It’s 10 in the morning, you’re at work and you’re bored. The bagel you had for breakfast earlier wasn’t that satisfying, and the woman in the bucket next to yours has a bowl of Hershey kisses on her desk. You walk past the chocolates a couple of times and eventually you go ahead and have a few. At lunch, you grab a deli sandwich that comes with a bag of potato chips and a brownie, and eat your lunch while answering emails. A few hours later, you start to fall asleep at your desk. You’re craving candy, and a trip to the vending machine for a Snickers bar helps you stay awake and finish your day. By the time you get through the afternoon rush hour and come home, you’re feeling “road rage” and want something to eat NOW. So you pour yourself a bowl of cereal and head to the couch to catch your favorite TV show.
If you can relate to this scenario, you are not alone. Most Americans live their lives this way: They move from one wish to another, feeling completely out of control with what they eat. However, there is an easy way to control your cravings. There is a way of eating in which you are in charge of choosing your food, instead of feeling that the food chooses you!
People often feel bad about their cravings. They see them as a sign of weakness or they think their bodies are “out of control.” Why else would you give in to a bag of chocolate chip cookies, when you could resist them all week?
In fact, your body is very smart. You always know exactly what to do. For example, your heart never misses a beat. Your lungs expand and contract as needed. When you’re hot, you sweat, and when you’re cold, you shiver. Your body knows what to do and when to do it.
Likewise, if your body craves a certain food, there is probably a reason for it! Your desire is a sign of an underlying imbalance. It is a solution, not a problem. It’s your body’s way of telling you that it needs something. Your job, then, is to be something of a “food detective” – figure out what the craving is really about.
There are many reasons why your body might need something and give you a craving. A perspective on food cravings uses the concepts of “yin” and “yang.” Yin and yang simply refer to “complementary but opposite forces.” We see examples of yin and yang all the time in our daily life: down and up, in and out, black and white, female and male, hot and cold, night and day. Things in life that are opposite but complement each other.
Yin and yang can also be applied to food. In this application, “yin” refers to foods that create feelings of lightness, happiness, and short-term satisfaction. Yin foods cause an elevation of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which generates a feeling of well-being, followed by a sharp decline and feelings of weakness and emptiness. The predominant component of yin foods is white sugar. Other yin foods include white flour, white rice, alcohol, juice, caffeine, fats, and oils.
At the other end of the spectrum are yang foods. Yang foods create feelings of short-term strength and increased physical and mental power. They include salt and protein-rich animal foods such as red meat, eggs, and cheese. Yang foods cause an elevation in the neurotransmitter dopamine, making one feel very alert and aggressive, followed by feelings of sluggishness and bloating.
Your body always tries to maintain balance. If you eat a lot of yin, you will look for yang. If you eat a lot of yang, you will look for yin. For example, after eating a meal rich in extreme yang foods like a steak, baked potato with sour cream, and buttered veggies, you may feel heavy and blocked. You can look for something that helps you feel light and unblocked, like a sweet dessert and coffee.
The key, then, to lessen food cravings, is to eat foods that are neither extremely yin nor extremely yang. Imagine there is a food continuum between extreme yin and extreme yang. Foods in the middle of the yin-yang continuum include vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. Fruit is also near the middle, albeit slightly yin, while fish and poultry are slightly yang.
By the way, the concepts of yin and yang can be used to describe your day or your mood. If someone is being very yin, they are resting, relaxing, daydreaming, and taking a nap. An example of being yang is when someone gets mad at the person who just passed them in traffic. Yin and yang can explain why after a day of watching TV (yin), you may not feel like speaking in front of a group (yang), and why at the end of a long and difficult day at work (yang), you may be longing for a drink (yin)!
If you experience cravings throughout the day, consider what you are eating and where those foods fall on the yin-yang continuum. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is dominated by extreme yin and yang extreme foods, such as sugar, white flour, salt, and red meat. We learn to eat this way at a young age and it becomes commonplace. Eating these types of foods can cause you to have food cravings later, without you even realizing it! Also consider what experiences you have during the day and how those experiences can make you feel “yin” or “yang,” leading you to crave certain foods. If you pay attention carefully and eat food mainly in the middle of the yin-yang continuum, you CAN control your cravings once and for all!