Happy Herbivore Blog

Food Cravings and Food Addictions

Posted by: Lindsay S. Nixon |

Category: FAQ

When I blogged about my journey to a plant-based diet, I said I'd follow up with a post about cravings and addictions. Well, here it is! 

Just a kind reminder though -- I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice. I'm simply sharing my experiences and repeating information I've read in books (which I link to at the end). Talk to your doctor.

HH's guilt-free black bean brownies!

Breaking Addictions: Many would-be plant-based eaters (vegans) struggle with giving up dairy, particularly cheese and yogurt. While there are several vegan substitutes on the market today that are just as delicious, the problem usually runs much deeper.

Dairy products contain a protein called casein. When our bodies break this protein down during the digestion process, casomorphins (yes, as in “morphine”) are created. These guys then have an opiate effect on our body, making us feel happy and relaxed... and addicted. Nature’s intentions were harmless enough; casein is intended to get a baby calf hooked on its mother’s milk so it keeps coming back for more. However, every time you eat dairy, you fuel an addiction both mentally and physically. Like a cigarette or a drug addiction, your body will physically crave dairy and go into withdrawal without it. Meanwhile, your mind is racing, wanting another happy fix. The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to stop getting high on dairy. 

Cheese also has a greater concentration of casein than any other dairy product, which is why so many people are cheese fanatics. They’re literally hooked.

The good news is most people stop feeling cravings or desires after three weeks, especially when they make a point to use vegan substitutes. Once you give up dairy, you’ll be surprised at the changes in your body. Your digestive system will hum along more smoothly, your skin will clear and, if you need to, you will lose weight.

Anytime you’re tempted to indulge, consider this: If you’re not comfortable breast-feeding on your own mother today, why are you breast-feeding on a cow you’ve never met?

A little in-your-face and controversial, I know (and I apologize!) but it's this kind of stark reality that got me off dairy!

Homemade rice milk!

Examine Cravings: Many new vegans experience cravings for a non-vegan food at some point, and it’s important to understand why these cravings occur. Cravings are often the result of an addiction, but cravings can also be physiological or mental.

Any craving you feel for a specific food is most likely not really for that particular food but a nutrient you’ve come to associate with it. For example, beef, particularly bloody and rare or medium-cooked pieces, have an iron taste to them. As a result, many people subconsciously (and consciously, too, to some extent) associate red meat with iron. Thus, when people find themselves craving red meat, chances are they really just need iron. (Didya know beef isn’t even that a good source of iron? soy beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, sesame seeds, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and navy beans got burgers beat! big time!)

Cravings can also be mental. We’ve all heard of emotional eating and comfort foods. Our society, culture and identity are often cross-woven with foods. We associate foods with happy memories such as holiday or family tradition, our cultural identity (“I’m Italian”), a happy time in our lives (“I used to make these brownies in college”) or past experiences of comfort and love (“Mom made this for me when I was sick”). From these past associations, foods evoke certain feelings in us, and when we’re having a hard time or a bad day, cravings for them will show up. Eating has essentially become a form of self-soothing. Many people turn to ice cream when they’re sad because ice cream plays a huge part in celebrations and also because sugar and dairy gives us a happy fix.

Excess salt, oil and other processed foods, particularly fast foods like McDonald’s, can also create an addiction in the body. Eating these foods alters your brain chemistry like a drug, and the more you eat, the more you crave. As with dairy, these cravings won’t stop until you break the addiction. 

It’s important to pause for a moment and truly examine our cravings and the underlying cause of them so we can determine if it’s an addiction (i.e., dairy), a nutrient insufficiency (i.e., iron) or simply emotional. 

Cravings can also be multi-pronged issues. For example, in the summer I have intense hankerings for mango and watermelon. This is partly because I spent many summers on the beach with my parents eating watermelon and mango as a child, so I have a happy and sentimental association with these fruits. However, both fruits also naturally help cool off and rehydrate the body, so a hot summer day is likely to invoke a desire for a food I’ve also associated with cooling myself off.

Further Reading:Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., (My FAVORITE book!) The Pleasure Trap by Drs. Goldhamer and Lisle and Breaking the Food Seduction by Dr. Neal Barnard.

Disclaimer:  I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice. I'm simply sharing my experiences and repeating information I've read in books (which I link to, above). Talk to your doctor.

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