Food Cravings

Contrary to popular opinion, working with food cravings is not about developing greater will power. It is about engaging food with awareness and beginning to become aware of potential choices we may not be making.

Food Cravings

by Amadea Morningstar

For many of us, food can be entirely satisfying, especially with so many loved ones dishing it up for us this time of year. Yet for others of us, the cravings that get set off by foods that “beckon” — and the ensuing painful experiences and self-judgments we make — can make the holiday season feel more like a minefield than a joyous communion. For some of us with diabetes, heart disease or liver problems, the lovingly made goodies can be literally deadly — or suicidal. Yet how to negotiate the path of food cravings?

Many years ago I stumbled upon a book called The Psychologist’s Eat-Anything Diet, written by a couple of maverick therapists. The authors talked about foods that “hum” and foods that “beckon,” and how to discern the difference. Following are three types of scenarios that you may encounter in the coming weeks.
Scenario 1: You’ve just sworn off sugar and chocolate — you notice the combination seems to aggravate your headaches, mood and skin. You’d like to see what 30 days without the Deadly Duo feels like. You are invited home for a holiday dinner, and your mom has made your favorite chocolate mousse. She is so happy about giving you the first serving. What do you do?

Scenario 2: It’s late at night. You head into the kitchen, feeling empty, maybe craving something sweet. You think of the cookies bought for tomorrow’s holiday potluck. Before you know it, the box is open and the first cookie is in your mouth. Many cookies later, you “come to” and realize most of them are gone.

Scenario 3: You’re at your favorite diner, waiting for your Zone-perfect protein-veggie meal. A server goes by carrying a heavy-duty cheeseburger meal with fries and milkshake — it looks and smells fantastic. For a moment you wish you’d ordered that instead.

All three scenarios are good examples of foods that “beckon.” Scenario 3 PARTICULARLY shows the “beckon” dynamic: you’re minding your own business, some great food walks by (or you walk by it), and a whole different plan or possibility of action ensues. There are plenty of foods that “beckon” in the holiday season. Some may even get downright pushy about asserting themselves into our space (as in scenario 1). Other times we’re half looking to get hooked by a food that beckons, as in scenario 2. In all “beckoning” situations, the stimulation comes from outside us, and then there is the choice to succumb or not.

Foods that “hum” are qualitatively different. The impulse for foods that hum comes from inside. You have an idea about what you’d like to eat, you yearn for a particular something that is often healthy — maybe a bowl of your favorite hot soup or some steamed broccoli. You eat it, it tastes good, you feel satisfied. End of scenario. Yet many of us bounce back and forth between these two impulses, creating challenges to sane living.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer perspective on this dilemma with a wisdom garnered many centuries ago. Patanjali suggested that what we are facing could be a spiral: as we move into an experience, latent impressions (samskara) form. From these, thoughts (vrittis) arise, and from these subliminal desires (vasana) manifest. Soon the subliminal desires beome full-blown desires (kama), and often before we know it, action (karma) has ensued. Action leads to experience (bhoga) and we spiral into the next experience.

The image of a spiral is an important one, in that it implies we’re meeting experiences in a new or different place, rather than stumbling in a circle in our own private (and muddy) snake pit. How to lift craving from the realm of repetitive circle to learning curve/spiral?

Contrary to popular opinion, working with food cravings is not about developing greater will power. It is about engaging food with awareness and beginning to become aware of potential choices we may not be making. Often we will be using food to bury something else — a memory; a hope; a craving for truth, beauty, fairness, companionship; a reality more to our liking. When cravings arise, the trick is to stay awake, rather than go numb. In Patanjali’s spiral, it is in the crucial interval between desire and action that we can make different choices, choices that support ourselves, as well as those around us.

Here are a few examples of how to do this practically. In the midst of a holiday feeding-drinking frenzy, you could take a midmeal meander — that is, get yourself out of the trance social state for a few minutes and take a breather, somewhere with fresh air and/or peace and quiet. Check in with your body. Are you still hungry? Thirsty? How can you tell? Do you need to eat more? Do you need to stop? Here you’re inviting yourself to realize what “hums” for you, rather than going for what “beckons.”

When cravings arise when you are alone, sometimes something as simple as brushing your teeth, taking a walk or calling a friend can provide the space to notice what choices you really want to make. Often we actually need a drink of water or some movement or some down time, rather than food. Give yourself the space to notice what you really need, rather than simply going along with what is being offered.

Sparky Griego has been the facilitator of the Santa Fe Women’s Health Services successful group Pick Your Path to Health, women with diabetes supporting one another. At one point she suggested to “put on your sneakers” if you think you want to walk. Once the shoes are on, you’ve steered yourself toward a different action, more supportive of your own health.

There is a tendency to go numb in the face of addictive tendencies. Creating space to remember specifically why we do not want to go into this circle again and what else we could do takes awareness. Opening to awareness is a step-by-step process; deep skills rarely develop overnight. Like anything else, it takes practice. The judgments are what can cause us to plunge like a pendulum from “perfect” (a dangerous state) to “horrible, terrible.” If we can open to what is, including our mistakes, we’re less likely to attack ourselves with nasty recriminations. Otherwise, a boomerang can arise between the next unrealistically strict diet and its inevitable balancing action. It’s why the aforementioned psychologists called theirs an “eat-anything diet.” They were suggesting giving up on diets entirely and making individual choices on one’s own, a plan many people are adapting.

You can experiment with checking in with body sensations (as opposed to the clock and stimulation around you). You can move, paint, write, dance, draw the feelings, connect with friends, see a therapist or create a food-support group for yourself. What you choose to do in handling any given cravings, beckoning or social food scene is entirely up to you, and it is likely to vary from situation to situation. As you claim the power of choice, you start feeling more able to stand up for yourself and create what you really need, with less chance of being sucked in to what you don’t need. There’s a lot more to be shared about this process of rebalancing, which I’d like to do in a subsequent column.

As we face the seasonal time of darkness and the return of the light, our nation goes through its own deep dichotomy of darkness and light. We need to be able to use our energies on all levels as creatively as possible. If we get sucked in to self-destructive behaviors in these most challenging times, it’s important to know we can find our way back to sanity. Part of this is having enormous patience with ourselves and others as we learn new ways to deal with extraordinary conditions.


Books: Feeding the Hungry Heart, Breaking Free of Compulsive Eating and others by Geneen Roth; Starving Women: A Psychology of Anorexia Nervosa by Anglyn Spignesi; Queen Maeve and Her Lovers: A Celtic Archetype of Ecstasy, Addiction, and Healing by Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera; and Amadea Morningstar’s Ayurvedic Guide to Polarity Therapy, especially chapter 8, “Creative Action.”
This article first appeared in the December, 2004 issue of The Eldorado Sun magazine,