Cravings get a bad rap in the world of food and nutrition. For most of us gals, we have been raised believing that cravings are a sign of weakness and to give into them is shameful. What we were not taught is the truth…that cravings are a way the body informs us of what it needs, not just physically but emotionally as well.

Food feeds the human body in so many amazing ways. It’s not just how we get the nutrients to function. Food is also an integral part of our emotional well being. It sets off a fire works display of transmitters letting us know we are safe, we can relax, we are happy, we are taken care of. Food is mother nature’s best form of nurturing us. Which is why it is so important to learn how to understand the role cravings play within the mind/body context.

Facing our cravings means facing our fears. It means opening ourselves up to discomfort.

For example, if you haven’t eaten meat in a really long time and all of a sudden find yourself getting excited over the smell of sizzling burgers on the grill it, may be your bodies way of telling you it needs iron. Or maybe, it really just feels that it functions better in this season with animal protein as part of it’s nutrients. I have a friend who has been vegan for a decade. When she became pregnant she switched to vegetarianism because she felt her body telling her that was what she needed to do in order to create a strong and healthy child within. Never be afraid to give the body what it demands. You have the right at anytime to make other food choices and you should never feel restricted to one way of eating just because that way worked for you in the past. Our bodies are always changing. We need to be willing to follow the lead of where it directs us.

There are also moments where being over tired makes us eat. I can always tell when my four year-old needs sleep because he starts sniffing around the kitchen in search of food. It happens like clockwork almost every night around bedtime. I also discovered that when I was nursing my babies, running on very little sleep, I craved fattier and carb-rich foods like bagels and peanut butter. I would always have to eat a snack of some sort every time I got up to nurse. Our bodies need food for energy and when it’s not getting enough rest, it wants to stock up on energy from other sources, such as food. Getting as much shut eye or even just laying down for an extra fifteen minutes a day can help reduce these cravings by restoring more energy to your system. Instead of reaching for that hunk of banana bread, take a few extra minutes to relax and enjoy a glass of water to hydrate yourself.

Another scenario might be if you have been trying a low-carb diet. For some, low carb causes a major dip in energy levels that does not improve with time. Carbs also raise dopamine levels in the brain (the, “feel good” chemicals). When carbs are restricted, an over all sense of well-being can be too. If low carbs has you craving crackers and bread like never before, try slowly introducing clean options back into your diet. Add a 1/2 of sweet potato in with dinner or try eating a half of banana with your favorite nut butter for breakfast. Avoid adding processed foods in again, as they will most certainly increase your cravings for them.

Salt and sugar are too of the biggest cravings we experience. At times, these cravings can be an easy to resolve issue that stems from something as simple as low blood sugar or even dehydration. A more difficult issue to grapple with is when our cravings for these foods come out of an emotional place. Remember how I said carbs release dopamine the,”feel good” chemical? Well, you can pretty much blame that for why you want doughnuts and potato chips at the end of a hard day. Dopamine is released when we are in love, when we look at a newborn baby, when we get a good hug from someone and when we eat sugar. The body was designed this way to keep us alive. We get rewarded with good feelings when we eat, prompting us to eat more. For centuries, the world did not have access to the salty and sugary foods of today. In this day in age, however, we have to really be mindful of our cravings for these foods. Though they come from a well-meaning place, that of survival, our bodies do not recognize that in today’s world, food is in a surplus around us. We have to rely on our cognitive abilities to keep our eating in check. Since food supplies us with feelings of warmth and comfort, it’s not hard to see why we reach for it in times of stress. Understanding that your cravings may be more for love, affection, intimacy, security and self-esteem rather than for hunger is vital towards taking control of your food choices.

Erasing the notion that cravings are bad out of your head is challenging. However, as you practice getting in tune with them you will find that the rewards of understanding those cravings and navigating through them in a positive way trumps the false truth we have grown up with.

For anyone who has been an emotional eater, the idea of giving up that comfort can be frightening. Facing our cravings means facing our fears. It means opening ourselves up to discomfort. The path to a happier life can not be created without facing your fears. We all have areas where we feel small, weak, rejected and unworthy. Doubt about our abilities to be happy and successful exist for all of us. The difference in those who take charge of their lives and those who do not is simply a matter of facing yourself regardless of the discomfort. You have to take actions that show you believe enough in your ability to be a success story even when you really don’t. You have to take action in order to feel a success. Become friends with your body. Brush off any negative emotions of shame or guilt that may come out of the cravings, instead pausing to reflect upon them. Be honest with yourself in these moments. Is it hunger that is driving you to eat that late night peanut butter and jelly sandwich or is it the anxiety of going back to work tomorrow? Are you low on energy because you have not eaten or because you are depressed or feeling lonely? There is no shame in getting clear on your emotional state because out of the clarity is where the healing comes from. You are not weak or a bad person because you want security and ice cream appears to be the fastest way to feel it. You are human.

When emotions are the driving factor, take a pragmatic approach that will bring you the immediate comfort you need without all the excess junk indulgence can bring. Try to sit down with a tall glass of water in a comfortable space and see if the cravings pass. Keep freshly made bone broth or soup on hand and enjoy a small cup before tearing into that bag of chips. A hot mug of herbal tea is another way to sooth stress and keep binges at bay.

Once you begin to get clear on your cravings, you can then take the next step towards nurturing them. A healthy means of fulfilling your cravings will lead you to a healthier relationship with your body.