Sour, sweet, salty…cravings come in a variety of forms, but what are they trying to tell you? Here, Jill Blakeway, DACM, a doctor of Chinese medicine and a Well+Good Council member, draws from her background in traditional Chinese medicine to decipher your cravings—and to help you work with your body so it’s as healthy as can be.
Do you ever find yourself craving a specific taste? Does a super-salty snack call your name at the end of a busy day, or are you more likely to opt for some bitter dark chocolate as you unwind? We often think of cravings as negative and push ourselves to fight them. But according to East Asian medicine, indulging in a little of what you fancy may be exactly what it takes to bring your body into balance.
In Chinese medicine, food is divided into five flavor groups; each is related to a different body system. Throughout Asia, cooks traditionally have sought to blend each of these flavors when creating a nourishing dish. The secret is harmony. Eating too little or too much of a specific flavor leads to an imbalance that, over time, can make us sick.
If you’re craving: spice
Feeling a need for heat? This craving is connected to your lungs and the immune system. Often when you’re sick and full of mucus, people will suggest getting a hot curry or eating something spicy to help you break a sweat. Heat kills a virus, so there is some wisdom in the idea that pungent foods that temporarily raise your body temperature (such as chili peppers, garlic, and ginger) are helpful when you have a cold. Too much spice can cause agitation, dry skin, and sleep disturbances, however, so if you find yourself putting sriracha on everything, you may want to try cutting back.
If you’re craving: salty foods
According to Chinese medicine, small amounts of salty foods strengthen the kidneys, which are related to metabolism. Weak kidney energy can lead to a sluggish thyroid, and a salty food such as seaweed contains iodine, a necessary nutrient for a healthy thyroid. Too much salt can have the opposite effect, though, so moderation is crucial. If you have a salt craving, I’d suggest eating a handful of dry-roasted nuts. That may be exactly what your kidneys need (and they’re heart-healthy, too).
If you’re craving: sweets and carbs
The sweet taste is considered the most nourishing of all and is said to benefit the stomach and spleen. Sweet foods can give your energy a boost when you’re flagging and regulate your digestion. Chinese herbalists use the sweet taste to treat a variety of issues from fatigue to muscle cramps to anxiety. But don’t go overboard: Too many sweets can lead to sluggish digestion and weight gain. So it’s important to have just enough and to pick foods that are naturally sweet in their whole form: Rice, honey, sweet potatoes, beans, or fruit are good choices.
If you’re craving: bitter tastes
These foods can help the heart, which in Chinese medicine is said to house our spirit and impact our emotions. That may explain why when we’re feeling down, we tend to crave more bitter foods like dark chocolate or even a dark IPA! Bitter-tasting bites have potent healing properties—and fortunately, a little goes a long way. Chinese herbalists use the taste to clear out toxicity, using bitter herbs to treat viruses and intestinal parasites. Digestive bitters have been used for hundreds of years as a tonic, but it’s a taste that’s often missing from the modern diet. Try to add some bitter leafy greens (dandelion greens are particularly helpful!) to your diet.
If you’re craving: sour foods
Pucker up! Are you someone who loves a sour snack? Sour foods stimulate digestion and help your body to break down fats, which is why they are often served with rich meals. Take sauerkraut, for example. It often accompanies a high-fat meal containing meat. In Chinese medicine, it is said that the sourness of the sauerkraut prompts our liver and gallbladder to produce bile to break down the fats in meat. Because of its astringent properties, the sour taste can help your body contain and reabsorb fluids. Too much sour food can lead to muscle contractions and soreness, so moderation is key. A spritz of lemon juice in a large glass of water is a great way to start the day, but large amounts of lemonade will not have the same healing effect.
Remember, even a seemingly unhealthy craving, such as one for pizza, can point to a real need. (In this case, for more whole carbs and high-quality fat in the diet!) So I say, ask yourself what you’re really craving—and pick the healthiest version of it. That being said, if your cravings are out of control, a visit to your acupuncturist can help you identify an underlying imbalance and have you feeling your best in no time.
Dr. Jill Blakeway, DACM, is a practitioner and teacher of Chinese Medicine and the founder and clinic director of the YinOva Center in New York City.
Jill is the author of Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility and Sex Again: Recharging Your Libido. She’s currently writing her third book, about energy healing, for Harper Collins.
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