The Facts About Food Cravings
7 ways to deal with those irresistible urges
Ask anyone what foods they crave, and most people will be able to reel off
at least a couple of items without hesitation.
Take me, for example. My name is Elaine Magee, and I'm a chocoholic. Just
about the only food I crave is chocolate (and sometimes cake and, about once a
year, cream puffs or éclairs).
I find comfort in knowing I am not alone. Surveys estimate that almost 100%
of young women and nearly 70% of young men had food cravings during the past
year. That covers most of us, doesn't it?
It's All In Your Head
Those who don't have food cravings might say that such cravings are "all
in your head," and new research suggests they are right. It is all in our
heads: several specific areas of our brains, actually. Areas of the brain
responsible for memory and sensing pleasure are partially to blame for keeping
those food cravings coming.
Three regions of the brain -- the hippocampus, insula, and caudate - appear
to be activated during food-craving episodes, according to new research from
the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Their brain tests suggest that memory areas
of the brain (which are responsible for associating a specific food with a
reward) are actually more important to food cravings than the brain's reward
Further, blocking the opiate receptors in the brain, which sense pleasure,
can blunt a person's desire to eat foods rich in fat and sugar, according to
new research by Adam Drewnowski, PhD, of the University of Washington.
De-Stress to Discourage Cravings
Beyond the physiological reasons for food cravings, they often have
something to do with emotion and desire.
"Food cravings arise to satisfy emotional needs, such as calming stress
and reducing anxiety," says Drewnowski, a
well-known researcher on taste and food preferences.
For many of us, cravings kick into high gear when we're stressed or anxious.
Carbohydrates boost our levels of the hormone serotonin, which has a calming
effect. And recent research suggests that the combination of fat and sugar may
also have a calming effect.
Researchers from University of California at San Francisco put rats in a
high-stress environment and discovered two key points: the stressed-out rats
preferred to eat sugar and fat, and when the rats ate fat and sugar, their
brains produced less of the stress-related hormones (the ones that trigger the
It's in Our Genes, Too
Getting fat is an evolutionary advantage embedded in our genes, according to
a recent American Psychological Society Observer article.
Humans have been able to survive times of famine and hardship throughout
history due largely to our ability to store excess calories, consumed during
times of plenty, as body fat. At some level, our bodies may be programmed to
crave foods high in calories.
Also, several studies have suggested that eating a diet lacking in variety can lead
to more food cravings. But let's not overlook the obvious: It also doesn't hurt
that the foods we typically crave taste so good and that we usually have many
enjoyable memories associated with them. That history can be plenty