By Suzanne Morgan
This article reviews various food cravings, why we crave what we do and briefly discusses the consequences of prolonged food cravings including overeating. It is a brief study of food cravings from Western medical, yogic and Ayurvedic perspectives and effective remedies to combat them. Food cravings can lead to indigestion by eating too much of a certain food or causing us to overeat in general. Habitually succumbing to food cravings creates disease in the body, including but not limited to diabetes, obesity, edema, ulcers, and toxic blood. Even occasionally succumbing to food cravings can cause digestive distress such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn as well as fatigue, laziness, and lack of mental clarity.
About Food Cravings
In the Western world, there are many cultural references to food cravings and how it often results in excess or overeating. Advertising and popular culture bombards us with mixed messages as to whether we should live it up or show better self-restraint. From the camp that encourages indulgence comes the quote from the Muppet character Miss Piggy, “Never eat anything at one sitting that you can’t lift”. While this quote is clearly meant to be funny, the truth is that media repeatedly urges us that we “deserve a break today”. We deserve to indulge. The Western message is: Work hard, play hard, eat plenty.
At the same time, society judges those who do indulge. Our culture has deep Puritanical roots. There is a strong belief that those who crave then overeat simply lack self-restraint and moral fiber. This “more self-restraint is needed” camp might adhere to the following judgmental quote from Don Robinson: “One weakness of our age is our apparent inability to distinguish our needs from our greeds.” But is it really greed and weak morality that spawn food cravings, which then lead to excess, overeating and ultimately obesity? Let’s unravel the issue by examining food cravings.
A food craving is a strong desire for a particular food or type of food. It is different from normal hunger. In our culture, food cravings can be easily dismissed as aberrations in routine (excess eating over the holidays) or emotions gone wild. First, it’s important to note that not all food cravings are bad or result in wrong eating. If we repeatedly crave anchovies, for instance, perhaps our bodies are low in iron or Omega-3 fatty acids. If we crave red meat, perhaps our blood needs to be enriched. We have the opportunity to view food cravings as good information without layering judgment on ourselves or others, or even vilifying a particular food.
In addition, food cravings can be an important symptom that facilitates medical analysis and treatment. Prolonged food cravings may point to more serious pathologies. For instance, intense or prolonged cravings for salt may be a symptom of adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) or Bartter Syndrome, a rare kidney disorder. In another example, those who have Bipolar Disorder often have intense cravings for sugar and simple carbohydrates when their levels of serotonin dip particularly low. These food cravings can be a clear signal – to both Bipolar patients and to their care providers – of when their mental health has gotten off track.
Ayurveda helps to flesh out food cravings by getting to the root cause of disease and dis-ease. Ayurveda is founded on the basic principle that each of us is individual and has different needs. The foods that bring one person into balance may cause imbalance in another. Ayurveda teaches us to become our own guru and develop the awareness of how the outside (our unique environment, life-style, food choices) affect our insides. Specific food cravings may indicate which Ayurvedic dosha or constitution is out of balance. More simply put – food cravings tell us where and how our diet, lifestyle and energetic state are out of balance. Then that awareness can help us determine which treatments, foods and live-style changes can bring us back in balance.
Types of Food Cravings & Detrimental Effects
When we look at the detrimental effects of food cravings, we can first separate out the effects of food cravings vs. the effects of succumbing to food cravings. This means that just the experience of having intense food cravings can have negative effects such as restlessness, discontent and irritability. Some individuals may have mild emotions, thoughts and feelings like being distracted. Others may experience much more intensity, such as a sense of panic that revolves around food cravings. It’s important not to minimize these sensations, as dismissing the physical sensations, feeling and thoughts can actually feed the cravings.
Next, as we explore the effects of succumbing to food cravings, we can categorize according to whether the food cravings are short-term and infrequent or are prolonged experiences. Even infrequently succumbing to food cravings can wreck havoc on our digestive system. Food cravings that lead to occasional overeating can cause digestive distress such as gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea and fermentation of foods that make our blood and bodies to varying degrees toxic.
Prolonged food cravings that lead to consistently overeating weaken the entire body. We lose energy. We become less immune to disease. Our organs become less effective, some even gradually shutting down. The heart, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen become taxed. Our metabolism slows down causing obesity.
