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Am I a Food Vampire? When Cravings Bite

Have you heard? It’s Guest Bloggers’ Week! And today Shelby Humphreys is writing about food cravings that bite. Hard. Shelby writes sassy and inspiring stories about weight loss at www.100poundsin1year.com. Read on for her personal experience decoding — and finding gratitude (yes, gratitude!) — for her food cravings.

a hungry girl opens the fridgeI’m sitting in the drive-thru of McDonald’s. Again. Doesn’t matter how long I’ve been on this journey — or how many pounds I’ve lost — I will come here. Like Mr. Smith in The Matrix drones, “It is inevitable.” Sooner or later, I will crane my neck out my car window, loud-talk at a weatherized screen, negotiate with the tinny voice scratching through tiny dots in the metal speaker panel, and order up the fattiest, saltiest hit my money can buy. I will suck down the Diet Coke. I will snarf the fries. I will scratch for the last fraggler (urban slang for that last fry at the bottom of the bag). After I’ve quieted my craving, I’ll sit plump in my seat. I am a food vampire, way too full and still not satisfied. In that moment, I feel disconnected from my body, cut at the gut like a woman sawed in half at a magic show.

I’m familiar with the lowball surrender that cravings tend to create. When cravings spike, with their smells, flavors and images looping in my head, they trigger an almost reptilian desire. I rethink The Fix over and over, between answering e-mails, after meetings, sitting in traffic and washing dishes. Cravings rarely go away. Instead, they squat in my thoughts and poke at my taste buds.

There are many schools of thought on how to handle cravings. Most focus on food as the enemy. They seem designed to fight the feeling of harassment and looming attack that cravings threaten. These tactics aim at avoiding cravings at all costs by outsmarting the hunger. In truth, I suck at Ninja-style warfare on food. Worse yet, when I’ve tried that, and I still end up at McDonald’s, then I sink into tired apathy, like an aged hippie with worn down dreads.

Here’s a new thought: what if cravings don’t go away because they’re not supposed to? Perhaps there’s more to cravings than I think. There’s only one way to find out: stop resisting and start snarfing. Yes, you read that right. I just advocated overeating. Why? The first step in discovering what’s inside my craving is to stop resisting it. If I embrace my hanker and eat through my cravings, through my mind talk, then I might get past it. I could begin to hear new things. I could listen for what my body is trying to tell me. Could cravings become a portal to a parallel universe where I possess greater understanding of my body and myself? I wanted to find out.

Before testing my theory, I researched some legit reasons for food urges. Just Google “What are food cravings?” and scroll through the links. Three of the most common answers describe cravings as:

  • Psychological: the food equivalent of quicksand, waiting for me to slip off an emotional edge
  • Biological: food flags waved at the first detection of deficiency
  • Cyclical: time keepers of hormone cycles, triggered by lunar, seasonal, or age-related changes

Now I had a mini-checklist of triggers. When my next craving hit, I would reach for that food right away, skipping all the arguments of “to eat or not to eat.” Then, I would check-in with what could have sparked the obsession. After several go-rounds with my theory, here’s the pattern of questioning I have distilled …

1. Was this craving emotional or biological?

When talking about cravings, it’s first important to differentiate between biological food cravings and emotional food cravings. I’ve had those moments, post-craving, when I’ve just eaten everything in the house and am still not satisfied. That confused, unknown spot is what registered dietitian Debra Waterhouse demystifies in her book, Why Women Need Chocolate. She explains, “The major difference is that biological cravings are based on your body’s needs, and emotional cravings are based on your heart’s needs.” I used her guidelines for the following check-ins:

  • Is my stomach mawing or brain going flatline?
    • Yes = biological
    • No = emotional
  • Is it a craving or an emotion that’s intensifying?
    • Cravings = biological
    • Emotion = emotional
  • Can any non-food satisfy my craving?
    • Yes = emotional
    • Maybe, not sure = could be biological. Go to the next question.

2. Could I be deficient in anything?

I first examine my sleep. Was it a rough night?

  • Yes: A nap is my primary craving. In fact, digesting a two-cheeseburger meal with large fries and a Diet Coke is a sure way to make me nod off. Hmmm. Maybe my body knows that and is trying to get me to take a snooze.
  • No: Could I need a different nutrient? According to Journal, the five top food cravings are chocolate, salt, refined carbs, caffeine and fat. These nutrient imposters might be pointing me towards a deeper need. Have I moved off my normal eating plan?
    • Yes: Most likely, I’ve left off eating something good for me. For example, after one craving, I realized I hadn’t gotten my omega-3s in like usual. Maybe my body actually wants those omegas.  Allie LeFevere, a holistic nutrition practitioner who blogs at allielefevere.com, offers a helpful list linking specific cravings with possible nutrient deficiencies (see Explore It More below).
    • Maybe, but not sure: Try on question 3.

3. Am I in the middle of a cycle?

Is the moon waxing or waning? If you’re like my husband, then the new moon may have you rummaging for calories in the middle of the night when you cannot sleep. For me, seasonal changes trigger cravings, particularly when the barometer drops, temperature fluctuates or sunlight patterns change. Are the seasons changing?

  • Yes: As January in Montana sinks us into our darkest, deep-freeze days, I crave chocolate just as dark. Thank you bod, for trying to coax me through winter.
  • No seasonal flux? Could there be a larger cycle at play? For example, I just turned 40. Is peri-menopause swaying my diet with refined carbs or salt? Note to do more research.

With this pattern of questioning, I’ve changed my mind about cravings; they can be a blessing in disguise. When I embrace food urges as a way to monitor my body’s deeper needs, then I view this whole process as nourishing, rather than punishing. After all, everything in nature reaches for what nourishes it. As I write this, my daffodils bend towards the spring sun. I’m like those flowers. I can’t help but reach for what nourishes me. —Shelby Humphreys

Explore It More

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