I have a small pillow in my living room that speaks to me. In stitched letters it says, “What? Chocolate is not a food group?” My family knows that one of my favorite “food groups” is chocolate, and I don’t mean because I am on a health kick looking for the benefits of dark chocolate; I just like good, old-fashioned milk chocolate. But let me tell you that when I have a chocolate craving, my body may really asking me for something more than my brown, sweet treat.
There is a growing body of literature that explains many of our cravings as our body’s signals for what it really wants; we just don’t speak the language. We fail to translate the cravings in quite the way our bodies are trying to communicate. This has real implications if you have an older loved one for who you are a caregiver. As one ages the taste buds become less sensitive, and appetite wanes. And if you are taking your older loved one’s interest in foods or cravings too literally as you listen, you may think you are satisfying their body’s nutritional needs when, in fact you are not. Let me start with my own craving.
- Chocolate. If your elder expresses a craving for chocolate, they may really be translating their body’s need for magnesium, a very important electrolyte in the human body. While chocolate can offer some magnesium there are better sources. Chocolate is okay – thank goodness – but your body will benefit from a variety of magnesium sources such as certain vegetables, nuts and seeds. So if your elder has a regular craving for chocolate, try offering legumes, nuts and seeds to avoid the sugar and fats that accompany the magnesium in commercially-available chocolate.
- Potato Chips. I see this in our household where a certain family member would prefer a bag of potato chips rather than a handful or two. So much for portion control. Potato chip craving may actually be an expression of an iron deficiency. This kind of deficiency triggers a craving for crunchy foods, and potato chips -while crunchy – come up short. Iron-rich alternatives include dark meats, fish, poultry and darker green vegetables. And this overlooks the huge intake of sodium that potato chips offer and nobody needs.
- All of the Above. This is where the psychology gets interesting. Let’s say your older loved one can still smell the peanuts that you just had, but they had been disciplined and translated their craving into having a portion of raw carrots. But a half hour later, they still can all but smell the peanuts and they cave in and subsequently gorge on the peanuts. They should actually feed some of their craving when it expresses itself, but in moderation. That still leaves room for the healthy foods they will eat later and moderates the caloric intake that has become such a national epidemic.
At the end of the day, it is about balance and understanding what our bodies are telling themselves. If you are that caregiver to an older loved one, don’t become the food police, but perhaps there can be a role for a food translator to help them understand their own bodies’ language when cravings make their voices heard.
Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to info@cr eativecaremanagement.com.