving? Can you figure out WHY?