Brian Wansink, PhD, makes it his business to understand food cravings. He directs Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, which studies people’s 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.
Insight into cravings is important because our environment is loaded with cues that can prompt us to overeat, Wansink says. Environmental triggers -- such as seeing or smelling an enticing food -- are to blame for many of our cravings. "You walk by a Cinnabon," he explains, and the rich, sweet aroma can automatically trip a strong desire for cinnamon rolls.
Don't Blame Nutrition
One popular myth is 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. Pelchat’s work has shown that people have cravings even with a diet that's adequate in calories and nutrients.
"People will often say things, like, ‘Gee, I'm craving potato chips. I must need the salt,'" Pelchat says. "But really, how many of us -- aside from runners in hot weather -- are deficient in salt?"
We feel virtuous blaming cravings on nutritional needs, Pelchat says. But "unfortunately, humans rely less on instincts and more on culture or individual experience to determine what they eat.”
"If you have a cookie every day after school, just walking into the house cues you to have a cookie," she says. "If you don't get that cookie right away, your mind obsesses about it and turns it into a craving."
You Are What You Eat
Gender also plays a big role. In Wansink’s research, men were more likely to crave pizza, pasta, and soup over cakes and cookies. Why? Hot, savory foods reminded them of attention from their mothers or wives.
Women associated those foods with preparation and cleanup, so they tended to want hassle-free snacks, such as candy, cookies, ice cream, and chocolate.
Good Mood, Bad Mood
Certain emotions, including stress, sadness, and boredom, can promote cravings, Pelchat says. "A bad mood can become a conditioned cue for eating. Just like walking by the doughnut shop, being in a bad mood becomes a cue that elicits going over to the refrigerator."