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The Meaning of Food Cravings

Posted Oct 17 2008 11:57am

What is the meaning of a food craving? Science has disproven the idea that craving always means nutrient deficiency—a lack of potassium drawing you to a banana or an iron deficiency driving you to order a sirloin. It can be confusing when you feel an urge to eat—whether you crave something specific like Betty Crocker brownies or have a yen for pasta—to know how to react. To follow the urge or not, that is the question.

Some cravings are biologically based, such as when you haven’t eaten protein all day and go for turkey, eggs, yogurt or cheese. But how to explain what I hear all the time from clients: “If I could, I’d eat chocolate or ice cream or candy or macaroni and cheese all the time.” Would they really? Because they actually crave those foods or because they’ve been forbidden for so long they’re driven by deprivation? What should you do when you keep thinking about that new crunchy cereal with the almond-honey clusters you just bought? Do you have a bona fide craving you should satisfy or is this food simply something you desire because you’re bored or unhappy?

Research says that if you eat certain foods at the same time or place every day, you’ll want them again at that same time and place due to cuing and body adaptation. If you’re hungry at the appointed hour and enjoy that food, it makes sense to eat it. If you have craving minus hunger, however, it’s a good idea to wait until hunger catches up. What about when you don’t have glazed donuts in the house and don’t think about them, but can’t stop obsessing about them when they’re tucked up there in a box on top of the fridge? You may have a craving for those doughnuts that feels like a gun in your back, but if you wouldn’t give two thoughts about them if they weren’t around, should you give in?

It helps to consider cravings from different perspectives so that you can come up with various ways—not just one way—of responding to them. Books written three decades ago on intuitive eating insist that you go for foods you crave, but that may not necessarily be a good idea. A better perspective is that it’s fine to act on some cravings and not on others. Try this. Whenever you have a craving, don’t act on it immediately. Consider why you have the craving and whether eating is the right answer. Reflect on your hunger, your emotional state, and what you’ve eaten already during the day. Make sure your desire isn’t due to a diet mentality and feeling deprived of foods you love. Have a taste of what you crave and notice if it’s really what you want. In short, always think before eating, then take it slow and keep paying attention.



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PLEASE NOTE: I encourage you to comment on my blogs and will do my best to address topics/questions you raise in future blogs. I cannot provide individual responses, but encourage you to post your questions and comments on The Food and Feelings Workbook message board at

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