Culture and food cravings

I haven’t had trouble with food cravings since I started following Dr. Ann‘s “Eat Right for Life” program about a year ago. But when I saw the headline “How to Fend Off a Food Craving” in the Wall Street Journal, I was still interested enough to check it out. After all, there have been times in the past when I seemed to be free of food cravings for over a year, and then they came back.

I didn’t find any of the suggestions in the article very useful as far as how to fend off cravings. My experience is that finding healthy, filling foods to eat does the best at keeping cravings from starting to begin with. I enjoy the foods that I eat now but I don’t “crave” them, which to me implies that thinking about them dominates my thoughts.

What did interest me in the article is what it says about cravings and culture. Not only do people crave different foods in different cultures, but many cultures simply do not think in terms of “food cravings.” Their language doesn’t even include the word “craving.”

My guess is that they may have a word meaning “desire intensely,” which could be translated crave, but the word is used only as a verb, not transformed into a noun, as we use it. After all, if I say that “I crave” something, at least I am still thinking of myself as the one doing the craving. When I say “I have a craving,” the craving is a condition that is doing something to me and I am a passive sufferer, as when I have a headache or a cold.

But why, I can’t help wondering, would the concept of a food craving be “uniquely important in American culture”? Do people in other cultures experience similar desires for foods but not consider such desires significant? Or do we actually experience such desires more, and if so, why?

According to some people, we experience cravings more because live such unhealthy lifestyles, especially in terms of what we eat. This website attributes food cravings to, among other things, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, MSG, genetically modified food, microwaved food, chlorine and fluoride in drinking water, toxins in soaps and shampoos, and exposure to electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other electronic devices.

I agree that the highly refined sugars and artificial sweeteners are culprits, as well as trans fats, though I suspect that other fats contribute significantly to cravings even if they are not directly unhealthy in the way trans fats are. Part of the appeal of many high-fat foods is the smooth, creamy consistency, and it doesn’t take trans fats to accomplish that. I also think that other items on the list definitely contribute to food cravings – stress is often a factor, and medications are known to have a variety of side effects.

On the other hand, I’m skeptical about the dangers from my cell phone and my microwave, and while the long-term effects of genetically modified foods are not yet known, I’m not inclined to blame food cravings on them. Frankly, that list reminds me a lot of my mother’s emphasis on using only “all-natural” products, and I often suspected that she would have been far healthier if she worried less about all the things that might be affecting her health.

But do Americans really eat all that much worse a diet than people in other countries? Certainly there are cultures that have much healthier eating habits, but are we uniquely deficient in that regard?

My first thought, in terms of explaining our attention to food cravings, is that ours is a culture of self-indulgence. We are used to being able to satisfy many of our desires – eating the foods we like, wearing the clothes we like, watching the movies and TV shows we like, even hanging around with the people we like. Many people have jobs they don’t like, but they see that as an aberration from how things should be, not simply a fact of how life is.

In many cultures, one’s own desires are subordinated to what is important to the larger group, whether that is defined in terms of family, church, ethnic group, political party, or whatever. America has always been very individualistic, and in recent decades it seems that traditional ties to social groups have become even weaker than they already were. If I feel like I want something and it will make me happy, just what is there to motivate me to deny myself?

As a Christian, I would say “obedience to Christ.” But I also remember years and years when my food cravings won out. I felt guilty, and promised myself – and God – that I would try to do better. But after so many failures, it no longer seemed worth making what turned out to be empty promises.

Of course, while a culture of self-indulgence would explain a tendency to give in to food cravings, that doesn’t mean it explains having them to begin with. Do people in other cultures have the cravings but ignore them? Or does our willingness to give in to cravings (even as we feel guilty for doing so) increase the frequency and strength of the desires themselves? My own experience leads me to think the latter is probably true.

One possible explanation for our emphasis on food cravings is our (over)emphasis on having the “ideal” body. People often want a food simply because they cannot have it. When so many people are focused on denying themselves the foods they want in order to lose weight and look good, they’re bound to find themselves wanting the foods they don’t let themselves have.

One lesson I learned about twenty years ago, regarding diet and losing weight, was not to tell myself I couldn’t have the food I wanted. I could have some, I just shouldn’t overdo it – and after all, I knew from experience that any food always tasted best in the first few bites. If I gave myself “permission” to have more at another meal, the urge to eat more right away dissipated.

Then there’s the issue of advertising. I don’t know how advertising here compares with that in other cultures, but food manufacturers and retailers are in the business of getting us to want their products. Advertisements are designed specifically to produce a strong desire for foods – small wonder that we wind up craving them. Even if you don’t watch TV (I haven’t for the last several years, since we dropped cable to save money), you can’t help seeing the fast food restaurants, and people carrying around their products, and the wide variety of tempting snacks at supermarkets.

Finally (in terms of explanations I can think of), there is the sheer availability of so many food products. While I may sometimes desire a food I cannot have (because it is not available), I have generally found those desires easier to deal with than the desires for foods I can have (but think I should not).

Americans are wealthy, relative to most of the world, and food is usually within reach. There are vending machines in the workplace, convenience stores at just about every gas station, pizza restaurants that deliver to the home or workplace, supermarkets that are open 24 hours a day, and now even restaurants and supermarkets where you can place an order online and have it ready for you to pick up when you get there.

If I know that food is simply not available (or at least not the kind of food I want), I can generally put it out of my mind. But when I know that all I have to do is get up and walk down the hall to a vending machine, or to a co-worker’s desk where there is a candy jar, or stop and grab a bite to eat on my way to wherever I’m going, it’s a lot harder to ignore cravings. (Though I have found that being involved in a project that takes my full concentration works wonders for keeping my mind off food.)

Filling up on satisfying, healthy food works best, though. I just finished a lunch of raw veggies with homemade hummus, a turkey sandwich on whole wheat (with guacamole spread on the bread instead of mayo), an apple, and a Chocolatey¬†Peanut Butter FiberPlus granola bar. The granola bar is a delicious treat, and I briefly think how good another one might taste. But it’s easy to discard that idea, because I’m pleasantly full by now, and I still have my large cup of water with frozen berries to enjoy for the next couple of hours.

Now if I just didn’t feel such a craving for a nap…

One Response to Culture and food cravings

  1. modestypress says:

    Go ahead. Take a nap. It sounds as if you have earned it.

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