It’s 10 a.m., you’re at work, and you’re bored. The bagel you had for breakfast earlier just wasn’t that satisfying, and the woman in the cube next to yours has a bowl of Hershey kisses on her desk. You walk by the chocolates a few times, and finally just go ahead and grab a few. At lunchtime you pick up a deli sandwich that comes with a bag of potato chips and a brownie, and you eat your lunch while you answer emails. A few hours later you start falling asleep at your desk. You’re craving sweets, and a trip to the vending machine for a Snickers bar helps you stay awake and finish up your day. By the time you make your way through the evening rush hour and back home, you’re feeling “road rage,” and you want something to eat NOW. So you pour yourself a bowl of cereal and head over to the couch to watch your favorite TV show.
If you can relate to this scenario, you are not alone. Most Americans live their lives this way – jumping from craving to craving, feeling completely out of control with what they eat. There is, however, an easy way to control your cravings. There is a way of eating in which you are in charge of choosing your foods, instead of feeling like the food is choosing you!
People often feel badly about their cravings. They see them as a sign of weakness, or they think their bodies are “out of whack.” Why else would you cave in to a bag of chocolate chip cookies, when you were able to resist them all week?
Actually, your body is very smart. It always knows exactly what to do. For example, your heart never misses a beat. Your lungs expand and contract as needed. When you are hot, you sweat, and when you are cold, you shiver. Your body knows what it needs to do and when it needs to do it.
So likewise, if your body is craving a certain food, there is probably a reason for it! Your craving is a sign of an underlying imbalance. It is a solution, not a problem. It is your body’s way of telling you that it needs something. Your job, then, is to be somewhat of a “food detective” – to figure out what the craving is really all about.
There are many reasons your body might need something and send you a craving. One perspective on food cravings uses the concepts of “yin” and “yang.” Yin and yang simply refer to “complimentary but opposite forces.” We see examples of yin and yang all the time in our every day life – down and up, in and out, white and black, female and male, cold and hot, night and day. Things in life that are opposite yet complement one another.
Yin and yang can be applied to food as well. In this application, “yin” refers to foods that create short-term feelings of lightness, happiness, and satisfaction. Yin foods cause an elevation of the neurotransmitter serotonin in your brain, leading to feelings of well being, followed by a sharp decline and feelings of weakness and emptiness. The predominate 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 short-term feelings of strength and increased physical and mental power. They include salt and animal foods that are rich in protein, such as red meat, eggs, and cheese. Yang foods cause an elevation in the neurotransmitter dopamine, causing one to feel very alert and aggressive, followed by feelings of sluggishness and bloat.
Your body always tries to maintain balance. If you eat lots of yin, you will seek yang. If you eat lots of yang, you will seek yin. For example, after eating a meal rich in extreme yang foods such as a steak, baked potato with sour cream, and buttered vegetables you may feel heavy and blocked. You might seek something to help you feel light and unblocked, such as a sweet dessert and coffee.
The key, then, to decreasing food cravings, is to eat foods that are neither extremely yin nor extremely yang. Imagine there is a continuum of foods between the extreme yin and extreme yang foods. Foods that fall in the middle of the yin-yang continuum include vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. Fruit is also near the middle, though slightly yin, whereas fish and poultry are slightly yang.
Incidentally, the concepts of yin and yang can be used to describe your day or your moods. If someone is being very yin, they are kicking back, relaxing, daydreaming, and napping. An example of being yang is when someone gets mad at the person who just cut in front of them in traffic. Yin and yang can explain why after a day of watching TV (yin), you might not feel like speaking in front of a group (yang), and why at the end of a long, difficult day at work (yang), you might crave a drink (yin)!
If you experience cravings throughout your 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 extreme yang 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 may be causing you to crave more food later on, without you even being aware of it! Also consider what experiences you have during your day, and how those experiences might cause you to feel “yin” or “yang,” thereby leading you to crave certain foods. By carefully paying attention, and by eating foods primarily in the middle of the yin-yang continuum, you CAN get control of your cravings once and for all!