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We’ve heard it before: “You are what you eat.” But what does it really mean? Do people actually believe that what we eat has such a strong effect on our health or mindset? It wouldn’t appear so, judging by the success of fast-food restaurants–“Supersize me!” is standard lingo.

But those dieting for weight loss may feel this speaks to them. They reach the simple conclusion that if they eat that dessert they are eyeing, they will gain weight. However, it is much more intricate than this.

Simply put, nutrition is the fuel for our sustenance. Just as a car will not accelerate without any gas, our bodies need a proper energy source that can afford us the drive and energy to accomplish our daily activities. It is important to understand what we are putting into our bodies, why we consistently crave certain foods, and what effect it will have on us immediately and long-term.

Please don’t get me wrong. I enjoy good dessert, especially chocolaty yumminess. In this I know I am not alone. I’m an avid baker as well; my peanut-butter-chocolate mousse is somewhat famous in these parts of town! I certainly enjoy getting requests from my company on Shabbos for a particular dessert. Of course it is always easier when there are no leftovers to tempt me. I am not unlike most of you. However, it is what we do on a regular basis that sets the tone for our health. It is not the dessert you allow yourself every so often that will be your downfall. (And please don’t argue with me on this point because I am not ready to give up my small indulgence!)

My patients often ask me why they crave certain foods and why they crave them at specific times. I reposted an article on my Facebook page this week. It discusses why many still crave dessert even after eating a full meal. People crave the sweetness, finishing off the meal with something that will fulfill that craving, and enjoying the guilty pleasure of the dessert as well. In Chinese medicine, we are always looking for clues the body is giving us so that we can determine the proper course of treatment. Someone craving sweets after a full meal may have what we call “Spleen Qi deficiency.”

Every organ has its purpose and is also related to an element, season, emotion, and taste. The spleen, together with the stomach, is responsible for digestion. It takes food and transforms it into Qi-energy and blood that supply nutrients to the entire body. In ancient China, sweet foods eaten after a meal would have consisted of a mildly sweet flavor contained in certain kinds of rice, grains, and fruits such as dates. When we introduce a large helping of our favorite chocolate cake after a big meal, we are overdoing it. Americans indeed often enjoy “supersizing,” but we are putting our spleens into overload.

After eating the sinful dessert, we will feel an immediate surge of energy from the spike in our blood sugar. However, a little later on we will feel a sense of fatigue along with the guilt that follows: Did I really eat that whole piece? Students can relate to this easily. When studying for major exams, people often find themselves with the munchies. Our bodies are craving some mildly sweet food to encourage the spleen to work a little more, to provide a little more energy and brainpower. However, if we provide a quick sugar load, it will in fact set in motion a vicious circle of craving more sweets to satisfy the up—down mood swing and energy peak-and-drop that is sure to follow.

Another common craving is salt. This is especially noticeable for the beach bums who enjoy an afternoon in the sun. They may have a desire for some salted chips, pretzels, etc. Salt relates to the kidneys in Chinese medicine. As you are in the sun and perspiring from the heat and losing valuable water, the kidneys are suppressed and thus the craving for salty foods becomes more distinguished. Salt absorbs water, and our bodies are telling us to drink and retain more water to compensate for the supply that is being lost.

Cravings in and of themselves are not bad. They’re an indication that our bodies need a specific nutrient at that time. When there is an imbalance and the cravings become obsessive, acupuncture can help restore this balance. Please tell this to the guy whose pregnant wife sends him out at 3 a.m. to satisfy an insatiable craving! If we listen to our bodies and give them what they need in moderation, then we have learned what proper health and nutrition is about. It is when we continuously indulge that we have pushed ourselves beyond what our bodies need, and instead formulated poor habits.

If we find ourselves overindulging, we know it is time to reassess. Take a step back and examine how you feel. If your energy and moods seem to be on a roller coaster, take a closer look at your foods and make the necessary adjustments. Eating high-fiber foods will help maintain proper blood sugars and help keep you feeling full longer.

But if you are not yet ready to commit to analyzing your diet and making the proper adjustments, you can always stop by for some leftover mousse!