Understanding Food Cravings to Lose Weight

Cravings are your body's way of telling you what you are missing and how you are feeling.


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Complementary health approaches don’t just apply to illness and injury. Combining Eastern and Western perspectives on nutrition may have something to offer those struggling with weight loss as well. Boulder, Colorado-based nutritionist, registered dietician, and fitness consultant Jennifer Workman uses ideas from both traditions with positive results.

Workman has a master’s degree in Western nutrition, but her work is also informed by many years of studies in Ayurveda (Indian medicine). She combines her scientific knowledge about proteins, fats, and carbohydrates with Eastern ideas about food, health, and constitutional type. The Eastern emphasis gives her a sensitivity to individual differences in body type, lifestyle, and emotional make-up that she finds useful in helping people find diets that suit them.

Workman approaches nutrition from three variables when working with a client. First she considers what proteins, fats, and carbohydrates a person needs based on their activity level and body type. The second is digestion. Do they have sensitivities to certain foods such as gluten, peanuts, or dairy? The third is the Ayurvedic piece. “You get a handle on your constitutional type, personality type, and body type from this perspective you can start to see patterns and figure out imbalances,” she says.

She has found that food cravings are also a useful area to explore when working on weight loss and has written a book called Stop Your Cravings (Free Press, 2001). These cravings reveal important things about clients and their life situations as well as about differences in Western and Eastern perspectives on food. “What we’ve done in the fitness, nutrition, and medical businesses (I don’t think we did it intentionally), is we’ve made people wrong,” says Workman. “You shouldn’t crave coffee or sugar or fat or carbs, and now everything is bad.”

In the Eastern view, cravings give us useful information. Ayurveda says there are six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent), and six qualities of food (cold, hot, dry, oily, heavy, and light). We feel better satisfied and grounded when we include a variety of both in our diets. “When the body is out of balance and stressed,” says Workman, “one of the ways it’s going to try to bring itself back to balance is through the tastes and qualities.”

If someone is overwhelmed and anxious, worried and sad, or lonely, they may crave cookies, ice cream, and chocolate, says Workman. It’s not wrong, she says, it makes sense. She says a lot of women tell her they have PMS and that their cravings for chocolate go up right before their periods. Chocolate is an antidepressant that increases serotonin levels. It contains magnesium. There’s a reason they crave it, says Workman, so she encourages them to go ahead and eat it. People call her back and say the cravings went away two days later. “You don’t have to stop your cravings, you need to understand them, and what they’re trying to tell you. It becomes a matter of figuring out why you are stressed, what the stresses are, and how can you deal with them in more productive ways.”

Workman encourages people to notice what they crave, how they feel, and to ask themselves questions such as the following: Am I angry, overwhelmed, sad, do I get insomnia or constipation when I travel? Do I feel differently in summer than I do in the fall? The goal is to come up with food ideas that will satisfy the tastes and manage the stress without negatively affecting your digestion, weight, and health she says. Sometimes, adding flavors and spices such as Indian masalas can help satisfy the body and alleviate cravings. In addition, Workman encourages people to pick up snacks such as gummy bears, crystallized ginger, and dark organic chocolate at health-food stores.

Western diets often emphasize lowfat foods, and many Americans begin to crave sugar and carbohydrates because they are not getting enough fat, says Workman. They also tend to binge after working hard to stay away from some foods. Ayurveda takes a different approach to eating in general. “From the Ayurvedic perspective, food is supposed to be life-giving, immune-enhancing, and nurturing, and it’s also supposed to taste good,” she notes.

Workman says that Eastern approaches help balance the more clinical Western approaches. “The medical system just went too far in one extreme, and nutrition didn’t get much attention. When it did, it got really clinical,” she says. “The piece that yoga, Ayurveda, and Chinese medicine bring in is understanding your body’s response to nature.”

For more information about cravings, see Workman’s website, www.thebalancedapproach.com.

Check your nutrition IQFood myths abound! Test your nutrition know-how by circling the right answers.

1. Although it’s classified as a nutrient, vitamin D is actually:
A) a mineral
B) a protein
C) a hormone
D) all of the above

2. True or false: Latte isn’t as nutritious as traditional coffee drinks because steaming robs milk of calcium and B vitamins.
A) True
B) False

3. Compared to the real thing, carob, a chocolate substitute found in health-food stores, is:
A) lower in calories
B) lower in fat
C) nutritionally superior
D) none of the above

4. True or false: To be labeled “fat-free,’’ a product must contain absolutely no fat.
A) True
B) False


1. C: Vitamin D is actually a hormone, and like other hormones is manufactured by the body. Found naturally in very few foods, it’s produced by skin cells in response to sunlight.

2. B—False: Milk heated up to 10 minutes still contains 80 to 100 percent of its nutrients.

3. D: Surprisingly, 1 tablespoon of carob chips contains more calories and saturated fat than the same amount of chocolate—with no nutritional advantage.

4. B—False: Fat-free products can contain up to half a gram of fat per serving.

Source: Wellness Foods A to Z (Rebus, 2002) by Sheldon Margen, M.D., and other editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; www.wellnessletter.com.



A Festival of Lights and Flowers at the Chicago Botanic Garden. January 2–5 in Glencoe, Illinois. This event will be held from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. each evening. Experience the magic of acres of lights, vibrant indoor gardens, and an array of family programs. Contact the Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe, IL 60022; (847) 835-6900; www.chicago-botanic.org.

Lyman Estate Greenhouses plant sale. January 21–February 16 in Waltham, Massachusetts. The historic Lyman Estate Greenhouses will be in profusion of color by camellias and other winter-blooming plants with hundreds of plants available for sale Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Contact the Lyman Estate, 185 Lyman St., Waltham, MA 02452; (781) 891-4882 ext. 244; www.spnea.org.


Seventh Annual AromaHerb Conference and Trade Show. February 28–March 2 at the Fiesta Inn Resort in Tempe, Arizona. The show connects buyers and suppliers of pure and natural ingredients and products. Approximately fifty speakers will be presenting and 100 companies will be participating. Early registration is required to obtain discounted prices on classes. Call (602) 938-4439 or e-mail aromaherbshow@hotmail.com.

Spring Herb Gardening 101. February 22 at Festival Hill in Round Top, Texas. Get a jumpstart on planting a spring herb garden, focusing on those performing best in Texas. This seminar is geared toward new growers. The class will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Contact Gwen Barclay, The International Festival-Institute, PO Box 89, Round Top, TX 78954; (979) 249-5283; e-mail gwenbarclay_herbs@hotmail.com.

Using and Enjoying Herbs 101. February 23 at Festival Hill in Round Top, Texas. An overview of herbal usage throughout the home, covering cooking, decorations and crafting, plus basic medicinal herbs. Take home a fragrant table bouquet from the gardens and greenhouse. Contact Gwen Barclay, The International Festival-Institute, PO Box 89, Round Top, TX 78954; (979) 249-5283; e-mail gwenbarclay_herbs@hotmail.com.

Please send your event notices to Herbs for Health, 243 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537 or e-mail them to HerbsForHealth@ RealHealthMedia.com. We cannot guarantee inclusion of any event in a given issue.

 Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer living in Colorado.