When considering food cravings, most people think of craving sweets like chocolate and baked goods or salty treats like potato chips. But food cravings can include broader categories. It’s helpful to view this through the lenses of Ayurveda’s concept of the six tastes.
The following chart shows the type of food craving, which foods we are drawn to for that specific craving, the Ayurvedic constitution most affected, benefits and the most common effects, symptoms, pathologies and disease that result from prolonged cravings:
|CRAVING WHICH TASTE (rasa)
|TYPES OF FOODS||DOSHA(S) MOST AFFECTED||PRIMARY BENEFIT||SYMPTOMS/PATHOLOGIES|
|Sweet||Sugar, refined sugars, simple carbohydrates, processed foods, milk, rice, wheat, fish, chicken
|Kapha||Soothing effect on the body; builds muscle and fat tissue; provides pleasure and satisfaction; nourishes plasma
|An excess of sweet foods can cause stagnation to circulation, lowers metabolism, obesity, diabetes, tumors, congestion, laziness, edema, cold, etc.|
|Sour||Citrus fruits, vinegar, fermented foods, yogurt, sour cream, alcohol, tomatoes
|Pitta||Stimulates and aids in digestion; stimulates saliva; refresh and clean the palate; helps to balance vata||An excess of sour foods can cause excessive thirst, hyperacidity, blood toxicity, indigestion, ulcers, psoriasis, dermatitis, etc.|
|Salty||Sea salt, kelp, rock salt, mineral salts; foods that are often highly salted – potato chips, french fries||Pitta, kapha||Enhances flavor of foods; enhances the appetite; aids digestion; is key to building and maintaining electrolytes; balances vata
|An excess of salty foods can create excess heat in the body, hypertension, water retention/edema, hyperacidity, hypertension, hair loss, skin problems, etc.|
|Pungent||Cayenne pepper, chili pepper, black pepper, onion, radish, garlic, ginger, mustard, hard liquor, aromatics,||Vata, pitta||Promotes sweating; clears sinuses; improve circulation; improves immunity; aids sore throats||An excess of pungent foods can cause sexual debility, ulcers, skin conditions. Pitta aggravations include: burning, choking, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea. Vata aggravations include: tremors, giddiness, insomnia, restless leg syndrome.|
|Bitter||Turmeric, dandelion root, aloe vera, coffee, bitter greens, chocolate||Vata||Stimulates and activates the digestive organs encouraging peristalsis; detoxifies the body||An excess of bitter foods may cause extreme dryness, weight loss, fatigue, dizziness, extreme dryness. It may deplete the blood, muscles, fat, bone marrow, plasma and semen.|
|Astringent||Unripe bananas, pomegranate, green beans, okra, turmeric, alfalfa sprouts, cranberries, chickpeas.||Vata||Great for tightening tissues or reducing flow such as treating diarrhea or excess sweating; dries up secretions/mucus||An excess of astringent foods may cause chronic constipation, choking, heart spasms, distention, dry mouth, difficulty speaking, emaciation, neuromuscular disorders.|
Food cravings can have various causes. As mentioned above, a specific disease or body deficiency may create the symptom of food cravings. A deficient diet void of a particular taste can then prompt strong cravings for that taste. A diet that is too restrictive or lacking variety can actually work against us creating more food cravings and programming our bodies to resist the hardship.
The mental element – our thoughts and the brain itself – can cause food cravings. This is the psychological aspect of food cravings – the belief that food cravings are more of a mental obsession rather than a physical desire. Three areas of the brain appear to drive food cravings, the hippocampus, insula and caudate. These pleasure seeking centers of the brain build associations of pleasure with food encouraging the link between eating certain foods and receiving a pleasure reward. Sometimes we crave food because of positive memories associated with that food.
Both Ayurvedic and Western disciplines believe that stress and strong emotions can be a primary cause of food cravings. Ayurveda attributes high anxiety or stress to a vata imbalance, strong emotions as a pitta imbalance and greed or attachment to food as a kapha imbalance. When there is emotional causation, a person tries to satisfy emotional issues with food. Food cravings are most often associated with the emotions or feelings of stress and anxiety. But certainly, anger, lust, loneliness, sadness and depression can trigger food cravings. All of these emotional components are an effort to self-soothe, to satiate at an emotional level.
Spiritual deficiencies may also cause food cravings. When one chronically suffers from feelings of being isolated, lack of meaning in life, lack of abundance and loss for being connected to a higher source, food craving may be an attempt to fill up the emptiness.
