The Three Kinds of Cravings

Posted on in On Our Radar by Marc David


If you’re alive, then chances are you’ve craved. Maybe the craving was for some sugar, or chocolate, perhaps pancakes and syrup, bacon, pizza; maybe you had a late-night craving for something obnoxiously loud and crunchy, or sinfully cold and creamy. I’m fascinated by the degree to which people can be fascinated by their own strange cravings. Sometimes, it seems like our cravings live at the tricky three-way intersection of biology, desire, and insanity. If you don’t proceed slowly, things may get messy. But it just might be that our cravings have a few things to teach us. Lessons that go deep into our nutrition soul. Allow me to explain.

Back in 1984, while working hard to complete my master’s thesis on psychology and nutrition, I had a fascinating encounter with a craving. During several months of intensive day and night writing, I would break at six each evening, drive to a local store, and purchase a pint of homemade vanilla ice cream and two bran muffins. This was all I ate for dinner each day. Maybe this would be a featured meal if I ever wrote an epic diet book. I was fit, healthy, and strong. Something was clearly working. But toward the final days of my work, I noticed that not only did I enjoy the bran muffins and ice cream, but I craved them. Intensely. I realized I couldn’t get through the day without my fix.

Here I was writing about psychology and nutrition, and I was addicted to bran muffins and ice cream.

As any good narcissistic graduate student should do, I decided one evening to try an experiment on myself. What would happen if I didn’t give in to the craving? Is it even possible? Could I survive? Would my head explode? Well, I sat on the couch, looked out the window, and agreed to stay there until the craving was gone. How’s that for manly courage? But the longer I sat, the stronger the craving grew, and the more convinced I became that I should end the experiment. But I stayed. I sat, I took deep breaths, I watched my anxiety grow deeper, I toughed it out, and as the overwhelming impulse to eat bran muffins and ice cream peaked, as the longing and pain consumed my entire body, I burst into tears, convulsed on the couch and sobbed uncontrollably.

I don’t know how long I sat and cried, but some time later I realized I was peacefully looking out the window, watching the birds and the tall grass, deeply relaxed and content. I’d been in another world. Why was I so relaxed? Had I fallen asleep? I remembered the craving episode but it was gone without a trace. Bran muffins and ice cream seemed like a distant memory. I had no more desire for them, nor have I craved them since. (Okay, just once. . . .)

So what happened? How did the craving disappear? Why did it appear in the first place? And what about the crying business? We can answer these questions and perhaps unravel some of the mystery by first looking at what I’ve postulated as the three kinds of cravings—supportive, dispersive, and associative.

Supportive Cravings

A supportive craving occurs when the body instinctively yearns for a food that enhances the healing process, fulfills a nutritional need, or neutralizes an imbalance in the body. Have you ever noticed some of the peculiar things pets or animals eat when sick? Cats might chew on plants and grass, dogs can eat old pinecones or pieces of wood, or lick clay deposits. No one tells a dog to eat clay because the positively charged minerals it contains helps neutralize acidic poisons in its system and shifts blood pH back to normal, nor would the dog understand if anyone did. It’s acting upon an instinctive process far beyond reason.

The same process occurs in human beings. Supportive cravings may arise that seem sensible and obvious, or unexpected and beyond nutritional understanding. Have you ever craved citrus foods when suffering from a cold or flu? It’s easy to justify this biologic desire considering the vitamin C content of oranges and grapefruits, and the cleansing effect of fruit on the body. Other cravings defy traditional understanding but prove remarkably successful. Examples I’ve observed in friends and clients include raspberry juice for headaches and fatigue, fresh figs for depression, and peanut butter for nasal congestion. These cravings are unique to the individuals who experience them, and would probably prove useless for most others. The bottom line here: the body craves because the body knows.

Dispersive Cravings

A dispersive craving is a desire for a food that drains health and diminishes our energy. Though the intensity of a dispersive desire may be as strong as the intensity of a supportive one, the ultimate effects of yielding to such cravings might be feeling heavy, de-energized, and guilty. Many of us long for foods we suspect will yield an adverse reaction, especially when eaten in excess: sugar, alcohol, fried food, and junk food are some obvious examples. So how is it that we can even crave something beneficial, yet also crave something harmful? If the body is so naturally wise, how could it be so dumb? The answer lies in the nature of

yearning. Life itself is a yearning. We yearn
for meaning, purpose, love, and the fulfillment of our desires. Behind every human act,
no matter how singular or small, is a yearning
for more: more life, more depth of experience.
Through the many difficulties and obstacles
we face, our yearnings may become distorted.
The natural yearning for inner strength may
become a compulsion for power over others.

The yearning for love may be turned into a
hopeless attempt to gain approval from everyone we meet. Or the yearning for self-fulfillment may become an obsession to accumulate
money and prestige. The body also yearns. It
yearns for food, water, touch, sound, and sensuality. It yearns for aliveness through sweet
things, tasty things, and whatever stimulates
and excites the senses to a heightened experience of life. The body yearns for more of itself.
And just as psychological yearnings can become distorted, so can biological ones. A dispersive craving is a distorted yearning in the
body. The body is literally duped into thinking that excessive consumption of harmful
substances would be helpful. We often yearn
for experiences in life we firmly believe are
needed. We may pursue a friendship, relationship, job, or money-making scheme that seems
smart at the time but later proves an embarrassing choice. The body is equally blind when
confronted with powerful substances or experiences that promise fulfillment, such as intense amounts of alcohol, sugar, and more. The
bottom line here is this: just as the heart can
look for love in all the wrong places, so too can
the body. Both are easily seduced. No blame.

Associative Cravings

An associative craving is an odd cross between the other two. It occurs when we yearn for a food that has a rich, deep, and meaningful association with our past. For example, many people report that when visiting parents or grandparents, they suddenly long for foods from their childhood. One middle-aged woman craves spaghetti and meatballs whenever she visits her elderly mother. If she didn’t see her mother, she wouldn’t even think of this dish. Yet each time her childhood memories are sparked, she explains that “it feels as though my taste buds step into a time machine.” A friend of mine suddenly found himself wanting bagels with cream cheese and butter. He’d never before eaten this combination of foods, nor did it seem very appealing when he thought about it. He realized later that this was his father’s favorite food, and the craving came at a time when he was longing for his father, who’d died a decade earlier.

On a symbolic level, bagels with cream cheese and butter was his father. By eating this food, he was reincorporating his father into his life. Associative cravings are often the most difficult to deal with because we’re uncertain about whether they’re beneficial or not. For instance, foods from our childhood may be of questionable nutritional value, yet eating them can be deeply nourishing. By surrendering to such a craving, we can visit our past and relive feelings that may bring their own special healing moment, regardless of the nutritional inferiority of the food. The bottom line here: biology and nostalgia can make a fascinating and almost mystical meal.

Back to the bran muffins and ice cream. . . . I believe that oftentimes, when we move through our attachments, no matter how tasty and harmless they may seem, we discover something deeper. We might have to move through some discomfort, or pain, or inexplicable tears, and perhaps even some rage. But beyond the land of the uncomfortable, the place we love to avoid when we get stuck on our favorite cravings, is a neighborhood called Inner Peace. It’s a place that lives in all of us but is sometimes unavailable on our GPS. We can’t always get to inner peace in one straight shot. Sometimes, we just need to take the curvy and unpredictable path through our desires and our longings. This just might be the most soulful and scenic route.

Marc David is founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher, and consultant in nutritional psychology, and the author of the classic and bestselling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet.

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