Desire, Craving and Preference


As you might know, I spent many years counselling smokers about quitting. Every time a smoker lights a cigarette, they satisfy an addictive desire to smoke – but the smoker could be totally unaware of that desire. They could even be unaware that they have lit a cigarette! Smoking, too, is so often automatic and unconscious.

Even when a smoker is noticing their desire, it can be experienced as nothing more than an ordinary thought. For example, “I think I’ll take my shoes off… I’ll sit down in this chair… I’ll see what’s on TV tonight… and I’ll have a cigarette.” There doesn’t seem to be any significant difference at all between each of these thoughts.

When a smoker makes an attempt to quit, their addictive desire usually (although not always!) becomes more obvious, but even then, there are often subtle thoughts of desire as well. I’ve spoken with enough recent ex-smokers to know that it’s these casual thoughts that can really catch them out. A thought such as, “Oh, I think I’ll smoke a cigarette now” can seem completely normal and inconsequential – until the realisation dawns that it’s been two weeks since they quit!

The big difference with smoking, of course, is that it’s so much easier to see when you might be about to satisfy your addictive desire because a cigarette is obvious to identify. When it comes to addictive overeating, however, it can be a challenge to separate whatever it is that’s satisfying your addictive desire from the real food you actually need. They are tough to separate because there’s great confusion over which is which. And they are tough to separate because they can be quite literally mixed together into one item.

They are also tough to separate because of addictive thinking. Addictive desire – and the belief systems that surround and support it – can appear as ordinary thoughts – but they aren’t. This is all driven by your brain’s reward system, over-stimulated by our modern non-food-stuffs: manufactured fats, starchy, refined carbohydrates, and especially sugars.

Your reward system compels you to eat; it drives you towards and causes you to prioritise tasty, tempting, sweet and fatty food. Even a few generations ago this kind of food would have been scarce, and obtaining it could be one of the most important goals in your day. The humans who didn’t have that drive wouldn’t have survived the first famine that came along, and in time their genes wouldn’t have survived either.

When you feel attracted towards a particular food, this attraction doesn’t necessarily show up as something you would ever call a craving. It could be experienced as nothing more than a personal preference.


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