Food cravings are very common. They’re difficult to ignore and typically manifest through an intense or urgent desire for a specific type of food, which will vary from person to person. Everybody has a craving for some food item at sometime in their life. And generally, it’s not a big issue. But when your body is constantly craving certain items, it might be an indication that there is something going on that needs to be addressed.
From an East Asian Medicine perspective, food cravings are often related to an imbalance in energy within the five elements. Each element – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water – is associated with specific organs. When there is an imbalance, it can affect your organs and eventually, if not corrected, surrounding organs as well. Even a seemingly unhealthy craving, such as one for pizza, can point to a real need. (In that case, for more whole carbs and high-quality fat in the diet) Cravings let us know what our body is in need of and therefore, occasionally giving in to those cravings can be ok, within reason. But it can be a slippery slope. So let’s look more closely at what the cravings mean and how to counter them.
Craving Sweets? Sweets are connected to the Earth element, which most directly affects the spleen and stomach organs. In East Asian Medicine (EAM), the spleen and stomach are in charge of receiving, processing and extracting nutrients from the food we eat, and then distributing it properly throughout the body to ensure the body is properly fueled and in good working order. When the spleen and stomach are not working well, one may notice gastrointestinal discomfort, excess worry and even easy bruising of the skin. Instead of reaching for the ultra processed candy bar, consider substituting with fruits like blackberries, blueberries and strawberries, which are also antioxidants. You can also substitute cacao or carob for chocolate.
Craving Salt? A craving for salty food could be a way of the body telling us that the Water element is out of balance. The organs directly associated with this element are the kidneys and the urinary bladder. The kidney is symbolic of where we come from, our pre-natal essence. It is also connected to the emotion of fear. When weakened, we may see pain in the knees or low back and issues with being overly and / or irrationally fearful. Salt is an important mineral for our body, but we can control the amount and quality of salt we use for balancing this element. Look for foods that will support your kidneys like kidney beans or seaweed snacks.
Sour Cravings? Craving sour foods, such as lemons, shows there might be an imbalance in the Wood element. This directly affects the liver and gallbladder organs. The liver ensures the smooth flow of Qi (or energy) in the body, which in turn is a major factor in stress management. The need for something sour may be telling us that our liver energy is stuck and in need of some calming / moving. Sour foods, like lemons or limes, are actually fine in moderation and can be sliced and added to water for an easy way to satisfy that sour craving.
Bitter Cravings? Craving bitter-tasting food / drink is related to the Fire element, which is associated with the heart and small intestine. The heart relates to our spirit and when it is out of balance, we may see insomnia, heart palpitations, nervousness and anxiety, just to name a few. To satiate that bitter craving, try adding some leafy greens or cruciferous vegetables to your diet. You can also try digestive bitters.
Craving Spice or Heat? When spicy cravings happen, it could very well be linked with the Metal element. Metal is related to the lung and large intestine. These are important in respiration and elimination of waste from the body. If the body is dealing with cold-causing congestion, for example, the spicy flavor will help to reduce the congestion and clear nasal passages to restore free breathing. If you find yourself putting hot sauce on everything, you may want to try cutting back or opt for foods that have less heat like ginger or garlic. They are less harsh on the digestive tract and have more benefits for overall health.
Food cravings can be caused by a variety of physical or mental factors. So paying attention to your cravings and learning how to counter them can be very beneficial. If the cravings are just too strong or are happening all the time, consider acupuncture treatments that can help get you back in balance.