Greetings Dear Readers,
Changing your diet means putting your body through a transition. It takes the body some time. The mind also has to get used to not eating its comfort foods, those foods we crave in times of stress. The key here is rather than jump right back into the ice cream, potato chips, chocolate, cheese or whatever turns your crank; the key is to unpack those cravings and find out what they are about.
I’ll give you an example. For many years now my pet craving has been popcorn with butter and salt, as well as fried seaweed snacks. Crunchy, salty goodness my mind says. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, foods are craved because they change the flow of energy through the channels of the body in a way that matches our needs, corresponding to our Excesses and Deficiencies. People with Kidney/Bladder (Water element) issues (deficiency) tend to crave salty foods because salt increases the water in the body.
On an emotional level the Water element is about fear. When fears surface or are confronted, salt cravings tend to increase. These people will also have more salt cravings during the Water period of the day. (In the TCM organ clock the Bladder hour is 3-5pm and the Kidney hour is 5-7pm). I can actually predict my craving and know I need to have some salty rice crackers on hand around 3pm. So this is valuable information because when you don’t know why the craving is there or it feels out of control, TCM wisdom is there to help you examine the craving and find some healthier alternatives.
Once upon a time I really liked eating salty potato chips. As I tried to find replacements for this unhealthy behavior, I realized that partly I was deficient in essential fatty acids and was craving fat. The other part was the salt. So I switched to air-popped popcorn with flax oil and Mexican chili powder and found this to be a good substitute.
Now you ask, what about Mexican chili powder? Yes, so this relates to the Heart in TCM. The Heart channel, as well as its’ Yin/Yang pairing, the Small Intestine, as well as the Pericardium and the Triple Warmer, these organ systems all belong to the Fire Element. People with Fire element issues tend to either crave spicy foods (deficiency or blockage) or avoid spicy foods (excess or blockage). For some people who crave red hot burn-in-hell chicken wings, it’s helpful to use the wisdom of TCM to understand why this happens and how to shift this habit in a way that still gives the body and mind the balance it’s seeking. So if hot chicken wings is the craving, it may be that it’s just the stimulation (Fire element=nerves=stimulation) of the spice that the person is after. In that case, flavouring healthier foods with more peppers and spices will help a person feel satisfied while eating healthier. And still, there are some people who put tabasco sauce on everything, including ice cream, but that is for another post.
Ok chocolate lovers, so you thought you were going to sneak by unnoticed? Now it’s your turn! Is chocolate healthy or unhealthy? The debate rages on. TCM says chocolate and all caffeinated foods (tea, coffee, yerba mate, green tea) relate to the Heart and Fire element because they stimulate the nerves (nerves are governed by the Fire element). These stimulants are also all bitter foods. Bitter is related to the Fire element. Bitters have a cooling, descending nature in TCM so bitters helps cool a condition called “Heart Fire” in TCM which is very often linked with emotional stress and insomnia.
You are probably already familiar with substituting processed white sugar with honey, dried fruits or juices. In TCM, the sweet flavour is associated with the Spleen and Stomach channel and the Earth element. Other associations with the Spleen and Stomach are the mother, nurturing, home, and groundedness. People who have a difficult relationship with their mother (mothers produce milk so dairy cravings fit in here as well), perhaps not receiving enough nurturing in their life, not nurturing themselves, people who have moved home recently or moved residences frequently, travel a lot and feel “ungrounded”, these people tend to crave more sweets. Sweet cravings can also happen when the Spleen is weak from too much mental work (Spleen on the mental level governs the intellect).
However, sweet cravings in TCM are not just about the Spleen and Stomach. Often the Liver is involved here as the Liver, in the “Control” cycle of Qi, controls the Spleen/Stomach. For many modern people the Liver Qi is stagnant, congested, overheated. In this case the Excess of the Liver causes the Liver to “attack” the Spleen and/or Stomach. So when the Spleen gets weak from being attacked by the Liver, sweet cravings can also develop as a way to increase the Spleen Qi. People with Liver issues may also crave Liver type foods, especially sour foods like lemon, orange juice, cranberries, green foods,
any kind of citrus, olive oil, sour dough bread, also foods like onions, garlic which help break up stagnant Liver qi. People with stuck Liver Qi tend to also experience frustration, irritability, anger and wake up between 1-3am.
Lastly, cravings for pungent flavours such as mints (peppermint, winter green, spearmint, think teas, gum, candy), wasabi, horseradish, and onion family foods, these relate to the Metal Element in TCM. The Lung and Large Intestine channel belong to Metal. In many cases people are deficient in Metal energy. So when Metal is too weak to control the Liver, the Liver gets overheated and congested. Metal controls Wood (Liver/Gall Bladder) in the Control cycle. People with deficient Metal may also experience a sorrow that never seems to get resolved, constipation, (both physical and emotional constipation) and they may wake up between 3-5am.
Ok so now you can go analyze the foods you eat and feel more insightful about what your body or mind are asking you for.
Do you notice any interesting patterns with your food habits?
Love to hear your comments and questions.
Your in health,
5 thoughts on “Unpacking Your Food Cravings with Eastern Food Therapy”
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Just ate a whole pack of extra strong mints, having succumbed to a very strong craving for both sugar and mint (but also fresh ginger, lemon and salt combo – it’s just that I’m fresh out of ginger:). Goes to show that if one organ is out of balance, all organs are more or less out of balance. Thank you for your article, most helpful.
Great article, thank you. At last I’ve found an explanation for why taking liver herbs reduces my sugar cravings, and confirmation that to reduce sugar cravings it’s not enough to build up the spleen, you need to work on moving stuck qi in the liver.
Thanks so much for this article! I posted it on our school’s social channels! Feel free to check it out and comment! best, Brandon (ACTCM in SF)