Often in my work with my life coaching, holistic health counseling, or body image clients, the question arises, “how can you tell a healthy craving apart from an addictive habit reappearing?”
This can be tricky, because your addictions can be so seductive as to entice you into thinking that you truly “need” them.
Yet, no one would deny a pregnant woman her cravings, and they present just as strongly as a “need.”
So how can you tell a “real need” from a false one?
I’ve considered the distinction between a “true need” and an addictive one in the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering from the stomach flu.
The past few weeks have been an interesting study in cravings, and has jogged my memory about similar experiences in the past.
In the immediate aftermath of the recent flu, everything smelled gross, and the mere thought of some items made me feel nauseated.
I recall an instance in my life where this has happened before. In my early twenties, I was working a desk job, and fell ill, with the flu. While I lay in bed, I didn’t consume much, and above all, I drank no coffee. Prior to this, I had quite a coffee habit—four of five cups a day.
In the wake of that sickness, the thought of coffee nauseated me. So, I switched to tea. First black tea, and then later, green tea. While I adore the aroma and flavor of coffee, now I can’t drink it, as it gives me heart palpitations.
It occurred to me that the illness was a kind of cleanse. My acupuncturist would agree, and from what I’ve gleaned, many illnesses can be viewed as a “healing event” of sorts. That sickness in my twenties I recall at the “coffee purge.”
With the recent illness, what I observed was an accompanying craving for foods that I’ve not wanted in years—mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese.
There was a clear progression from one to the other. First, about three days of desire for the potatoes. Then, a break. Then, emerged the desire for macaroni and cheese. As a gluten-free eater, this posed a problem. Thankfully, Annie’s makes a decent rendition with rice noodles.
For three days straight, I followed the craving, and ate a box of mac & cheese. On the third day, it tasted too salty, and no longer entirely hit the spot.
Many people would probably identify these cravings as “bad.” Both of these foods fall in the “carb” category, and even in the “junk food” category.
This illness was the opposite of the “coffee purge.”
Instead of removing foods from my palate, it introduced them back in.
And, they are not foods that I ordinarily consider “healthy.”
As I indulged my body’s desire for another day of packaged, processed mac & cheese, I considered if I was truly experiencing a nutritional need, or if some addiction took the opportunity to show itself again.
If you examine closely the sentence above, it reveals part of the key to understanding healthy craving versus addiction.
The key lies in the distinction between “me” and “my body” and creating a healthy relationship between those two things.
In the past, my “addictions” were primarily the product of my mind, which then hooked my body.
In the past, eating “junk food” was the result of feeling lonely, isolated, scared, unloved, unrecognized, angry, powerless.
As I did the work to resolve those core issues, I was able to see that actually my body never “asked” for those junk foods in the first place. My mind did.
So the distinction between “healthy craving” and “unhealthy craving” has to do with where the craving is truly arising. Is it in your body, or is it in your mind?
Let’s examine these two “purging” illness that I’ve told you about above, looking for traces of both kinds of cravings—of the body and the mind.
In the instance of the coffee situation, I had been drinking coffee for so long, that my body was actually hooked on it. There way truly no way that I would have known that it was something my body didn’t want, unless I tried not drinking it for a while. And that thought would never have crossed my mind. The sickness introduced a situation where I could remove the substance, and from there create a clean slate inside against which to test if coffee was really a substance my body likes.
I started drinking coffee not out of a love for coffee—like many I began drinking coffee as a means to extend my productivity. I drank it because my family members did. And, I drank it, because it was a sign of maturity, or so I thought. Never did my body “ask” for coffee, and I doubt that yours would either. We just like caffeine. This is a clear instance of “me” introducing a food to my body, and getting it addicted.
Sugar is like this too. It is a substance scarce in naturally occurring foods. Fruit is sweet, and some vegetables are. So are grains. But white table sugar—that is an invention of modernity. Sugar is highly addictive, and if you don’t agree, try taking it out of your diet entirely (that includes agave, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, sucannat, and any other “alternative” sweetener you can think of) for an entire week, and see just how cranky your get.
I found out about this when I did my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. I all but eliminated sugar from my diet. And when I cam back from the training and had a glass of lemonade, I just about passed out from the sugar high and the ensuing crash.
In the end, the “coffee purge” was a little of both–I created a real addiction that was the product of my mind.
So check to see if your “craving” is the result of your mind desiring something to fill the uncomfortable spaces in your life, and if you’ve fed it something that now it is hooked on.
If you check inside, and know that you are not really feeding your mind with food, then you can examine what kind of craving your body is truly experiencing, and satisfy that craving at it’s core.
Let’s look at the more recent example of the mashed potato and mac & cheese craving.
When I mentioned the craving to a friend of mine, he told me that potatoes are very high in electrolytes, so much so that they actually conduct electricity. In fact, you can light up a light bulb with a potato!
Craving explained—stomach flu leaves a person dehydrated, and depleted from the electrolytes that help usher fluids across the cell membrane. My potato craving was my body self-medicating with food. Amazing!
There are a few other reasons that your body might experience a craving.
Seasonal: Our bodies are set to function with the cycles of the natural world. In the spring, we tend to desire detoxifying foods like leafy greens or citrus foods. In the summer, people crave cooling foods like fruit, raw foods and ice cream, and in the fall people crave grounding foods like squash, onions and nuts. During winter many crave hot and heat-producing foods like meats and cheeses.
Lack of Nutrients: When the body is nutrient deficient, it will try to make up for it as immediately as possible. A lack of minerals leads to salt cravings. Overall inadequate nutrition leads to cravings for instant energy in the form of sugar and caffeine.
Yin/Yang Imbalance or Balance: Certain foods have expansive qualities while others are contractive. “Yin” refers to the expansive quality of a food—think how sugar makes you feel, or alcohol. These are extreme examples. Leafy greens are also an example of an expansive food, or a “yin” food. “Yang” refers to the contractive quality of a food. Consider how salt makes you feel, or meat.
Sometimes eating one kind of food creates a cycle where a person only wants to eat those foods. The body gets stuck in a feedback loops.
Other times, the body naturally balances. You eat some meat, and want some leafy vegetables to go along with it. This is just one example.
There are also other reasons why the mind might create cravings.
Displaced Desire & Dissatisfaction: Being dissatisfied with a relationship or having an inappropriate exercise routine (too much, too little or the wrong type), being bored, stressed, or uninspired by a job, or lacking a spiritual practice may all cause emotional eating. Eating can be used as a substitute for entertainment or to fill any void in your life.
De-evolution. When our lives are going better than usual, sometimes a self-sabotage pattern emerges. We crave foods that throw us off the good path, thus creating more cravings to balance ourselves. This often happens from low blood sugar and may result in strong mood swings.
Longing for the Past: We’ve all experienced this—it’s the desire for “comfort foods.” One of my teachers calls it “Inside Coming Out”—the longing not only for your childhood foods, but also for your ancestral foods. Any way you look at it, your relationship with the past is showing up in the present in the solid manifestation of food.
When I examine my recent longing for mac and cheese, I can see realistically that it is my past coming out, and a longing for comfort. The needs of my body (potatoes) gave way to the desires of my heart for care and comfort of my mother (mac & cheese). Seeing that clearly for what it truly is will allow me to make better decisions about whether to indulge the craving or seek to resolve it in another way.
In summary, it is important to discern between a craving that is the product of your mind, and something that comes from your body.
Once you’re clear on that, then you can make a better decision about how to handle it.