True Hunger and False Cravings

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Food’s effect on our consciousness is like a drug. Whether we realize it or not, we crave specific foods for their ability to change the way we feel, not their ability to satiate our hunger, according to Kevin Spelman, A.H.G., an herbalist in Baltimore.

Our minds’ ties to food began in infancy when our mothers gave us milk to assuage our hunger cries. This response relieved our hunger but, more importantly, it soothed us, and from the very beginning we learned to associate food with love.

As we grew, we realized that food could alter our state of mind and body: A chocolate bar lifts us up when we’re tired, a glass of warm milk ushers in dreams when rest seems far away, a chicken sandwich anchors us during a stressful day at work, and a box of cookies keeps us company when we’re lonely. Because of food’s ability to alter our consciousness, at some point we stopped eating only when we needed to, and started eating when we wanted to.

The Ayurvedic Approach

Practitioners of Ayurveda, the ancient system of healing from India, warn that eating when we want to causes us to forget what true hunger feels like. We trick ourselves into thinking that wanting food is the same as being hungry, which isn’t true: Wanting food is a mental and emotional need, while being hungry is a physiological one. A feeling of hunger is our body’s way of telling us our digestive processes are in full swing: hydrochloric acid secretion is ample, peristalsis is strong, and our body is prepared to fully break down and assimilate any food we put into it.

If we eat when we’re not hungry, we ask the body to perform a function it’s not ready to perform, and we decrease the chances that our food will be properly digested. Ayurvedic practitioners believe improperly digested food turns into toxins (ama), which clog the channels of the body and lead to imbalance and disease.

This imbalance and disease further lead to inappropriate cravings, according to Ayurveda. Most people believe a strong craving for something means their body is trying to tell them what it needs. This is true in a balanced system where the body is so highly attuned to its surpluses and deficits that it may crave, say, oysters when it is low on zinc, collards when it needs calcium and kelp when it needs iodine.

However, this is not true when the system is out of balance and craves macaroni and cheese or the pineapple upside down cake from your favorite restaurant. These cravings do not serve us. All things have the biological desire to perpetuate themselves. Thus, imbalance begets further imbalance through unhealthy cravings. Fortunately, health begets health, and once this state is achieved, cravings can be indulged because they are the reflection of your body’s innate intelligence. But how does one get to such a balanced state, and how can you tell the difference between a good craving and a bad craving?

Give Yourself Some Attention

The first thing to do is pay attention. Learn about yourself. Tomorrow when you’re on your lunch break, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry. We usually eat when our day planners tell us to, not when our bodies tell us to. If you’re not hungry, wait until you are. If your schedule doesn’t permit an alternate time to eat at work, eat lightly or wait until dinner.

Our culture frowns upon skipping meals because we believe that we need to consume food to have energy and to be productive. In fact, the opposite is true when you eat food you’re not hungry for: It causes fatigue. Productivity in office environments often goes way down after lunch because poor digestion leads to lethargy and a feeling of heaviness.

Another thing to monitor is your emotional state when eating. More often than we care to admit, we eat to combat sadness, loneliness, anxiety or fear. We associate food with comfort and love. Consequently, we use it to replace a lack of these things in our life. To demonstrate how closely tied food and love are, think back to the last time you were in a new relationship. Many people report a loss of appetite during the initial stages because the emotional support and physical comfort they receive from a partner “feeds” them. Vasant Lad, an Ayurvedic physician in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is fond of saying, “Food is food for the body, and love is food for the soul.”

When we are nourished by our environment, we don’t require as much nourishment from food. Conversely, when there is a lack of nurturing in our lives, we try to replicate the feeling of being nurtured with food. So before you eat anything, take stock of your emotional state. If you acknowledge feeling despondent, angry or upset, chances are good that what you’re experiencing is not real hunger. Think about other ways to address your mood: Take a bath, call a friend or just allow yourself to feel bad without needing to do anything about it.

Try a Fast

Apart from being mindful of how you feel, a good way to reconnect with the feeling of true hunger is to fast. It can be as simple as skipping a meal or as involved as going a few days without food. This will put you back in touch with what physical hunger feels like. You’ll know it’s the real thing when a bowl of sprouts sounds like the best meal you’ve ever eaten in your life — which is another important concept about cravings: When there is true hunger, you will be satisfied by any healthy food. When there is specificity of craving — i.e., you feel hungry but only for the sweet-and-sour pork at the corner deli or for your dad’s potato salad — it is likely not a physical need but, instead, a craving that should be ignored, says Glen Crowther, a teacher of Ayurvedic nutrition at Wellpark College in Auckland, New Zealand.

Once you reacquaint yourself with physical hunger and learn to ignore the cravings that arise from imbalance, you will be giving your body an opportunity to fine-tune itself. You also will be in a position to extract the most nourishment possible from your food and to receive the most nourishment possible from the people in your life.

Jennifer Rabin is a clinical herbalist living in Portland, Oregon. She is trained in Western and Ayurvedic herbal medicine and blends these two disciplines in her practice, with a focus on digestive health. She also teaches classes on Ayurveda, nutrition, philosophy of healing and materia medica.

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