Thursday, January 7, 2010

Understanding Cravings

*Warning! This is a long post! But I think it covers a variety of helpful topics that can help you break away from junk and start moving towards a healthier, more natural you! :)

There are many reasons we eat choices that we know to be less than healthy (c'mon - deep down somewhere, you KNOW that cookie isn't healthy! Growing up, my mom always liked to jokingly proclaim "if you break it in half - all the calories fall out!" Pretty clever, right?)

So we try restraining ourselves from “junk” food, we do “low fat”, we do “diet”, we starve, struggle, and diligently record every crumb and morsel that we put in our mouths. (Honestly – I found keeping a log to be quite helpful at times! I’d be too lazy to want to write something in my log, so TADA! I just wouldn’t eat it!) But seriously - who wants to count calories all day? Who has time to?! I probably could, but there are other things I would rather do. So, calorie count no more! Let's look at the cravings and a small glimpse into one of the many reason WHY we eat what we eat.

There's an interesting phenomenon called pica, seen where people eat non-food items because the body is desperately seeking some lacking nutrient. Most commonly, pregnant women crave ice induced by low iron in their blood - but I've worked with many pregnant women who also chomp on tissue paper, dive spoon first into tubs of corn starch, and even go scrounging around their own yards for dirt! Often getting a prenatal vitamin with iron helped lessen these unhealthy cravings.

Is it really so different for the rest of us? Most people don't get their needed nutrients. In a society of high-fat, high-salt, low-nutrition convenience foods, is it a wonder that we're lacking in magnesium, iron, vitamin D, and any other multitude of necessary nutrients? And in lacking nutrition, we crave anything to make that void feel better. In fact, Dr. Joel Fuhrman states “One key factor that determines whether you will be overweight is your failure to consume sufficient fiber and nutrients.”

We are an overfed, undernourished society.

And to make matters worse, the lack of crop rotation and over use of the soil in conventional farming depletes the soil of its health as we burn through it with mass-production; this will further reduce nutrient content of foods (oh dear, I may be opening a can o’ worms with that one…) There was a review of 41 studies that compared organic and conventionally grown produce. It stated that even for someone following the USDA recommendation of 5 servings of vegetables daily, if these foods were not organically grown, because of that nutrient-depleted growing conditions, the produce would be depleted and the person would not be getting their needed intake of vitamin C, while the organic counterparts would!

And today, 85% of farm soils are found to be depleted; and conventional spinach may contain less than 2% of the iron in used to have in 1948!

So how on earth are we supposed to get all the nutrients we need?! Mass fruits and veggies - preferably organic. "But Katie! I've already tried eating another serving of fruits and vegetables! I don't like them, and I still end up craving junk food!" Right? Here's the cool part - if you can commit to just a few days of a few nutrient power-house foods, like the woman who loses her craving for dirt when her nutritional needs are met, your cravings for processed foods and sugary empty calories can diminish! I'm not saying they'll be gone completely. You may have a life time of crave-inducing empty-calorie habits to purge, and the body is made to fight change and maintain homeostasis - even if the changes are for the good. But you can get a great kick-start! And then watch as those cravings continually lessen over time. It's not a quick-fix diet; it's a life-long lifestyle change. But it does get easier!

I went from daily dependence on coffee with a need for dessert nightly (and any other food I could get my hands on as soon as I got home), to coffee-free and satisfied with a 1 ounce square of organic dark chocolate on occasion. For the first time in three weeks, I had a diet coke last night. While this USED to be my favorite drink, I didn't even finish the thing because it just didn't taste right to me! It was sticky chemicalized fakeness. Bleh!

The way that worked for me? A green smoothie for breakfast, and a huge salad for lunch, some sort of “sensible” dinner that includes generous amounts of vegetables, a moderated intake of nuts and seeds, and as many fruits and vegetables as I wanted for snacking.

One thing to keep in mind: you end up craving what you eat, especially when you’re eating fats or sweets – as shown in a study published in Appetite in 2008. So, with a lifetime of processed, fatty, sugary foods under your belt, you will probably experience those cravings. But on the other hand, a vast quantity of fresh produce begets cravings for more fresh produce! One of my friends was encouraging some of her clients to do a very high intake of fruits and vegetables: 9+ per day. To understand what it would take, she decided to “put her food where her mouth is” and also bump up her intake. The result? She would crave an orange for dessert! Now, I'm not saying I never crave my old foods (fast food, cakes, nachos, etc) but the sensation definitely has decreased over time, to the point I find them manageable most of the time!

Sound too intense? Just try to incorporate 2 fruits a day. Not juice, you sneaky person, you! ;-) Whole fruit – in all it’s fiber, phytochemical, and cancer-fighting antioxidant glory! And then begin working on having one salad a day… and work from there. Any little steps are better than none.
Honestly, I find the all-at-once approach worked best for me. I can will-power my way through a few days of intense healthy food, and by then, my craving for other foods was diminished enough that it’s been easy to keep packing in the vegetables – and, shockingly, no, I’m NOT tired of salad! I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t tried it. But you start getting creative with dressings, new vegetables to try, and just feeling more energetic – it’s enough to keep me going.

Another bonus of all the fruits and vegetables – with fewer calories, they still have a lot of volume (turn down those plums, Johnny, the neighbors all complaining again! Hyuck, hyuck… Sorry.)

One of the ways your mind tells you that you’re full is when your stomach stretches! So, a large volume of foods - not a large caloric intake - will cause that ballooning, and your mind will register “oh, we’re full! That’s it! Turn off the hunger cues!” in about 20 minutes (so take your time eating!)

Ok, so, that’s a bit of an overload of information. Where to start?

Step one: go to the store, and buy some fruits and vegetables you know you like to snack on.

Step two: While there, also plan to make a Veggie Weapon salad for the week, so get a few good “salad items” that you like, such as carrot, radish, cucumber, avocado, tomato… Then grab head or two of a leafy green of your choice (Romaine lettuce is good, or Bibb lettuce. Skip Iceberg. As my sister so eloquently puts it – “it’s crunchy water.” Yup, good water content, but little else.) Later, I'll post about green smoothies (and not-so-green-but-still-helpful ones, as well!)

Step three: get it all home, wash it, snack on whatever fancies you, and put the rest away until you're ready for it!

The produce section is your friend. Get to know it! The rest of the store, with a few exceptions, is a waste of space. It’s jam packed with highly processed, low nutrient, crave-inducing marketing ploys. Perhaps I’ll blog later about the psychology of markets – the amount of money that goes into researching HOW to make consumers buy more of what they don’t really need is astounding! But for today, I think I’ve covered enough, and then some!

So get out to the store, and happy shopping!



  1. Kate I like this, i just hope i can put it into Practice. anyways thanks for writting it .


  2. Hey John! I'm glad if any of this information helped "click" something in ya! (I know this is a longer post.)

    But just do what you can - any baby step is still a step in the right direction! And, when done with patience and dedication, it's amazing to see how those baby steps begin to snowball into life habits!! Good luck, and let me know if there's anything I can do to try to help! You gotta stay good and healthy now, "dad" - you've got a little one to keep up with! ;-)