What’s in a Craving?

Food.  That giver of life and nourishment, object of desire, source of endless inspiration and cause of massive regret and agony.  It seems so simple really.  We eat to live.  We humans need only a few things to survive; oxygen, water, food.  And quite a few more to thrive including; companionship, love, a purpose.  These things seem so separate don’t they?  But how could they be really.  Like it or not our basic human needs are all tied up into one messy ball of duality.  Too little spells demise, too much spells dysfunction.  As a parent I can say I dread both and find either devastating.

I believe that I have a healthy appreciation for food and I experience cravings like anyone else.  At times cravings can be truly maddening.  I talk to many people who struggle with weight issues in my profession and I gather that cravings are a major de-railer in developing healthier habits.   When I was pregnant with my first child (Willa) I worked at a place that had cookies and coffee for the volunteers on Sunday mornings.  I was usually there, with the cookies for a couple of hours and even though I was at work, surrounded by all of those people I could NOT stop thinking about those cookies!  Would I have one this morning? Yes of course I would, but what kind?  Would I have two?  Yes of course, but could I stop there?  Even after I had my cookies I still obsessed over them until I left work for the day and had some peace until the next week.  I felt so powerless to the will of those cookies!  Thankfully I do not experience cravings to that fiercely when I am not pregnant but of course I can still get pretty worked up about food.

Not all cravings are bad though.  Sometimes the body is communicating a legitimate need like when you are dying for a drink of water.  I often crave a nice hot cup of tea and feel like my body is asking for hydration, warmth and comfort all at the same time.  Often though, cravings are destructive; sometimes they become an excuse to overeat or binge.  They are usually responsible for the consumption of a high amount of empty calories.  We’ve already agreed you and I, that there are no bad foods in The Yoga Diet, but there are definitely better foods.

So where do cravings come from?

Social and environmental cues are a big culprit.  It can be very difficult to sit down and watch a movie with nothing to munch on.  I’ve talked to many moms of young kids who crave a little treat for themselves when the kids go down for nap time.  If everyone else orders desert, I’m probably going to order desert, even if I’m no longer hungry.  The presence of food and peer pressure are also social and environmental cues that compel us to eat when we are not hungry.

Ridiculously convincing advertising, and access to foods that are engineered to be irresistible are a problem of which most of us are not even aware.  Overweight and obesity in our culture has become an epidemic, but so has overconsumption of all things.  I’m all for capitalism but consumers are often victimized and bullied by the inexorable din of advertising for convenience restaurants and processed food products.  These products have become inexpensive and widely available to our detriment.  I’m just saying, when was the last time you saw a late night ad for broccoli?

Emotional Eating.  This has been a buzz word for a long time.  Oprah did a great job bringing this aspect of overeating to the American consciousness.  We know that sometimes we eat not because we are hungry but because we are bored, stressed, sad, happy etc.  Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland says that %75 of all overeating is due to emotions.  %75 seriously!  So often when one has a craving, it has nothing to do with hunger or nourishment but with emotion alone.  In my case it is usually boredom and sometimes entitlement.

Cravings are often responsible for de-railing healthy habits, resulting in the overconsumption of empty calories and allowing us to stuff our emotions rather than experiencing and dealing with them.  Cravings can also be a healthy cue from the body that a certain nutrient is required.  It can be difficult to determine what the body actually needs so lets discuss some strategies for staying mindful and honoring our bodies rather than indulging and spoiling them.

End the madness.

Drink water:  My kids and new husband hate it when I tell them this but it really is true; whenever I see them rummaging around in the fridge for a snack I ask them to have a drink of water.  Many cravings are actually a desire for hydration, meaning water.  Not soda, sports drink or anything else with calories, water.  Next time you have a craving that is not associated with hunger have a glass of water before you start munching.

Distract yourself:  If you are really wanting something sweet and there just happens to be a plate of cookies in the break room you are in a pickle.  I know, I’ve been there (see the story above).  The best tool I’ve found to avoid mindless eating is distraction.  I no longer work in an office so I don’t have quite the same issue.  Unfortunately it can be too easy to get distracted at home, but when I get up to go grab something to munch on while I work, even when I’m not hungry, I go have a look at the object of my desire and remind myself it is there.  Then I go do something else like put some laundry in the washer or make a call I’ve been putting off.  Usually I forget about the object until I really am hungry and then I have something real to eat.  Using this tactic, most of the yummy stuff we keep around for the kids either gets eaten by the kids or goes to waste, better it than me.  An important component of this tactic is to remind yourself that the thing you are craving is there and will continue to be there.  Even if you are positive that all of the cookies in the break room will be gone after lunch you can still take comfort in the knowledge that there will be something else in its place tomorrow and the next day…  A big part of binge eating and over indulging is a concern that what we want will disappear if we don’t get it right now.  This is rarely the case, remind yourself that you can have what you want whenever you want.  Distraction works, but it’s a temporary fix.  Read on to get to the heart of the matter.

Go Deep:  This one is hard and takes time but sometimes it is just best to get to the root of the problem.  Before I met my husband, when I was a single, stressed mom I would eagerly anticipate the hour when my kids would go to bed.  That was my time to indulge myself.  A little TV, a glass of wine, sometimes a snack.  I gained a fair amount of weight in those days.  I worked hard to keep it off (as in at the gym 5 + times per week) but was never in a place that I considered satisfactory.  If I had known then what I know now I would have asked myself “Am I hungry?” The answer of course was “no”.  After that it’s time to sit and be honest.  “What is it that I am really after”.  It wasn’t empty calories.  I was lonely, overburdened, exhausted and overwhelmed… I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stay afloat on my musician/yoga instructor income.  There was alot there, and mostly stuff that I preferred not to think about but just acknowledging it goes a long way.  Those problems weren’t going to go away if I discovered the real reason for my craving but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with the guilt of over-consuming and the discomfort of not being able to zip my pants.  When we can acknowledge the real reason we binge or consume things that are not in our best interest we get an oppurtunity to practice compassion.  Something many of us sorely lack in our inner lives.  We might just get the chance to work some things out as well.

Listen to your body: If you’ve been to a yoga (asana) class you might remember that your instructor asked you to reverse the cross of your ankles after a seated position or grasp opposite elbows the un-natural way in a standing forward fold the second time you do the pose.  We all have imbalances of strength and flexibility in our bodies that we are innately aware of, even if we’ve never actually noticed them.  We naturally cross our ankles in a seated position (sukhasana) in a way that favors the “open” hip.  This is knowledge that we have and act upon subconsciously.  I find it so sweet that we instinctively honor our bodies in this way.  We are such a thinking species and I am encouraged when we can just feel.  I think we can transfer this innate knowledge to our eating patterns as well; more than just hungry and full but “What does my body need?”. Sometimes bodies need ice cream, it’s true.  Most of the time they need a variety of foods that are nutritious. Recognizing that external cues have a destructive amount of influence upon the things that you consume is an important first step.  Taking the time to separate the influences and even the personal feelings you have from your diet is practicing yoga.

In yoga we work toward stilling the mind so that we may rest, if only momentarily upon the basest level of our consciousness.  That part of us that is separate from our occupation, hobbies, the kind of cell phone we carry or car we drive; even the conversations we have, things we think and places we go.  This is not easy, but the good news is that even a small step is a step in the right direction.  Reflecting on our reactions to food and external cues is the beginning.  Start there and work toward reducing your reactivity and relying on your body’s cues instead.  A good yoga practice finds its way into parts of your life that you believed were separate and un-related.  Allow your awareness to ripen into your diet and you will be amazed by the result.

Namaste yogis.

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