Understanding Food Cravings to Lose Weight

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

| January 2003

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.”

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