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Cravings: Why They Strike, How to Curb Them

Sweet, salty, irresistible? Why you crave certain foods and how to regain control.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Almost everyone has hankered after potato chips, ice cream, chocolate, or another beckoning treat. But why? And what do you do when a craving calls your name?

Is it OK to give in once in a while? What if your cravings start to run amok and demand satisfaction every day?

Take heart: You're not at their mercy. If you learn why cravings happen, you can outsmart them.

Food Cravings From the Inside Out

Cornell professor Brian Wansink, PhD, makes it his business to understand food cravings. He's studied a woman who loved to cuddle up with her favorite snack: a bowl of popcorn mixed with M&Ms. He knows why hearty men crave steaks and pizza, while women usually go for candy or cookies.

Insight into cravings is important because our environment is loaded with sensory cues that can prompt us to overeat, Wansink says. He directs Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, which studies consumers' relationships with food. (The lab's motto: "We uncover eating traps and change them.") He also wrote the book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

Visual cues -- such as seeing enticing foods -- are the most frequent environmental triggers. Smells are potent, too. For instance, "You walk by a Cinnabon," Wansink says, and the rich, sweet aroma can automatically trip a strong desire for the cinnamon rolls.

Don't Blame Nutrition

One popular myth holds that people crave certain foods to fill a nutritional deficiency.

"The naive view has always been that cravings represent wisdom of the body," says Marcia Pelchat, PhD, a food researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

But it's not so. Some of her work has shown that people have cravings even when they're fed a diet that's completely adequate in calories and nutrients.

"People will often say things, like, ‘Gee, I'm craving potato chips. I'd better eat some because I must need the salt,'" Pelchat says. "But really, how many of us -- aside from runners in hot weather -- are deficient in salt? And then how do you explain cravings for sweets in terms of deficiency?"

We feel virtuous blaming cravings on nutritional needs, Pelchat says. But "we don't have such great wisdom of the body," she says. "Unfortunately, humans rely less on instincts and more on culture to determine what they eat -- or on individual experience." (In her city, for example, a lot of men crave Philly cheese steaks.)

Culture, Sex, and Cravings

Wansink agrees that culture and gender play a big role in cravings. In his research, men were more likely to crave pizza, pasta, and soup over cakes and cookies. Why? Besides being tasty and filling, such hot, savory foods reminded them of attention from their mothers or wives.

In contrast, women liked these foods well enough, but associated them with work, including preparation and cleanup. So instead, women tended to crave hassle-free snack foods, such as candy, cookies, ice cream, and chocolate.

What about that woman who liked popcorn mixed with M&M's? Not only was the snack easy to prepare, but it made her feel "cozy and safe," Wansink says. She and her husband had made it as a "secret snack" when they were dating in college; hence, the positive association turned it into her favorite craving.

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