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Food Cravings

by Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.

Some people's food cravings remain constant; for example, they always crave ice cream. Other people go through "food kicks," craving peanut butter one week, blue cheese dressing the next week, and chocolate bars the following week. Neither situation is accidental nor coincidental.

If your emotional issues remain unaddressed, your food craving will remain constant. If your emotional issues change, so will your food cravings. The only parallel between both the constant and the changing food cravings is this: There is some underlying emotional issue crying out for your attention.

By "emotional issues" I don't necessarily mean deep psychological matters requiring therapy. Food cravings often stem from basic unmet needs for fun, excitement, or love issues most would consider "normal" and within our power to self-heal.

Emotional issues connected to food cravings usually fall into one of these categories:

  • Stress, tension, anxiety, fear, or impatience 

  • Depression or feeling blue 

  • Feeling tired, having low energy levels 

  • Unmet needs for fun, play, excitement, or recreation; too much work and not enough play 

  • A desire for love, selection, appreciation, romance, or sexual satisfaction 

  • Anger, resentment, bitterness, or frustration 

  • Emptiness, insecurity, or a desire for comfort

Four emotions form the core of emotional overeating: (fear, anger, tension, and shame (FATS). Fear is the root emotion in the FATS feelings. Anger, tension, and shame are all extensions of fear. We feel angry because we fear losing love in the form of something or someone valuable to us; we feel tension because we are afraid of trusting or because we've walked away from our Divine path; we feel shame because we fear we are inadequate.

These "FATS feelings" are the primary triggers for emotional overeating. Overwhelming desires to eat stem from one of these four emotions.

As a psychotherapist, I feel it's important to be honest with ourselves about our emotions. We need to face the emotion and then move on. I never recommend overanalyzing one's life or viewing oneself as a victim. Yet, the source of so much needless emotional pain is the unwillingness to face an unpleasant feeling. No one enjoys admitting, "Oh, yes, I feel insecure." But the alternative not admitting it is so much worse!

When we deny our strong emotions, they grow even stronger. As they gain strength, they also seek outlets. Denied emotions manifest themselves in many unpleasant ways, including food cravings, physical aches or illnesses, depression, anxiety, phobias, and sleep disorders.

The bottom line is this: As unpleasant as it is to face a negative emotion, the alternative is even more unpleasant. Everyone gets angry, upset, or jealous at some time there's no question about it. Sometimes life circumstances or our personal choices make it tough to stay centered in peace of mind. In fact, the only question about these emotions is whether we choose to deal with them now or later.

THE FOUR PRIMARY EMOTIONS UNDERNEATH EMOTIONAL OVEREATING

  • FEAR
    Insecurity, walking on eggshells, generalized fears, abandonment fears, existential fears, control issues, sexual fears, worry, anxiety, depression, intimacy fears.

  • ANGER
    At another person, toward an injustice, toward self, feeling betrayed, feeling ripped off,
    feeling abused.

  • TENSION
    Stress, frustration, old anger turned into bitterness, old anger turned into resentment, jealousy,
    impatience, overwork without an emotional release such as fun.

  • SHAME
    Self-blame, low self-esteem, self-loathing, lack of trust in one's own competence or goodness,
    assuming other people won't like you, feeling less than other, feeling like you don't deserve good.

When we bottle up our strong emotions, it's akin to putting a cork on a vinegar-and-baking soda combination. The ignored emotion doesn't go away it intensifies. The more we try to ignore a feeling, the stronger it grows. It's so much easier to face the music while the emotion is still in a "fixable" stage.

That's why I really like food-craving analysis. You start by identifying the food you crave and work backward, like a detective. Once you've identified the food you crave, say, rocky road ice cream, the underlying emotion stares you plainly in the face: "Resentment toward others and self. Feeling used or pressured, and desiring fun and comfort. Depression."

The truth of that underlying emotion, following a food-craving interpretation, hits most of us between the eyes. We instantly recognize, "Yes, that is the emotional issue I've been struggling with." This recognition may propel you to investigate further and take the healthy second step of asking yourself, "What makes me so frustrated or angry?" "What do I feel I'm missing out on?" and "Why am I taking my anger out on myself? " Usually the answers appear right away.

Our denial system is incredibly effective in shielding us from honestly facing ourselves. Denial stems from a fear of admitting, "Yes, this bothers me." The consequences of this admission are even scarier "Now I must take responsibility for making changes to correct the situation." Change is frightening, because we fear that our situation might worsen instead of improve.

Inertia and fears keep us from looking at underlying issues that create food cravings. Since this denial keeps us from seeing these seemingly obvious underlying issues, we often need to have them pointed out to us. It's relatively easy to see other people's issues; it's much tougher to be objective with ourselves. By learning to interpret your food cravings, you will be able to more readily discover these issues yourself.

Just honestly admitting to ourselves, "Yes, this is the emotion underneath my food craving" is such a tremendous relief! It feels so good to come clean with yourself, doesn't it? That emotional relief then reduces, or even eliminates, the urge to overeat.

Physically Based Cravings

Sometimes, we'll crave a food because our body is screaming out for nutrients, such as vitamins or protein. Our body is depleted, and cravings ensure that its needs are met. These are physically based cravings.

Yet, on close examination, even these cravings are rooted in emotions. Tension, the fourth Fats feelings, is the physical manifestation of stress in our lives. Stress leads to lifestyle choices that in turn lead to nutritional deprivation. Three of my clients discovered how stress-filled lifestyles robbed their body of energy and nutrients, which in turn triggered food cravings:

  • Dianna's hectic schedule convinced her that she had "no time to exercise". Without regular physical activity, Dianna always felt sluggish and tired. Instead of solving the problem with a brisk walk or a bike ride, Dianna would eat foods to feel "peppier".

  • Marcia's high-pressure job contributed to her overall feeling of tension and inability to relax. Marcia craved and ate bags of potato chips and pretzels to gnaw away her anxiety and tension. Junk foods rob our bodies of B vitamins, because empty calories require nutrients for digestion. When you use nutrients for digestion, without replacing them, you become nutrient deficient. Marcia was continually vitamin deficient and, therefore, continually hungry!

  • Brenda used alcohol to calm her nerves. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to lowered levels of the brain chemical serotonin. When serotonin is low, the usual result is carbohydrate cravings which are exactly what Brenda struggled with. Her appetite for breads and pasta was out of control, and Brenda was very unhappy with her weight.

Yes, Dianna, Marcia, and Brenda all suffered from physically based food cravings. But the root of their nutrient deficiency was the FATS feeling, tension.

Tension also increases brain chemicals that lead to overeating. Dr. Sarah Leibowitz of Rockefeller University found that the hormone cortisol stimulates production of a brain chemical called "neuropeptide Y". This brain chemical is a chief factor in turning our carbohydrate cravings on and off. Here's the tension link: We produce more cortisol when we are tense!

Even worse, Leibowitz also reports that neuropeptide Y also makes the body hang on to the new body fat we produce (apparently this is some ancient biological throwback to the cave days). In other words, tension not only triggers carbohydrate cravings, it also makes it more difficult to lose any additional weight.

This article was excerpted with permission from the book "Constant Craving A-Z", by Doreen Virtue, Ph.D. 1999. Published by Hay House Inc.

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About The Author

Dr. Virtue's has written numerous books, among them: Id Change My Life if I Had More Time; Losing Your Pounds of Pain; and The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome. Dr. Virtue is a frequent guest on such talk shows such as Oprah, Geraldo, and Sally Jessy Raphael. Her articles have appeared in dozens of popular magazines and she is a contributing editor for Complete Woman. Her website is www.angeltherapy.com.



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