In the end, it may be difficult to separate the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components. It’s most likely that more than one cause is at play and triggers another. Thoughts, feelings and emotions have a cellular impact on everything from the blood to the muscles to the hormonal system. The affect could be cyclic with the body then affecting our thoughts, feelings and emotions.
We could also consider a more simple cause. Habits are like a wagon wheel in the mud. If you go down the same path over and over, makes it difficult to move the wheel in a different direction. ** Poor eating habits when repeated over time strengthen the intensity of the food cravings. Therefore, food cravings beget more food cravings.
What are some solutions to reduce food cravings and therefore overeating?
The first line of defense in managing food cravings is awareness. And while both Western medicine and Ayurveda would agree that one would benefit from being more mindful of these cravings and the business of eating, Ayurveda refines this awareness by suggesting that we become mindful of the whole cycle:
- the food cravings
- the initial taste of the food (rasa)
- how to eat most effectively – fully chewing, fully experiencing the tastes
- noticing the initial effects (virya), i.e. whether it has an cooling or heating energy
- and finally, the post-digestive effects of the food (vipaka)
Yoga & Meditation
Yoga and meditation can help build this awareness. There is significant proof that yoga and meditation reduce stress and anxiety and can fill the spiritual “hole in the soul”. Yoga and meditation first sharpen our skills of mindfulness, allowing us to make the link between the causes and the cravings. Reflecting in meditation can allow us to find the root causes of discomfort and teach us how to create space between the craving and taking action on the craving. Yoga poses reduce stress, detoxify the body and create an overall sense of wellbeing.
It can be very helpful to work with a therapist trained in food addictions and eating disorders. The ability to be properly satiated is a learned skill. We can learn how to balance receiving pleasure and know when to stop. There is also research that shows that the act of considering the long-term consequences of food choices can reduce food cravings. A therapist helps us consider our impulses as well as the effects of our actions.
We can reduce food cravings with some really simple practices. We can start by removing temptations from our home and work environments. Try not to get to hungry. Eat meals on time. Create healthy routines and stick to them. Try to nurture yourself in more positive ways. Importantly, establishing a healthy routine offers us protection from being hijacked by strong food cravings.
Foods can be used to reduce food cravings. Ayurveda creates balance by treating with the opposite affect. For instance, bitter greens, such as arugula, dandelion greens and kale may pacify cravings for sweet food. When one craves an excess of pungent foods, eating sweet and gooey foods can help pacify the cravings.
There are many herbal remedies to combat food cravings. Drinking a tea of licorice root, mint and chamomile provides a sugar substitute, suppresses the cravings and calms the mind. The herb gurmar (gymnema sylvestre) is a bitter herb that reduces food cravings, especially for the craving for sweets. Triphala guggulu balances the doshas, gentle cleanses and detoxifies. It supports healthy digestion and lowers blood sugar. Ashwaganda is a classic herb to calm the mind and help with the mental causes of cravings. And brahmi/gotu kola is particularly helpful for food cravings. It helps with all cravings and addictions. It aids specifically in reducing sugar cravings.
Aromatherapy can be used to help us feel satiated, to reduce strong negative emotions and to suppress appetite. There is a great body of evidence that inhaling the essential oils of lavender and bergamot reduce the feelings of anxiety and stress. The essential oil of orange reduces depression. Ylang ylang can support a general sense of well being. And most interestingly, inhaling peppermint is said to directly affect our brain’s satiety center, the ventro-medial nucleus of the hypothalamus, helping to specifically combat food cravings.
Looking at our food cravings can give us a unique mirror into our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lives. It gives us the opportunity to explore the gracious balance between fully experiencing pleasure and taking responsibility for our well being. Practicing this helps us reflect on what we value and what we believe. With awareness, compassion and clarity, we can reveal ourselves to ourselves.
In Ayurvedic Cooking, Usha Lad and Dr. Vasant Lad speak to this balancing act: “According to Ayurveda, each taste used collectively or individually in the appropriate dose brings about balance of all the bodily systems and yields happiness and good health to all living beings. But if used improperly, much harm can result. So one should learn the normal and abnormal effects of these six tastes and make use of them properly in daily cooking.” May we act effectively, but always gently.
** a reference to the yoga philosophy of samskaras
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