Home Emotional Eating Cravings and Deprivation Aren’t Quite What You Think They Are

Cravings and Deprivation Aren’t Quite What You Think They Are

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I’ve written about ‘deprivation’ before, because it felt like something I had to acknowledge as a weight loss blogger.

People struggle with ‘giving up’ things they ‘love’ because they “don’t like feeling deprived.” They want to “eat how they eat,” but still lose weight. It’s part of what fuels the endless supply of “swaps” and “healthy indulgence” tips on the Internet—people who don’t want to give up the binge behavior, or the food item itself, just the ‘consequence’ of weight gain associated with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I get it. I completely understand the feeling of being so attached to something that my life would be different without it. However, now that I’m months into researching addiction for my upcoming book—what, you didn’t think I was actually relaxing in all this time I haven’t been blogging, did you?—my understanding of “deprivation” and “cravings” has changed.

It’s not that I’m saying “you’d feel deprived without that particular item because you’re addicted to it.” Addiction, in and of itself, is functional. It serves an intended purpose, it achieves that purpose, and is always increasingly gratifying. At least to my eyes, having an attachment to a certain food, in and of itself, isn’t an ‘addiction.’

However—and this is a big however—sometimes the mere attachment to the food in question is created because of other qualities that are, by themselves, addictive in nature. Sometimes, people are just as attached to the feeling they get when they exercise ‘self-control’ and prevent themselves from overindulging. Sometimes—and I suspect this is most times—the craved item is used as a form of escape where, if removed from your life, what would actually be missed is the ability to escape, not the item itself.

Quick quote from the NCBI:

[…] substance use is likely to serve a particular purpose: It provides a habitual and, in the short term, effective way of managing the severe psychological distress typically experienced by patients with comorbid psychiatric disorders and associated economic, social, and relationship problems. Put crudely, [abusing substances] offer these patients a way of coping with intense negative emotions and other psychiatric symptoms. [source]

If you think about it, cravings and deprivation go hand in hand—the craving is what compels you to think about the food item in any given moment; deprivation is what you feel in response to the thought of no longer experiencing your chosen craving. When people ask me if I deprive myself of anything—and that’s literally how the question is often worded to me—I say no.

However, what people rarely ask me, is whether or not I have “cravings.” The answer to that, honestly, is no, and I’ll tell you why.

When my clients talk to me about cravings, I always ask them three questions—three questions that I frequently ask myself:

  1. Where were you when you first experienced the craving?
  2. What happened just before the craving arose?
  3. How were you feeling when the craving arose?

Do you find yourself wandering into the kitchen after a disagreement with your spouse? Do you eat in response to anxiety attacks? Does your boss’ regular habit of dressing you down in front of your peers send you rushing to lunch, and lunch translates to a quiet pint of ice cream in a quiet corner of a cafe?

Does indulging in your chosen crave-able item often follow a rough day with the kids at home? Do you eat during a particularly stressful commute? Did you find out your spouse was cheating on you, and go indulge before deciding to bash the windows out his car? (Before you laugh, I’m serious. I come from a long line of window-bashers.) Did you receive a pink slip on one of your utilities and, instead of putting your last $5 towards it, you bought a big bag of chips to “help you think?”

Listen—I get it. When I think about the days when I was at my worst, my answer was always ice cream. When I was dead broke and afraid of how I was going to keep the rent paid and keep my daughter fed, I spent all my money on baby food and sustained myself on a gallon of ice cream—it lasted maybe two days. Not just because Blue Bell isn’t even remotely as fulfilling as it should’ve been, but because the stress of trying to finish projects and get the rent paid was such that I needed the mental and blood sugar release that came from the indulgence.

I also know that feeling recently, too—during my worst, with my postpartum depression, I went right back to the ice cream. A pint a day, several times a week. (That’s another story for another day, I swear.)

In my mind, we really need to think differently about the way we associate feelings with food. Should I not feel a sense of warmth and belonging when I eat a four-generation old recipe for my Ain’t Sissy (yes, I said Ain’t Sissy)’s collard greens? Of course I should—but that’s not a feeling of escape unless I use it that way. That’s about love. That’s about tradition. That’s about a deeper sense of connection to a community that warmly embraces the most meaningful parts of me. That’s not about overindulging, nor is it about escapism, nor should it be painted that way.

(That sugary Jiffy cornbread y’all eat sometimes, though… that’s another story, entirely.)

But the feeling of warmth and belonging doesn’t come from a commercial pint of cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream. It doesn’t come from a bag of chips. There’s no meaningful cultural tradition associated with fast food. (And, it’s arguable that virtually all uniquely American traditions are of commercial origin and, by extension, varying degrees of ‘unhealthy.)

I have a running theory—that there are more Americans who experience levels of anxiety than we think, and the reason they can’t or don’t admit it is because they relieve it in unhealthy—albeit socially acceptable—manners. That’s how phrases like “don’t deprive yourself” and “treat yo’self” become so ingrained in pop culture. Perhaps we need to think twice about what it is we’re “depriving” ourselves of, and why that given item’s role is so huge in our lives. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by just going with the flow.

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