Sugar cravings explained: why we crave sweet taste according to Chinese medicine, part 3

In the previous installments of this article, I described situations when emotions, intellectual effort or stress make us crave sugar. However, there can also be very physiological reasons for that craving. 

As a sign of blood deficiency

Blood Deficiency is an interesting concept in Chinese Medicine. You can think of it as Blood not having enough "stuff" to nourish the body with (it is, of course, slightly more complicated and subtle). In many cases, it overlaps with a lack of iron.  My wonderful midwife, Lorie of Long River Midwives in Vermont, taught me this trick many years back: if you really crave something sweet, try to imagine a juicy steak instead (or for the vegetarians among us: your favourite spinach dish). If your inner voice yells "yes please!" even louder, it is a sign that what you actually crave is iron. Mind you, you don't necessarily have to indulge in the steak, but do make sure to use your knowledge I food and nutrition to treat yourself to a few iron- rich meals in a row. The sugar cravings should largely subside and eventually disappear.

Since my midwife taught me this trick, 13 years have passed and I had plenty of opportunity to observe this curious connection both on myself and others around me. A very close friend of mine, for instance, who tends towards anaemia, is also struggling with a habit of putting 2 heaped tablespoons of sugar in her tea. Remember, a low haemoglobin count may or may not be present: if the craving is there and the "mental test" of an alternative food works, the need is there.

Why this mistaken appetite for sugar when we crave certain nutrients? It is not a cruel trick of nature, there is logic behind it. Chinese Medicine explains it thus: Spleen is the chief agent of Blood production, that is, it governs the processes by which our body gets the nutrients it needs. Lacking iron, as well as anaemia, are in CM aspects of Blood Deficiency. Seeking to strengthen its function to produce more Blood, the Earthy energy of Spleen calls for sweet taste.

(As a side note: this understanding of Spleen does have a large, though subtle, overlap with the Western understanding. Did you know that Spleen produces red blood cells and lymphocytes when the body needs extra supplies of these?)

 It will all seem even all logical when you consider this:

What would be "sweet" in ancient china? (or anywhere else)

Let's for a second imagine our ancestors. Our great-great-great.... (insert a few more) grandmother, stretching on the bedding in her cozy cave, or even our great-great (insert a few more, but less than before) grandmother, who spent productive days minding livestock and mending socks some 300 years ago, what would she crave when she fancied something sweet? My grandma loves sweets (still, at the age of 93, she will eat any you put on a plate before her, in any quantity), but when she was a little girl, her biggest treat was... empty ice cream wafers she would get from her dad a few times a year, and a white bread with hot chocolate she enjoyed... on her birthdays. When she was a married woman, home-made, sugared cakes that she made so well according to old traditional recipes were a delicacy to be enjoyed on Christmas, Easter, birthdays and "namesdays".

So before the supermarket shelves and the many nooks and crannies of our minds got populated with chocolate bars, bon-bons, iced buns of all shapes and sizes, ice-creams and sodas and the like, what would those ancestors of ours envisage when they craved something sweet?

My thoughts are that these foods contain the sought after sweetness:

  • raisins
  • dates, 
  • beetroots,
  • pumpkins and similar
  • blood-rich stakes and other meats,
  • animal fat (e.g. crispy streaky bacon)
  • certain fruit

Yes - they ALL taste sweet! Red meat tastes sweet. And if you haven't eaten commercial sugar for a while, the sweetness of a date is outright overwhelming. 


How to deal with this type of craving:

Luckily, this one is the easiest to deal with. Make sure you have at least two iron-rich dishes every day, or even better include a source of iron in every meal. And do not forget to add in a source of vit. C.: it facilitates the absorption of iron, so that your body can use more of what you give it. Some ideas include:

  • adding dried plums or raisins to your porridge (warming diet),
  • sautéd liver for lunch with some fresh parsley (warming diet),
  • scrambled tofu (cooling diet),
  • a kale and lemon smoothie (cooling diet, can be "warmed up" with the addition of ginger, banana or date).

It will take a while to build up your iron levels, but if that is what you are lacking, you will see a good improvement in your energy levels. Chinese Medicine considers what we put in our bodies the second basic level of healing, so a good acupuncturist (you can check the BAcC website or a list of practitioners) should give you advice on this as a part of treatment.

Figuring out how to read the signs the body gives us, and how to be creative with your food to support yourself in a loving way towards health, is a long process. It is not easy, but it is also fun and exciting. I love supporting my clients on their paths to reach a better health, and see the change and the increase in happiness that they find.