We have all been there – experienced intense cravings for a particular food, or a particular taste. More often than not, those foods are NOT the super healthy ones for us. Why does this happen? And, more importantly, how do we not give it to it?
First off, let me say, you body is smart. So if you aren’t eating enough, your body will crave foods that will give it what it needs to stay alive – usually, this means high caloric content and high fat. This is the body’s natural reaction to starvation. So, if you are intensely dieting and you find yourself craving rich foods, re-evaluate your eating habits and make sure you are giving your body enough healthy and life-sustaining nutrients and calories.
Assuming, however, that you do eat enough, then you may be craving foods for a number of different reasons. Going along the lines of the previous example, if your body is deficient in certain nutrients, you may start to crave foods that carry these vitamins and minerals. You should listen to this craving. However, if you are craving fried food, or chocolate, or sugar, or excessively salty food (the most common cravings), chances are, something else is at play. Lots of cravings can be psychological in nature. If you notice that you fixate on certain unhealthy foods when you are stressed or anxious, pay attention to what makes you feel unbalanced emotionally. If you teach yourself to deal with stress and anxiety in normal and healthy ways, the cravings for unhealthy food will naturally diminish.
There is, of course, another explanation, and that comes from Traditional Chinese Medicine. In TCM, each energy system is associated with one of the elements. Each of these elements is associated with a particular taste. Now, in moderation, these tastes can be nourishing to the energy system in question. But when we start to crave a particular taste really strongly, it suggests an imbalance in that energy system.
Craving unnaturally sweet food (anything with refined sugar) suggests a weakness in the Earth energy. The Earth energy corresponds to our Spleen and Stomach. When the Earth energy is weak, we tend to crave sweets. For women, this often happens around their menstrual cycle, due to other energy systems knocking around the Spleen and Stomach and causing their Earth energy to be weaker than usual. Symptoms of an Earth energy deficiency include fatigue, lethargy, digestive issues, weight gain or water retention, an inability to turn off your mind at night, excessive worry, and a sluggish metabolism. Eating sugar will make all of these things worse.
The salty taste corresponds to the Water element, and the Kidney energy in our bodies. The kidneys control our life cycles, growth, and reproduction. They also diminish as we age, and many common symptoms of aging (such as hotflashes in women and prostate issues in men) are related to a weakness in the Kidney energy. Excessively craving salty foods suggests an imbalance in your Water energy.
Craving Sour Foods
This craving is not actually as common, but if you are abnormally drawn to sour foods, this suggests an imbalance in your Wood energy. The Wood element is related to the Liver and Gall Bladder in TCM. These energy systems are in charge of ensuring the smooth flow of energy throughout the body. When they are out of whack, all sorts of problems ensue, including irregular menstrual cycles, headaches and migraines, tight neck and shoulders, sleep problems, feelings of stress, depression, or anxiety, and problems with eyesight. In moderation, sour tastes can actually be good for people with these issues. But if you are abnormally drawn to sour foods, try to cut back so as to allow your Wood element to flow without inhibition.
Craving Bitter Foods
Most Americans do not include any bitter foods in their diet, so this craving is not very common, with the exception of craving the taste of coffee. (Separate from craving the caffeine boost.) The bitter taste corresponds to the Fire element, and the heart energy in TCM. When the Fire element is out of balance, emotional symptoms appear, such as anxiety, depression, memory loss, trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping, nightmares, ADHD, etc.
Craving Pungent Foods
This craving refers to foods like onions, scallions, garlic, chives, and the like. This is a taste we call “pungent” or “acrid” in TCM. It corresponds to the Metal element, which in turn corresponds to the Lungs and the Large Intestine. The Metal element is in charge of our immunity, and also helps us to draw boundaries, deal with grief, and let negative emotions go. If you find yourself craving onions and the like, examine if there are weaknesses or blockages in the afore-mentioned areas of your life. This is a craving that is actually ok to indulge in, but if it becomes excessively strong, it is time to examine what is lying underneath that.
Craving Fried and Greasy Food
Are you a fast food junkie? Do you love fried food? Most of this craving is usually due to your habits, and usually must be consciously broken. Fried food doesn’t specifically correlate to a particular energy system in our body, but it is rather damaging to all of them. Frequently people with an Earth energy weakness get in the habit of eating fried and greasy food, and this actually weakens their system even more. Likewise, individuals who suffer from “Liver Qi stagnation”, a wood element imbalance, often find themselves drawn to fried, greasy, and unhealthy foods. In this pattern, the energy in the body is not flowing properly, causing symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, pain, and sleep problems. Eating heavy foods make this much, much worse.