Dieting mythologies have taught us that cravings are our enemies. We are told to ignore the plaintive cries of our evil bodies as they try to trick us into feeding them!
Cravings are actually pretty remarkable. When they arise, it’s because the body knows we are lacking something, and the gut sends a signal up to the brain. Suddenly there’s an image of soft-serve vanilla ice cream with hot fudge—and we cannot stop thinking about it. For the most part, the thing we crave will help us with whatever’s wrong. Our gut’s vocabulary, however, can be limited, and understanding our cravings can help us better nourish ourselves.
The fundamental craving is for food. Hunger will show up, though, as catch-all for a body under stress. We may be thirsty, tired, anxious, bored, or lonely. The body knows something is wrong, but the only signal it’s sure we’ll pay attention to is hunger. We feel hunger right where we feel anxiety. In a very real way, hunger is anxiety—there’s a primal association between eating and feeling safe that our ancestors knew well. No wonder so many of us eat to battle stress-because it works!
Constantly eating when we aren’t hungry, however, can create other problems for the body. On the other hand, if we don’t eat when we actually are hungry, we can confuse the whole system and teach the body that we don’t listen to its signals (please also see my piece on weight and worth).
So when hunger arises, put your hands on your stomach. Is that where you feel the signal, or is it behind your tired eyes, or gripping your anxious heart? Does the signal change if you drink some water, take a nap, or take a walk? If not, you’re hungry: eat. Now, the eternal question: what to eat?
You might simply be hungry: sugar provides easily accessible calories, and boosts low blood sugar fast—though often too fast, leading to a crash. Chromium is a mineral found in whole grains, eggs, carrots, and sweet potatoes that can help stabilize fluctuating blood sugar. Fiber, healthy fats, and proteins like nuts and eggs can keep sugar releasing slowly, avoiding peaks and valleys.
The gut may also be overabundant with sugar-obsessed bacteria. Yeast infections and constipation are additional clues that this is what’s going on. Sugar addiction is real, and it’s physical (and possibly affecting your spirituality). We can help by feeding the helpful gut bugs with probiotic fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies.
Dreaming about steak probably means you need iron. Red meat is the most easily accessible source of iron in our diets, but we can also get it in pumpkin seeds and dark leafy greens. Pair these veggies with some vitamin C (orange juice, a tomato) to make the iron more easily absorbable.
Fiber found in ground chia seeds, oats, or beans satisfies carb cravings. Fiber helps keep us full, while processed white flour won’t stick with us for long (or, for way too long—these foods can cause constipation). Craving bread may also indicate low serotonin, which affects our moods. Whole grains, along with fish oil and turkey, help us synthesize serotonin. Check in with hunger cues: exercise also boosts this feel-good chemical.
Stress is associated with low magnesium—and 80 percent of us are deficient in this particular mineral. It’s found in chocolate, yogurt, nuts, seeds, bananas, avocados, fish, and whole grains. Chocolate also has sugar and caffeine in it, so the body may actually be asking for a nap (or a coffee!).
Some women crave chocolate around menstruation. There isn’t much good evidence it helps hormonally, but chocolate can provide a moment of pleasure, which might be just the thing. Try a short walk, some light yoga, or a hug—then enjoy that chocolate.