A few weeks ago, I had an experience that clearly demonstrated how cravings work and why it is important to know when a desire for less healthy food is in balance with a healthy lifestyle and when that same desire is a craving that will derail the entire day. As I’ve been thinking about the concept of cravings, why and how they affect us, and how to deal with them.
During much of February and March, I was following an eating plan called the Whole30. The program is 30 days long and basically focuses on whole, unprocessed foods with lots of vegetables, high quality protein, and healthy fats. During these thirty days, there is no sugar, except what is naturally found in fruit, no dairy, soy, legumes, or grains. I learned a lot about myself and my dietary preferences through this experience, and I will write a post focusing on that experience another time. What I want to focus on right now are two distinct experiences I had during that program relating specifically to cravings.
About a week into my thirty days, I attended a day-long Capoeira event. It was a fabulous event with great workshops, good friends, and a lot of physical activity. By the time I got home that night, I was physically exhausted. A friend was going to stay the night because she was exhausted, too, and had a long drive to get home. Of course, I didn’t want her to fall asleep while driving, so she stayed with me. When she stays with my family, we share a room. Normally, this is not a problem, but for some reason, she snored this night. Now, I can sleep through a lot. Once I’ve fallen asleep, it is very difficult to wake me up unless you try. Snoring, however, is not something I can sleep through. I have never been able to sleep through snoring, and this night was no different.
Knowing that the next day was going to be just as busy as the previous day, I had been looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Instead, I might have gotten two or three hours of sleep. I got up the next morning feeling uncharacteristically grumpy and wanting nothing more than a giant stack of pancakes drenched in butter and real maple syrup! Lack of sleep has been proven to interfere with the decision-making center of the brain, allowing the more primal instincts to take over. Those are the instincts that say fat, salt, and sugar mean survival, so those things are good and should be eaten whenever they’re available. That is why sleep deprivation can cause cravings for energy-dense (high calorie), nutrient-poor food.
Before starting a Whole30, I probably would have given in and made exactly that. I might have even added chocolate chips to the pancakes. This is far from a balanced, healthy breakfast, but it would have completely satisfied that sleep-deprived, emotionally distraught craving. Instead, I had some fruit and a couple hard boiled eggs. Emotionally, it was the exact opposite of satisfying, but it was breakfast and it would have to do. After finishing what needed to be done in the morning, I was able to come home and take a nap before that evening’s activates. Because I’d eaten a breakfast full of protein, I wasn’t overly hungry when I got home, which meant that I could take a much-needed nap before having a quick snack and heading out for the evening. Instead of feeling heavy, and almost sick during my morning activities, I was able to focus on what I was doing. While my body thought it wanted lots of refined carbohydrates to make up for the fact that I had gotten so little sleep the night before, I knew that what it really needed was protein and more complex carbohydrates that would fuel me instead.
Later, one week before my thirty days were up, I came down with a nasty cold. I was pretty miserable for three days and really didn’t want to do anything except sleep and eat pizza and fried chicken. Of course, pizza and fried chicken are not allowed during a Whole30. Because I didn’t want to have to restart so close to the end, I found ways to get healthier versions of the comfort food that I wanted. I made oven fries that tasted better than regular French fries, I seasoned ground beef and caramelized onions for a bun-less burger, and I made a big pot of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, using zucchini noodles in place of the rice noodles. Instead of fueling myself with food that would not help my body fight the virus, I field myself with lots of nourishing food that helped me get over the cold faster than I normally would have.
Unfortunately, there is very little information on why people tend to crave junk food rather than healthier options when they’re sick. One article I found, however, suggests that the cravings are entirely driven by our emotions rather than any kind of physiological need.
In both of those instances, the cravings were emotional. I wasn’t feeling well and wanted food that made me feel comfortable. What I really needed, though, was food that would provide essential nutrients to allow my body to repair itself and truly make me feel better. That’s not to say that sometimes, when I very much want dessert and am prepared to eat it and enjoy it, that I shouldn’t have it. Balance is a very important part of a healthy diet, but knowing the difference between wanting dessert because it would be a special treat and wanting pancakes because I’m exhausted and my hormones are messed up are two different things. Not only does giving into true cravings not help my body, it’s not as enjoyable as anticipating and then thoroughly enjoying a hot fudge sundae with a friend.