The dichotomy that surrounds food craving and binging has never been so noticeable. One segment of the Western world embraces contests in which obnoxious amounts of hot dogs, pizza or butter are consumed for nothing more than a new t-shirt, while others find themselves under self-imposed restrictions because of the shame associated with even the slightest indulgence. While there are some obvious psychological and spiritual implications that can be drawn from the relationships we develop with food, a lot of our detrimental behaviors can be traced back to physical reactions these foods, or their absence, can generate.
I believe that all of the body’s parts – from vital organs and appendages on down to the smallest hair follicles and skin cells – are interdependent and that something as commonplace as food cravings and binges hold tremendous value in fully understanding complete nutrition and nourishment. Food cravings and the subsequent binge episodes are often the symptoms of food addictions and allergies; the body’s inherent cleansing mechanisms; or chronic deficiencies and imbalance.
Addictions and Allergies
Food addictions may be best identified by symptoms of withdrawal, while food allergies appear as a reaction to consumption. For example, if we typically eat a large pastry for breakfast, we can almost expect an early morning slump characterized by fatigue, lethargy and irritability and an irresistible craving for sugar. If we indulge this craving, symptoms dissipate and we become energized, motivated and focused. Unfortunately, indulging our cravings can reinforce addictions and make the body better able to encourage detrimental behavior.
Food allergies, what most consider the opposite of addictions, often become apparent upon the consumption of highly allergenic foods like dairy, shellfish, wheat, and nuts. Allergies can manifest in a multitude of ways depending upon a person’s susceptibility and genetic predispositions, ranging from physical discomfort and pain to mood disturbances and irritability. Unfortunately, symptoms of an allergy can often be mistaken as an addiction because some common food irritants can ignite pathways of dependence that provoke withdrawal symptoms and subsequent cravings.
Cleanse and Discharge
We also often experience cravings when we adopt healing diets that cleanse our bodies of the toxic substances that have built up in between our cells and tissue. As our dietary habits change, our bodies work to remove the toxins by dumping them into the bloodstream for processing and excretion. This ride through the body can often invoke cravings for the foods that contain the substances that our body is attempting to eliminate. So, if you used to habitually eat momma’s lemon meringue pie after large meals, don’t be surprised if you get a hankerin’ for a slice after a healthy Thanksgiving meal.
Finally, when the appropriate nutrient proportions are not maintained, the body can employ cravings as a corrective mechanism to remedy the imbalance. For example, a craving for sugar could be the result of a high protein/fat diet that is lacking carbohydrates, sugar being the easiest carb for the body to utilize. Similarly, an insatiable appetite and poor energy, which may cause cravings for stimulating foods, have been linked to zinc and vitamin B12 deficiencies, respectively. Many well-known healing modalities believe that diet should attempt to rectify systemic imbalance and prevent food cravings by promoting alkalinity, balancing contractive and expansive foods, or pairing certain ingredients to promote health.
Looking at cravings as a symptom of a deeper malady or imbalance lies in opposition to the general “scientific”, or mechanistic, approach to nutrition that stresses given quantities of specific macro- and micronutrients. The mechanistic approach to nutrition is founded upon the idea that the nutrients found in food are independent of one another and that eating more lean protein, for example, will alleviate muscle wasting. However, this approach doesn’t consider all the essential fat-soluble vitamins found in the fats that nature often “packages” with the muscle and their importance in health and reducing cravings. Solving and preventing food cravings can best be accomplished with a holistic approach to nutrition that considers all of the individual factors and influences, including the complex relationship between nutrients in real food, that dictate our health and food behaviors.
Cravings are no fun. They can hijack the most disciplined dietary disciples in the most unsuspecting manner. However, by understanding the different sources of food cravings and learning how to prevent their appearance with a balanced, holistic approach to diet and wellbeing, we can live happy, health and craving free lives.