A huge topic that is beyond the scope of this blog and my book is what I’ll call “non-hungry cravings.” Most people experience at least some cravings for pleasurable foods even when they are not hungry. Those of you who have read my book or followed my blog know that I believe choosing to give in to some “non-hungry” cravings every now and then is perfectly normal. In order to recover from bulimia/BED, of course you must deny the body/brain the binges it’s been conditioned to crave; however, I don’t think denying it of pleasure completely is necessary.
The fact that most people have food cravings, even when they are not truly hungry should come as no surprise. We are wired to enjoy food. Food is good; it’s meant to be pleasurable – after all, it’s how we survive. I don’t think there is a species on earth that views eating as a chore. The pleasure of eating is one mechanism that motivates us to stay alive. Unlike some nutritional experts, I don’t fully blame non-hungry cravings on an overabundance of “junk food” in society or a less than ideal diet; because even if you have perfectly healthy diet, you probably enjoy certain foods in particular and crave them sometimes when you are not truly hungry- even if they are the healthiest of foods.
When you stop binge eating and your urges to binge fade away, that doesn’t mean every food craving will disappear. I think keeping this in mind is very important, as is realizing that not every craving for pleasurable food is a craving to binge. Just because “non-hungry cravings” might feel similar in some ways to binge cravings, remember that “non-hungry” cravings are not eating-disorder specific.
However, it’s also important to realize you aren’t a slave to those “non-hungry” cravings either. If you have been successful in refraining from binge urges; I believe you can use some of the same techniques to refrain from any food cravings that are bothersome to you. However, I think learning to resist all “non-hungry” cravings is over-reaching and not necessary. I think it can even be harmful in some cases if it leads to a “dieting” mindset (having very rigid, restrictive eating habits; denying your body of sufficient calories), which as you know, can lead to more urges to binge.
If you are bothered by what you think are too frequent food cravings when you aren’t truly hungry, I would suggest first making sure you are eating enough. Even though you may have just had a meal when you find yourself craving a little more, maybe you simply didn’t eat enough. In other words, maybe your “non-hungry” cravings really aren’t that at all, maybe they are a signal that you aren’t feeding your body sufficiently. In this case, you may want to consider adding more calories to your diet; because if your body/brain gets the message that you are food deprived, the food cravings and even the binge urges may persist.
But, what if you are eating enough but find yourself having too many annoying non-hungry cravings? Like I said, addressing all the possible causes is beyond the scope of this blog and my book, and I am certainly not a nutritional expert; but I will attempt to address some aspects of this broad topic here.
Food cravings definitely have a physiological basis. Hormone imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, insulin resistance, food allergies, hypoglycemia, adrenal imbalances, and even something as simple as thirst can cause an overabundance of food cravings. In order to break these food cravings, some nutritional/medical experts recommend not only avoiding the foods you crave, but also addressing the physiological factors that may be involved (by doing such things as taking nutritional supplements, changing the composition of your diet to include more protein and fat, getting more healthy exercise, drinking more water…etc). Of course, many therapists apply the “emotional eating” perspective here, asserting that you crave pleasurable foods in an effort to cope with/stuff down/avoid feelings. If you’ve read my previous blogs or my book, you’ll know that I don’t think that perspective is useful for a lot of people. But the physiological basis of your non-hungry cravings might be worth exploring if you feel like those cravings are not in the range of normal.
There are three things I think are important to keep in mind, however, if you do attempt to address the physiological causes of food cravings.
First: The pleasure problem. Some experts believe that if you crave a certain food too often, like chocolate for example, that food has a nutrient in it that your body is deficient in. Following this example…chocolate is high in magnesium, so in theory, if you take magnesium supplements, it should make your craving for chocolate go away. To illustrate, the following quote is from a book on adrenal fatigue – a condition resulting from stress that can make one crave “pick me up” foods like sugar/caffeine.
“…it is much better to use your cravings for chocolate as a reminder to get your magnesium from some other source. The easiest solution is to supplement your diet with 400mg of magnesium per day. That physical craving for chocolate should decrease rapidly, often within one to two weeks after beginning the magnesium supplement.” (Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James L . Wilson, pg. 157-158)
To me, this logic sounds a bit similar to the logic that says to use a binge craving as a reminder that you have an unmet emotional need that you should address. While this nutritional deficiency theory is valuable, it fails to address the pleasure issue. Does 400 mg of magnesium in supplement form taste as good as chocolate? Does it provide whatever pleasurable benefits the individual receives from chewing and swallowing it and allowing it to alter their brain chemistry? Whatever the reason someone starts eating chocolate too often in the first place, I can guarantee that the reward system in the brain becomes involved and lights up every time the individual takes a bite. Even if you correct the nutritional deficiencies or other theoretical physiological causes, your primitive brain might still send urges for the rewarding nature of the foods you crave.
Addressing physiological causes also fails to address behavioral conditioning, which is the second thing you should keep in mind. Following too many food cravings can become a habit. All the thoughts/situations/feelings that make you feel compelled to reach for pleasurable foods when you aren’t truly hungry become wired into your brain, and correcting nutritional deficiences or other theoretical physiological causes of cravings won’t necessarily turn off those automatic thoughts.
The third thing that is important to consider is the issue of self-control. The book I referenced above was one of the many books I purchased during my eating disorder that I thought would help with the binge eating. I self-diagnosed myself with adrenal fatigue (I did have most of the symptoms) and thought if the book claimed to help people overcome cravings for sugar/carbs, then it could help me with my binge eating. One sentence from it typifies why it didn’t help me much…on page 226, the author says, “Do not eat foods that adversely affect you in any way, no matter how good they taste or how much you crave them.” The lack of control I felt over my binge eating at the time made following the author’s advice impossible. This is why I believe telling binge eaters to eat a specific diet, or eat/don’t eat certain foods in order to address theoretical physiological causes of binge cravings often fails. It fails to address the fact that binge eaters often don’t feel like they have a choice.
This is why I believe it’s so important to know (and experience) that you fundamentally have control over your eating behavior (whether we are talking about binge eating or non-hungry cravings), regardless of what is going on in your body and brain at the time; and even if there are surely some physiological factors involved.