Thursday, 7 March 2013

Food Cravings and Why You aren't as Smart as You Think You Are

Although vegans are frequently accused of being hippies, there's plenty of hippy fodder than annoys the kale out of me.  Granola, Simon and Garfunkel, and not shaving your legs, all good stuff.  Slippery Elm food, people named Rain, and optimism, all bad stuff.  Carob I could do with or without.  But the particular New Age-y, bullshiitake concept that I'd like to talk about today is one that's seeped out of the hippie realm and into everyday usage.  And it goes like this: you need to listen to your body.

I'm not talking about listening to your bodies signals for basic functions, like sleeping and washroom trips. This concept pushes forward the idea that once you strip away the conditioning of society that makes you want to chug Coke and scarf cheeseburgers, you will be beautifully intuned to your body's signals, which will always be sensible and perfectly aligned with your true nutritional needs.  So if you're lacking in beta-carotene, your body will crave carrots.  If you're lacking in vitamin C, you'll crave broccoli.  Whatever your body needs, it will naturally crave, and if you only learn to interpret your body's signals, you'll be bouncing off the walls with vibrant, sparkling energy.

And at face value, the idea doesn't sound that crazy, does it?  It sounds pretty comforting.  Once you reset your body's dials, you'll never have to fight its desires again.  You will want exactly what you need and you can trust yourself totally.  And if you aren't craving things that are healthful, than you simply haven't learned to listen to your body yet.  How nice and neat and bundled into a little package of gobledegook.

Maybe my body speaks Portuguese.  Maybe I need a hearing aid.  But my body doesn't do much talking to me.  At least, not any talking worth listening to.  And its not for lack of me trying to become attuned. For years, I toed the line between thinking one day my body would be able to communicate beautifully and flawlessly to me about its needs, and thinking that the whole idea was poppycock.

And then one day, I sat listening to someone telling me that she ate meat only in small amounts, but every once in a while she craved meat strongly, and then she figured that she really needed it.  Now, immediately this line of logic struck me as fallacious.  If I'm strongly craving a can of Dr. Pepper (which is frequently enough the case), does that mean my body really needs a whack of sugar and food colouring devoid of any nutritional value?  I don't think so.  And aren't most people's cravings for...junk?  True, I often crave healthy food, like kale, or berries, or sweetcorn, or more hummous than you might think any one human could consume.  But I'm pretty sure your average diabetic, angina-suffering, meat-and-potatoes guy doesn't crave any of those things.  And I think it's fair to assume he'd benefit from eating them.  So it seemed more likely to me, in this moment of revelation, that I crave these healthy things simply because I often eat them, and was privy to their many charms.

And thusly, after this conversation and my reaction to it, I did what I am wont to do, and researched my butternut squash off.  And what I found is that once upon a time, medical researchers hypothesised that food cravings were routed in specific nutrient deficiencies.  But they haven't been very successful at demonstrating this relationship in the lab. Instead, modern research points to the relationship between what we crave and what we perceive as indulgent or forbidden.  We crave chocolate partly because we're told that we crave chocolate.  And partly because we believe that we're not supposed to eat it. 

According to research, another possible cause of our cravings could be biological instinct.  Our bodies haven't exactly evolved to deal with the western world.  We crave fat and sugar because things high in fat and sugar have a high level of calorie density, which used to keep us alive back when food was scarce and required actual effort to come by.  Now, these cravings hindering us instead of helping, and the excess fat and sugar we are consuming is making us ill.

There's also evidence to suggest that we crave what we eat a lot of, which is why I dream about a big, lemony forkful of spinach, and the meat and potatoes heart disease patient doesn't. Western women craving chocolate is so predictable it's a little embarrassing, but in countries where chocolate is seldom consumed the inhabitants crave more savoury foods. 

Those of you reading this who are involved in the online vegan community will probably have guessed why I wrote this post now.  Last week, a well-known vegan health counsellor (whom I have no intention of naming) shocked everyone by revealing that after 12 years of veganism, she was going back to eating animals and their secretions.  Her reasoning?  She had been experiencing uncontrollable cravings for animals.  Now, she has not said she was experiencing health problems, but the implied sentiment of her announcement seemed to me to be that if she was craving animals, she must need them. So, without judging, I felt it was timely to present an accurate view of cravings and their true sources, insofar as we currently understand them to be.  I hope that it will help not only those who feel crippled by their cravings on their way to better health, but more importantly those who still experience cravings for animal flesh and fluids.  You do not have to bow down to your cravings.

I mean, let's face it, we're just not that smart, are we?  Our bodies are not insightful, magical instruments that, if we only learn to listen to them, will lead us to good health.  And neither are our minds.  We consciously and unconsciously continue to make stupid decisions about our health, our work, our extra-curricular activities, our relationships, and just about every aspect of our lives under the sun.  We gravitate towards foods we know are bad for us, and avoid foods we know are good.  We value the wrong things.  We fail to appreciate people who care for us.  We procrastinate on things to the level that it seriously mucks up our lives.  So why do we think that our cravings for stuff indicates anything other than simple, sometimes inadvisable, desire?

So if you are reading this and experiencing omnivorous cravings, give in to them.  In a way.  Don't try to decode your bodies signals.  Sit down and eat a big, indulgent, vegan meal.  Try the chickpea patties from Veganomicon.  Or the chocolate peanut butter cups from The Kind Diet.  Or the scalloped potatoes from The Vegan Table.  And by that I mean, eat all those things in one delicious meal.  Indulge.  Without being self-indulgent.


Clemens, Roger M.D. and Peter Pressman, M.D., "Are food cravings the body's way of telling us that we are lacking certain nutrients?" Scientific American, May 23 2005.

Hormes, Julia.  "Towards a Socio-Cultural Model of Food Cravings: Evidence from the Case of Perimenstrual Chocolate Craving" University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, 2010.

Pelchat, Marcia, et al, "Images of desire: food-craving activation during fMRI," NeuroImage, 2004.

1 comment:

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