Food addictions

On a recent television show, a dietitian explains food addictions, what they mean and what to do about them (“Addicted To Food?“). I thought it might be interesting to compare how Western medicine and Chinese medicine view such addictions.

The Western medicine view

There is some disagreement among experts as to whether foods can be physically addictive in the same way as, say, drugs. Here we will use ‘cravings’ to mean desires that we don’t have to give into, and ‘addictions’ as stronger cravings that we can’t prevent ourselves from fulfilling.

The overall belief is that we become addicted to certain foods because they make us feel good. Numerous studies explain how these foods affect the body or the brain, or show how similar some chemicals in the foods are to certain known addictive substances.

People are most likely to become addicted to carbohydrates, sweets, chocolate and salty snacks.

Food addictions can be conquered primarily by modifying our eating habits so that we eat less of the food in question, or so that the emotional high isn’t as strong, which prevents wild mood swings.

The Chinese medicine view

Chinese medicine talks only about cravings, which can be either moderate (i.e., “average”) or extreme. It’s the difference between wanting to eat a piece of cake and wanting to eat the whole cake.

The overall belief is that a craving indicates that an organ needs energy. If the craving is extreme, it means that the organ’s energy is very deficient. Specific organs crave specific foods: the liver needs sour foods, the digestive tract wants sweet foods, etc.

When a craving is extreme, we are most likely to want food that is highly concentrated; if we have an extreme craving for sweets, for instance, we’re more likely to crave candies than fruit, even though both are sweet. The downside is that eating concentrated foods in large amounts is very likely to create an imbalance in another organ, which means that a second craving surfaces very quickly (e.g., eating a box of chocolates, then a large bag of chips).

An occasional extreme craving is most likely to be the body’s way of compensating for an external factor — for instance, eating a whole plate of watermelon on a very hot day. But persistent extreme cravings indicate that an organ probably needs a bit of professional attention; when the organ is back in balance, cravings taper off or disappear completely.

It also helps to limit the amount of craved food we eat: enough to give the affected organ some energy to help it do its job, but not enough to trigger the second craving.

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