Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Curb your cravings"?

Have you ever seen those magazine articles that offer to help you "curb your cravings" by replacing the food you want with something similar? Jonesing for ice cream? Have frozen yogurt! Want cheesecake? Eat graham crackers! In the mood for chocolate? Try nonfat, sugar-free cocoa.

That's never been my style. If I'm really craving something, I tend to hold out for it. I won't run to the store right away to buy ice cream, but I'll keep it in the back of my mind to get a little next time I go. And if I can't have it, I just go without and eat something completely different.

But I've been thinking lately about it, and I think cravings tell us something about the things we need. I mentioned it before when talking about fat. We crave fat because our bodies require it. Then the other day I caught John eating salt out of the palm of his hand (gross!). "I don't know," he said. "I've just really been craving salt lately!" I pointed out that, in summertime, we tend to sweat a lot and lose a lot of salt that way, so we do need a little more salt in order to keep our fluid balance just right.

That is not to say that everything you could possibly crave is good for you. There's a condition called pica, most common in pregnant women, which causes the sufferer to crave things that aren't food -- dirt, laundry detergent, and so forth. It doesn't mean you should actually eat those things. However, it does often point to a mineral deficiency -- particularly iron deficiency. I think the same holds true sometimes for food cravings. A craving for chocolate doesn't necessarily mean you need chocolate itself, but that you need magnesium -- or that you're feeling depressed and are looking for the feel-good chemicals that chocolate has. (Some depressed people self-medicate with alcohol -- others with chocolate!)

Then there's the problem that modern food often does not have the nutritional value it should. Perhaps you crave ice cream because your body needs fat -- only to find that the ice cream in your freezer is low-fat. Or you crave bread because of vitamins found in the whole grain, except the bread in your pantry is white.

A sugar craving generally means that your blood sugar has taken a sudden dip, but actually eating the sugar is a bad idea because your blood sugar will fluctuate further. So sugar cravings should be responded to with a more substantial snack -- perhaps some fruit for a quick lift, and some protein or fat to forestall a crash later.

But, other than that, I am actually saying that you should eat what you crave. Some people do not care much for meat, and do fine on a mostly vegetarian diet. Others have a strong craving for meat -- strong enough that we're unlikely ever to find out if these people would thrive on a vegetarian diet, because they never would stick to one! I'm pretty sure John couldn't. I suspect that these people have higher needs for protein than most and really do need meat. I also read recently in Nourishing Traditions that some people are less able to synthesize certain amino acids than others. The so-called "essential" amino acids are ones we all have to receive from our diet and can't make ourselves, and they are all found in plant foods. However, to some people, a few more amino acids found only in animal foods can also be considered "essential" because they can't synthesize a sufficient amount of them themselves.

I myself crave dairy, as you all know, intensely. But if you think about it, my northern European ancestors lived very much off of their herd animals: cows, sheep, and goats. They ate lots of cheese and cultured milk. Is it any wonder that my digestion seems to flourish on these foods? (I have never, in my life, experienced any problems from eating "too much cheese.") I think my system needs dairy, and that's why it sends up such urgent requests for it.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the conventional wisdom is in error here by assuming that all people have the same dietary needs. We all know some people can lose weight on diets that others gain on. The "blood-type" diet suggests the same thing -- that our particular genetic makeup demands certain foods. (I'm not sure I could sign on to the whole plan, though: there's so much more that's indicative of your genetic ancestry than just blood type. I haven't done much research into this, though.)

I've often been told I'm just "one of those lucky people" because I eat what I like, when I'm hungry, and my weight has remained fairly stable for around eight years. (It is now seven pounds higher due to pregnancy weight -- or maybe Waffle House weight?) But maybe I have this stable metabolism, not in spite of my listening to my body, but because of it.

I was breastfed, which we all know reduces the risk of obesity later in life. Many believe it's because babies usually nurse on demand -- unlike bottle-fed babies, who usually will be put on a schedule and made to finish a bottle. You can't make a baby nurse who isn't hungry. (Believe me!) Yet somehow, in the process of growing up, we are taught to clean our plates, to eat food we are not hungry for, until it becomes a habit. If you put the breast in a baby's mouth and he isn't hungry, he will spit it out. If you put a donut in an adult's mouth, even if he isn't hungry, is he likely to spit it out? Or even just sit him at a table where there's plenty of food -- won't he eat at least a little, because it's there?

I believe that if we really took the time to listen to our bodies, to break the habit of eating because it's time or because the food is there or because it's sweet, we would be able to live a lot healthier. We still have to deal with the problem of food that is so processed it seems like what we want but really isn't, and the problem of systems so out of whack they crave things they don't need (like Skittles. Who ever needed Skittles?), but it's a start.

What do you think? Do you eat only when you're hungry, and only what sounds good to you? Or do you maintain a diet that goes against what you want? How do those choices work out for you?

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