The Real Truth about Your
* This article
is for informational/education purposes only and is
not meant to substitute for the in-person professional
advice of one's biomedical or chinese medical physician.
On the contrary, it is advised that one consult with
their health care professionals before making any changes
in well-being strategies.
||Question: My mom always said my sweet-tooth
was to blame for my weight problem (I can't seem to lose
weight!), but my best friend says I should listen to my
body and eat whatever I want because it knows what I need.
I'm not sure what to do! Does Oriental Medicine have any
wisdom about diet that could help me? - Candice M
A common dietary misconception is that if you
crave a food or drink, then it must contain a vitamin, mineral
or other substance that your body is lacking. The underlying
principle is the rather New Age myth that our bodies possesses
an innate wisdom,and if we can get in touch with and listen
to our bodies, they will guide us to health, freedom, and
happiness. I'm here to tell you there may be some truth to
that, but it's not that simple!
Idea #1: Your body knows what it needs and
that's why you're craving it. The human body does sometimes
tell us what we need to eat or drink, especially when it is
relatively healthy. We get thirsty for water when dehydrated,
crave protein when our activity level increases, or carbohydrates
when we are more mentally active. In an extreme situation,
pica (eating non-nutritive substances like dirt or paper)
may be a desperate attempt to fill a mineral deficiency.
Idea #2: When your body is out of whack (yes,
that's the technical way to describe it), you may crave the
thing that makes it worse. Maybe you're craving that ice
cream because your body needs calcium, or maybe it fits with
your other cravings for candy and soda into a pattern of sugar
addiction. Oops, I said addiction didn't I? Sorry, it won't
But here I must go into Chinese Medicine for
a minute to explain the basic point of my article,
which is that sometimes your body knows what it needs,
and other times it is stuck in a vicious cycle wherein it
craves exactly what is worst for it.
Chinese Medicine and Food Cravings
Chinese dietary therapy is as complex as chinese herbal medicine,
which is extremely complex (go ask some Chinese Medicine students
and they'll tell you all about it). Instead of going into
that level of detail, we can talk more broadly from a Five
Element perspective and still get some good insights.
Five Element Relationships
Each element has an associated season, emotion, taste, organ,
etc. Here is a brief chart of the five elements.
As you can see, each element has an associated
taste. Since I've already mentioned sugar/sweet cravings,
let's talk about an Earth element-type person and how food
cravings might work for them.
The Earth-type person tends to be a bit overweight,
worries, is easily overwhelmed, and craves sweets. The taste
associated with the Earth type is sweetness. In CM, this works
two ways: small amounts of sweets can strengthen the Earth
element, but overdoses can injure it. Both physical and mental
digestion are affected. When the earth element is weakened,
the appetite decreases, digestion is hindered (there may be
tiredness or bloating after eating), sweets are craved in
great degree and amount, the stool becomes loose, there is
a tendency toward worry (mental and emotional indigestion),
and fatigue sets in. Here's a
study that concluded that obese women don't crave sweets
for the emotional effect, but more for the experience of the
taste itself. This
study of Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers shows that
the ability to experience one taste or another varies with
As I said, small amounts of sweetness can
strengthen the Earth. In CM, herbs such as cinnamon and
licorice are employed for this purpose. These herbs are sweet-
not super-sweet like processed sugar, but naturally, moderately
sweet. Someone with an Earth imbalance might not consider
these herbs 'sweet,' not like ice cream or soda or candy.
This is because the body has gotten off-kilter into a vicious
cycle of craving exactly the wrong thing: huge amounts of
Two other oft-consumed
sweets are alcohol and carbohydrates. Studies of alcoholics
have revealed that alcoholics have extreme sugar-addictions,
that part of the alcoholic withdrawal is due to a drastic
reduction in sugar intake, and that subsequent coffee, smoking,
consumption may be a way of preventing food cravings.
One study showed that nutritional therapy including low-sugar
diet decreased alcohol cravings. Much has been made of
carbohydrate addiction, and no or low-carb diets (including
the Atkins diet) have been among the recent dietary fads.
With all of this talk about how sweets can be bad for you,
let emphasize that research also shows that preference for
sweet taste is innately human, and that avoiding
sweets leads to an even greater sweet-craving!
The Solution? The best thing to do would
be to visit a CM practitioner a few times, get a personalized
herbal formula for your imbalance, and take it with discipline.
Some practitioners are extreme- they want you to change everything
right away, re-arrange your diet, stop eating all the 'bad'
things, take lots of herbs, and see them weekly so that they
can regularly shame you into healthy living.
Another option is to check out The Diet Forum.
They make available mutual support ("diet buddies"),
and can also create you a detailed personalized diet plan
based on your answers to a dietary survey. Click over to the
As a self-confessing coffee addict and former
smoker, I understand how difficult it can be to change dietary
and lifestyle habits. My belief is that acupuncture, herbs,
and dietary therapies exist to help you make the transition
from imbalance to well-being both possible and comfortable.
Real change takes time; moving too fast can lead to short
term mega-progress but ultimately result in relapse and a
net gain of zero. My point: take your time, change a few things,
and stick with it. Be nice to yourself not only in commiting
to your own well-being, but also in allowing yourself to progress
imperfectly, to be human, to make mistakes.
Best wishes in your journey of health!