IF nothing can possibly replace your daily fix of a certain food, a new book suggests you could be in the grip of an eating crisis.
Craving a particular food (meaning you have to have it, and nothing else will do) may mean your hunger is emotional rather than physical, says Doreen Virtue, an American author who describes herself as a spiritual doctor of psychology and a fourth-generation metaphysician.
In her latest book Constant Craving she insists that tackling the underlying reason why people crave a certain food can help them to gain control of their eating and see the pounds drop off.
"Insatiable cravings may signal an imbalance in the body or the emotions," she says.
"The cravings are a form of self-medicating, in which the body is trying to reach an internal equilibrium through using the mood and energy-altering properties of various foods and drinks.
"This is all done unconsciously. You may believe you crave a food because of its taste, but the body and emotions have an entirely different agenda."
Virtue says studies have shown overweight people tend to eat when anxious or depressed.
"Turn your focus away from maintaining weight loss and instead turn your focus to maintaining peace of mind," she advises.
While working with people with eating disorders, Virtue found that morbidly obese people's cravings for high-fat food stemmed from chronic anxiety and depression, as well as other emotions, which they were trying to soothe with food.
"I noticed that those who craved, for example, crunchy snacks like crisps and crackers had chronic underlying anger issues, and they were taking their anger out on the crunchy food.
"I noticed a similar pattern in depressed people turning to ice cream, which soothes them with its creamy texture."
Our number one food craving, chocolate, contains the same chemical the brain creates when we feel romantic love, meaning women in particular may crave chocolate because it creates the feeling of being loved.
"Chocoholism is a cry for love, intimacy and romance," says Virtue. "It's the perfect antidepressant for the lovesick."
For those who may be unsure whether they crave a food or just really like it, Virtue - who's lost two stone by tackling her own cravings for food including ice cream - says a true craving is a compulsion that's not a conscious decision, akin to cravings for addictive substances like tobacco.
"It's a feeling that you don't have a choice and you must eat that food, despite any consequences such as inconvenience in obtaining the food, weight gain, or possible health concerns. The craving is controlling you."
If you just like a food rather than craving it, you should be able to satiate your desire by eating a substitute if it's not readily available..
Studies suggest every food corresponds to a certain mood. In 1982 the American university professor Bernard Lyman asked 200 people to imagine themselves experiencing various emotions, including anger, loneliness and joy, and at the same time asked them what food they'd like to eat.
They indicated strong preferences for desserts when feeling happy and loving, but when anxious they wanted snack foods, both of the healthy and junk variety.
Virtue says: "Any time your appetite goes out of control it's because you want to feel more energetic, more relaxed, or in a better mood.
"Intuitively, your cravings are for the exact food that will produce the desired effect."
Once people have identified why they crave a particular food, they can address the problem it has highlighted.
For instance, if you're craving a comfort food like mashed potato with lots of butter, take non-caloric measures to comfort yourself such as phoning a good friend or having a nap or a massage.
"In cases of emotion-based cravings, the only way to fill yourself up is through feeding your heart - in other words, by addressing the underlying emotional hunger," stresses Virtue.
Registered dietician Nigel Denby agrees that what we eat is often not just connected to physical hunger. "Food cravings are without question emotionally linked," he says.
"While all people are aware of their feelings of genuine hunger, many are unaware that their choice of food - sometimes because they're genuinely hungry, sometimes not - is linked to how they're feeling emotionally, rather than just a need to tackle their hunger."
He adds: "Any tool that can help people understand their emotional links with food, and potentially help to control emotionally driven urges to eat, has to be a step in the right direction."
What food cravings may mean
- Bread and butter - You may be feeling trapped and procrastinating about making necessary changes.
- Crisps - You may be feeling stressed or anxious, wanting to ease worry.
- Chocolate - You might be craving love.
- Cheese - You could be feeling exhausted, fearing the worst, or want comfort.
- Coffee - You may be drained of energy, be feeling burned out, resentful or disappointed with your job.
- Vanilla ice cream - You may be feeling tense, fearful and wish to be soothed and renewed.
- Nuts - You could be suffering from tension, too much stress, not enough fun, anxiety and lowered peace of mind.
- Constant Craving by Doreen Virtue is published by Hay House. Available now