Sugar Cravings explained: why we crave sweet taste according to Chinese Medicine (part 1)

sugar cravings in Chinese Medicine TCM

Sugar: the perfect love hate relationship: it gets blamed for wrecking so much havoc in our bodies, yet most of us still crave it. The list of crimes attributed to commercial sugar is indeed long: apart from making the pounds or kilograms pile on, eating foods high in added sugar has been linked to enhanced inflammation, weaker immune system function and compromised cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association produced a Scientific statement in 2009 that nicely summarises available research, including where studies on people are not always feasible or conclusive. It is available here:

Much longer than the list of crimes, though, is the list of sweets in any supermarket. Intricately decorated cakes adorn bakery windows and make our mouths water. It is often thought that we are evolutionarily hard wired to be attracted to high calorie food, because for our predecessors such food was scarce, and therefore precious. The question remains, though, why some people prefer fatty, others salty or spicy, and yet others sweet foods, or why our cravings may appear at particular times of the day. Also, while the evolutionary explanation may help not to blame ourselves for giving in to a sweet tooth, but to does not help us in managing our diets.

So now, I will try to illuminate your sugar cravings through the prism of Chinese Medicine. After all, it is best to know your enemy! 

How sweet taste correlates to the microcosm of the body

In Chinese Medicine, every kind of taste is associated with a particular type of energy in our mind and body (symbolised by the Five Elements – “Wu Xing”) and one of the key Organs (“Zang”). As such, the sweet taste correlates with Earth and the Spleen “Zang”. Before we proceed, you need to remember that in the Eastern traditions, the understanding of organs is much broader and does not map well onto Western anatomy. The Spleen I will be referring to is much more than the Western spleen: it is the driving energy behind digestive functions, blood production and more. Explaining the whole thing would take a good chapter or two in a Chinese Medicine textbook, so I will discuss just the relevant aspects as we go along.

1. Craving Type 1: Sweet taste as a self-cuddle: enhancing the Earth energy within

You may have had a harsh exchange with your loved one. Or a situation arose at work where your needs and preferences where not taken into account. Or maybe you had to be gentle and understanding with your children, or civil with unreasonable clients, all day long - now you just want to... melt into the sweetness, even for a moment.

This sort of craving happens when we need an emotional hug. The sweetness is just that - it is indulging yourself a little bit to feel nurtured, hugged, comforted. Chinese Medicine (CM) teaches that the Earth energy (with which the sweet taste is associated) is stable, calm and nurturing. If a person is at harmony and this energy is strong within, the situations described above will not produce a craving. But if this energy is weaker or disturbed (which is frequent, and reasons for that can be quite varied) - then we crave sweets to supplement it.

How to deal with it

Dealing with this type of craving takes time, patience and commitment, but the results far surpass just improving your diet. They will help you -in the long run - achieve more balance in your life, and develop a sense of a stable, loving core. In essence, you need to develop strategies to boost your Earth energy in wholesome ways – or, in other words, other methods of giving yourself an emotional hug. Ask yourself, when do you feel nurtured? How can you relax and envelop yourself in “loving-kindness”?

Some of my suggestions are:

- a warm, fragrant bath

- meditation

- qi gong

- taking some time to soak up the sun (if there is any!) and look at something green, be it your garden or a green leaf on the window-sill

- giving your face a special massage

Acupuncture can be of great assistance in strengthening the Earth energy long-term. Also, in the short run, it can take the edge of the cravings and help you to be in the right shape to make lifestyle adjustments. With acupuncture we can strengthen the Spleen, which will make it easier to develop and stick to healthy nurturing habits.

. to be continued next week. Any questions – ask in the comments :)