Doreen Virtue is a psychotherapist who knows a lot about nutrition. Her book, Constant Craving: What Your Food Cravings Mean and How to Overcome Them, teaches readers the “art” of understanding food cravings. Her book blends, as Virtue puts it, the psychological, metaphysical, and scientific reasons we crave certain foods. “My education about weight and appetite stems from first-hand experience with food cravings,” she writes. “I’ve learned that maintaining weight loss hinges upon maintaining peace of mind.”
As a psychotherapist, Virtue has worked with many drug addicts. “I found that, as was the case with my drug-addicted clients, each food craving corresponds to a particular personality style and emotional issue,” she reveals. Her premise is this: “Your food cravings and voracious appetite don’t mean that something is wrong with you, that you are weak in any way. Rather, they show that your appetite is operating exactly as intended.” She goes on to say, “Your entire body, including your appetite, reflects the level of peace of mind in your life.”
She explains that diets don’t work because they attempt to kill your appetite rather than heal it. After all, most of us know exactly what’s needed to lose weight. “Eat less fat and exercise more—it’s not rocket science,” she writes. Instead we should be focusing on the cause of our cravings. “Cravings occur for two reasons: a desire to feel better emotionally, or to shift our energy level. We want to feel peppier or calmer. More secure and confident. Less angry. Or less afraid.”
In her psychotherapy work, Virtue was familiar with interpreting the dreams of her patients to get at underlying feelings. She applied this same concept to analyzing food cravings. “Food-craving interpretation is similar to the interpretation of bad dreams. After all, nightmares and food cravings share a lot in common,” she writes. “We have bad dreams whenever we avoid facing uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Food cravings also signal unresolved emotions.” She did find one major difference between the two, however. Dream interpretations can be tricky because symbols vary from patient to patient. “With food cravings, though” Virtue maintains, “the meanings behind each food are much more consistent.”
She gives the example of people who crave crunchy peanut butter as being stressed or angry or frustrated. Those who crave dairy products like ice cream and cheese are usually depressed, she says. It turns out, there’s a good reason for these correlations. “I began researching appetite and food cravings, and was startled to discover how many psychoactive food ingredients were identical to prescription and illegal drug ingredients! For example, phenylethylamine in chocolate is the primary ingredient in an illegal ‘designer drug’ called Ecstasy, formerly known as MDMA. Tyramine and pyrazine, ingredients in nuts, coffee, pickled foods, sour cream, aged cheese, and other foods, are the basis of antidepressant medications,” Virtue points out.
Later in the book we learn that lithium, a drug used to treat manic depression is a form of salt (a sodium compound). Alcohol is derived from fermented fruits and grains. Milk products contain L-tryptophan. When dairy is combined with carbohydrates (so that competing amino acids don’t interfere), serotonin is produced. That’s why grilled cheese sandwiches and baked potatoes with sour cream are so comforting. The same can be said for pizza, ice cream, pasta with Alfredo sauce, cheese nachos, quesadillas, and fruit yogurts.
Virtue devotes a chapter to each of the most common food cravings. She also has a food chart in the back of the book that correlates cravings with emotions. The ten most common cravings include the aforementioned dairy products which signal depression in the eater, and crunchy nuts and chips which reveal an underlying stress or frustration and a need for fun and recreation. Craving chocolate signals a need for feeling loved and understood. We drink liquids like coffee, soda, or alcohol in abundance when we want to shift our energy level up or down. We eat high-fat, soft, creamy foods when we’re feeling fearful, anxious, insecure or shameful. Virtue points out that these feelings usually mean we are avoiding something or are hesitant to face a truth in our lives. Spicy or highly seasoned foods help us find excitement.
“When we feel overwhelming hunger for a food, the underlying emotions are Fear, Anger, Tension, and Shame,” she writes. Virtue uses the acronym FATS to help us remember it. Instead of ignoring these FATS feelings or stuffing them down and burying them under an avalanche of food, Virtue wants us to replace those bad FATS with the good FATS of an affirming thought: “I Forgive, Accept, and Trust my Self.” She says that doing this will help your unhealthy cravings disappear. I think it’s an excellent notion and we can all learn more about ourselves and our habits by reading about what comforts and reliefs certain foods are providing to us.
Virtue’s advice for dealing with cravings is simple to remember but takes effort to execute. She writes, “Turn your focus away from maintaining a weight loss, and instead turn your focus to maintaining peace of mind.” When overwhelming cravings strike, she wants us to do five things. First, impose a 15-minute cooling-off period before you actually eat. Emotional hunger is strong and urgent. Real hunger builds up slowly and gradually. Second, get away from food. Some people, especially extroverts, eat when they see food around them regardless of whether they are truly hungry. Third, she says to brush your teeth and drink a large glass of water. Fourth, ask yourself, “Am I feeling fear, anger, tension, or shame?” And finally, replace the bad FATS with self-love and acceptance. She writes, “Pouring food on your gut is easy; we all know how to do that. Pouring love on your gut requires some patience and practice, but it is worth it!”