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Here's What Your Food Cravings Are REALLY Trying To Tell You

Your cravings have wisdom.
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Your cravings have wisdom. 

If you are human, you’ve likely experienced cravings before. Maybe you even feel like you are someone who experiences them to a greater degree than what may be considered normal. Our current nutrition culture is such that you likely have felt a lot of judgment about having them, particularly if they are for “unhealthy” foods. Alternately, you would likely feel pride or relief about craving something “healthy” like a salad or oatmeal.

Judging our cravings, however, gets us nowhere. The process of making peace with food, embracing Intuitive Eating and giving up the diet mentality absolutely requires curiosity. A critical, judgmental mind holds you back whereas curiosity is probably your biggest asset. If you can lean into WHY, you can uncover so much about yourself, about food and about what you need.

What your food cravings really mean

As you lead with curiosity, you’re likely to find your cravings have wisdom. It’s so true. They can teach you a lot actually, if you’ll let them. I’m gonna help you out here with a list of possibilities when it comes to cravings. I would love to hear what you’ve found to be true for you as well. Leave me a comment below!

It just sounds good to eat. Really don’t need to overthink that too much.

Inadequate nutrition. A very common cause of cravings is inadequate fuel and nutrition, particularly if those cravings (or resulting behaviors) feel compulsive. Often we blame this on willpower, self-control or lack of discipline when really it’s because you’ve felt unsatisfied and undernourished. If you’ve skipped meals, gone too long without eating or been restricting foods or food groups (which has left meals or snacks unbalanced or too small), it could easily lead to cravings later. It’s common practice to skimp on carbohydrates or fats, and isn’t it often high fat carbohydrates that we are craving? It’s definitely worth checking to see if you have an even distribution of carbohydrates and fats all throughout the day. Of course, protein is worth looking at too.

Food insecurity. We typically associate food insecurity with kids who don’t have access to food. While that’s true, it could also be self-inflicted through dieting or restrictive mindsets. When you feel like food isn’t going to be there tomorrow, it will absolutely effect your thoughts and behaviors today. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat will decrease the power food has over you. Being in control by having food rules is an illusion; they are actually controlling you.

Emotional hunger. We certainly are complex human beings with many different kinds of hunger. Eating outside of physical hunger is totally normal and happens to us all. However, consistently using food as the only way to meet your needs is likely leaving you confused and lacking confidence in your ability to take care of yourself. We need food. We also need rest, connection, movement, love and variety. We need to feel relevant and like we are making contributions in positive ways. We want to feel like we belong and are a part of something meaningful and valuable. I’m sure we could list more. If you feel like something is lacking, it could be easier to distract or numb with food instead of leaning into what it is or how you’re feeling. In this case, working to become more emotionally aware would be worthwhile to you. This could be done through journaling, therapy (nutrition therapy with an RD included) or some other form of self-reflection.

You’re craving variety. Have you been eating the same thing over and over and over? Our bodies want and need a wide variety of foods to function optimally. It’s physically and psychologically unsatisfying to eat the same foods day in and day out. Building more flexibility into your meals and snacks will likely help you feel less preoccupied with food.

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You’re not at your natural weight. If you are trying to maintain a weight that is below your natural healthy weight, you will experience strong cravings for food. It’s a really smart biological adaptation that supports survival. The idea that we can look however we want if we just work hard enough is a really irresponsible cultural narrative which can easily lead to extreme, dangerous and unhealthy behaviors. The truth is that we all have a genetically determined set-point, or a weight at which we function optimally. If you are restricting food and/or overexercising to maintain a weight lower than ideal for you, food will feel really compelling and preoccupying and you will likely have frequent, intense cravings.

food craving wisdom scale

You aren’t respecting your body’s intuitive signals of hunger and fullness. When you get hungry, do you honor it? When you get full, do you respect that? We are all going to have days where we end up overly hungry and/or overly full. But consistently ignoring what your body is communicating to you leads to lack of self-trust. What you might be interpreting as cravings may just be your body communicating it’s needs. Interoceptive awareness, or the signaling and perception of internal bodily sensations, is a skill often lacking in those with disordered eating. Perhaps assigning a number to your hunger and a number to your fullness for a few days will help you connect, fostering more trust for your body and it’s ability to communicate with you. HERE is a hunger scale you could use.

Lots of judgment about “good” food and “bad” food. This is related to #2. In our current nutrition culture, it’s easy to equate healthy eating with restrictive eating. However, healthy eating is actually very flexible and inclusive of a wide variety of foods. By labeling foods good and bad, you are encouraging an all-or-nothing mentality where you are either being good or bad. This can lead to inconsistent, irregular and inadequate food patterns (think restriction/chaos diet cycle) when in reality our bodies function best with consistent, regular and adequate nutrition. When we are swinging between extremes in eating, our blood sugar can swing, our mood can swing and our hunger/fullness signals can swing, leading to more intense cravings than you may be comfortable with.

Some cravings - like salty foods for example - may indicate a medical issue. If you find these cravings to be very intense and very frequent, it may be necessary to seek medical advice.

Lastly, be sure you aren’t thinking of hunger like it’s a character flaw. We are human. We get hungry and when we get hungry we want to eat and feel satisfied. It’s an innate need which diet culture would have us feel ashamed of. I’ve definitely learned that if I’m craving chocolate, fruit will not cut it. If I’m craving pizza, a salad will not do. How often do we eat around the craving and then have it anyway? Don’t waste too much of your time overthinking cravings. Honestly, most of the time it’s best just to honor it.

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