Whether it’s for something sweet and creamy, or something salty and crunchy, we all know what it feels like to really crave something, and to need it and obsess over it. And we’ve all heard about ways to combat food cravings by distracting ourselves: clean the house, go for a walk, write about it in our journals, make sure to remove all tempting food from the house, or we’re told to just willpower our way through it.
But the problem with distracting ourselves from our cravings is that it never allows us to take a close look at the beliefs and emotions we feel from the moment the craving enters into our consciousness to the moment we reach for and quickly devour that entire bag of chips. While trying to use our willpower may work for a brief moment, any attempt to distract ourselves cannot address the root cause – the actual reason for our food cravings.
Here are 3 Unique Insights to help us see our cravings in a new, more helpful way:
1. It IS All In Your Head
For those who don’t have food cravings, it’s easy to think: “it’s all in your head.” Well, it just so happens that research suggests they’re quite right. It’s in our heads, and our brains in particular. There are three regions of the of the brain – the hippocampus, insula, and caudate nucleus – that appear to be activated during food-craving episodes. What’s most interesting, however, is that these are the areas of the brain responsible for memory and sensing pleasure.
This makes perfect sense if you think about it, because when do you notice those intense food cravings coming up? For most of us, research says, cravings get intense when we’re stressed or anxious. Memory-related food cravings are indeed that: Our bodies are yearning for the good times and the good feelings of the memory that’s associated with a particular food. We feel compelled to relive an emotion, through a food, that gave us some kind of relief. So when we suddenly have a longing for chicken soup, a favorite childhood cereal, potato chips, and so on – our craving is seeking to satisfy an emotional need to reduce stress and bring some calm. And for all of us, in one way or another: Food is Love.
Carbohydrates, for instance, boost our levels of the hormone serotonin, which has a calming effect. And research suggests that the combination of fat and sugar may also have a calming effect. We’re wired for our need for pleasure and serenity. It may just be that the food you want is filling in for the change of mind you need.
2. Food Cravings Are Messengers
Our bodies are always speaking to us. The human brain sends signals when it becomes aware of the need for nutrition, and our bodies translate those needs into the language of sensations and symptoms. It tells us we are hungry through that gnawing feeling in our belly, it tells us we’re hurt through pain, and it tells us we need rest when we feel fatigued. Well, it turns out that cravings, too, often happen because your body is telling you that YOU need something and you need it now!
- We often crave chocolate when our bodies need magnesium, which is also found in nuts and seeds.
- We often crave breads and starchy carbohydrates and sugar when we really need protein for lasting energy.
- We often crave fried foods when the body really needs healthy natural fats.
- We often crave salty junk foods when the body naturally needs sodium or is under stress.
As we eat, our taste buds send messages to the brain, letting it know if we have eaten foods that provide the nutrients and energy we need. By seeking to address all six tastes, we are informing our nervous system of a meal’s nutritional content. When we miss one, we usually find ourselves back in the refrigerator after dinner, looking for that missing flavor or nutrient, even if we’re already full.
Furthermore, when we take a moment to slow down and intentionally experience our food cravings, we find that, in addition to the mental thought of “I need chocolate,” there’s also a physical sensation accompanying this thought. For each of us, this will feel different: we may feel a tightness in our belly, or a heaviness in our chest, or a buzzy feeling through our limbs. There’s no “correct” way to experience the sensation of cravings; it’s unique to each of us, and unique to the specific craving we are having at the time.
Food cravings can be a message that something’s out of balance in our body – or our life. If we can truly tune in to these sensations, and take the time to listen to what our body is saying and wanting, we can tap into the powerful wisdom that our bodies express through our cravings. Every message is an invitation to be present, to listen, and to be responsive.
3. Life Is a Yearning
Behind every human act, no matter how singular or small, is a yearning for more: more life, more depth of experience, more joy, or more purpose. When we crave food, for emotional comfort, or out of boredom or fear, we can come to realize that we’re being called to be present and take a look at ourselves, and our inner world. By being honest with the body messages we receive around food, we may find ourselves ripe with the opportunity to embrace some much needed change, whether in a relationship or a career, a new sense of our higher purpose, or simply an awareness that’s its time to evolve nutritionally. We hunger for feeling truly alive and truly fulfilled. So while we sometimes use food to experience love, we also need to respect the underlying desire that Life is using to call us to bigger, brighter things.
In our diet-conscious culture, we’re often told to curb our cravings, “have some willpower, ” etc., but what if instead of trying to tame our hunger – we actually listened to it? What might happen if we saw our cravings as messages from a deeper place, calling for our attention? Chances are, we might find ourselves more attuned, more present, and more willing to slow down and live with a bit more authenticity.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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