Most people, at some time, have a strong desire for some particular food, such as ice cream or pizza. Such a desire for a particular food, even when one is not hungry, is called a craving. There are a number of theories as to why people crave certain foods, including:
- Self-imposed food restriction.
- A psychological desire for a "comfort" food.
- Hormonal changes.
- Gender differences.
- Response to stress.
The theory of food restriction holds that people desire those foods that they feel should be avoided. According to the dietitian Debra Waterhouse, food cravings do not cause weight gain, but denying the cravings does. This creates a vicious cycle. For example, a person may feel guilty for wanting a giant cinnamon roll that he or she smells upon entering a shopping mall. The urge is avoided, but a couple of hours later, the person may want the cinnamon roll more than ever, give in to the craving, and quickly eat the entire cinnamon roll. This leads to even stronger feelings of guilt, along with the resolve not to eat anything remotely similar for some period of time. Soon, however, the craving strikes again. The cycle becomes one of denial leading to deprivation, then to overindulgence, and then back to denial. This denial-deprivation-overindulgence pattern confirms the negative view of all food as either good or bad. It would be better, however, to imagine a world where foods are not designated as bad and not allowed, but where reasonable portions of any food can be part of a healthful diet. Portion control is the key.
Certain foods are usually served during holidays or special occasions. These foods become associated with comfort and happy times, eliciting feelings of relaxation and reduced stress, and are thus called "comfort foods." Some common comfort foods are ice cream, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, pudding, cookies, and chicken. One's cultural background plays a large part in comfort-food choices. Mood also plays a roll in cravings for comfort food. Women are more likely to eat when they are sad, mad, or anxious, while men look to food when bored or lonely.
Those who find themselves reaching for comfort foods frequently should ask themselves if they are truly hungry, or whether they are using food to soothe their mood. For those who are feeding emotions with food, it is helpful to begin to replace the food with healthier activities, such as taking a walk, participating in a favorite form of exercise, or reading a good book.
Hormones and Cravings.
How do hormone changes affect food cravings? For women, these cravings can be more intense than for men. Hormonal changes tied to the menstrual cycle are often a cause of cravings. Immediately prior to the menstrual period, the body's estrogen level drops, as does the serotonin level in the brain.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that plays a role in maintaining a relaxed feeling. When the level decreases, irritability and mood swings increase as does the craving for carbohydrate- and fat-rich foods such as chocolate, cookies, cake, potato chips, and roasted nuts. There is nothing wrong with eating a piece of chocolate, of course, but when chocolate and other craved foods become the mainstay of the diet and healthier choices get overlooked, then the cravings have gotten out of control and health may be compromised.
Is there any truth to the belief that pregnant women suffer intense cravings for particular foods, sometimes in odd combinations? Absolutely. According to medical researchers, pregnant women experiencing changes in hormones and an increased need for calories frequently exhibit changes in the types of foods they prefer. Common cravings include fruit, milk products, salty foods, chocolate, and other sweets. In the early stages of pregnancy, women often have a strong aversion to bitter tastes, which scientists think may serve as a warning against ingesting toxic plants or fruits during the period when a fetus is most vulnerable. In later stages of pregnancy, women often exhibit preferences for salty foods (which satisfy their increased need for sodium) and sour foods (which contribute to a varied diet). Thus the lure of pickles and potato chips.
Is there a difference between the sexes when it comes to food cravings? According to Waterhouse, the foods most frequently craved or preferred by men include hot dogs, eggs, and meat, which are all protein foods, while women reach for chocolate, ice cream, and bread. She attributes these differences to sex hormones and body composition. Men have larger amounts of the hormone testosterone and about forty pounds
Many people today lead stressful lives, which can lead to stress eating. Increased stress results in a need for carbohydrates to provide energy for the stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response (a defense reaction of the body that prepares it to fight or flee by triggering certain cardiovascular, hormonal, and other changes). When coping with stress, a person needs increased energy to deal with the demands placed on the body. Carbohydrates provide a fairly rapid source of fuel to the body by raising blood-glucose levels. However, when life becomes hectic and feels out of control, it is common to reach for any available food regardless of calories or nutritional content.
Life will always have its stresses, but dealing with stress in a healthful, nutritional way can have a positive impact on self-esteem, energy level, emotional outlook, and weight. There are a number of positive ways to deal with cravings, including:
- Start the day off with breakfast, which helps prevent overwhelming hunger later in the day.
- Eliminate feelings of guilt related to labeling food as either good or bad. Some choices are healthier than others, but snacks and treats can be consumed in reasonable amounts.
- Plan ahead for each new week. Think about one's school, work, and activity schedule and how healthful snacks can be incorporated into it.
- Keep healthful snacks close at hand, both at home and at work.
- Try not to go for long periods of time without eating.
- Combine lean protein foods with high-fiber carbohydrate sources to provide energy that lasts for several hours, such as a slice of vegetable pizza or a bean burrito.
Cravings can be the exception instead of the rule when it comes to one's diet. Developing a lifestyle that includes healthful food selections and regular meals and snacks can help control cravings. The extra time it takes in planning meals or snacks, whether eating at home or eating on the run, is easily made up for in increased energy and improved mood.
Waterhouse, Debra (1995). Why Women Need Chocolate. New York: Hyperion.
Mitchell, Susan, and Christie, Catherine (1997). I'd Kill for a Cookie. New York: Dutton.
American Dietetic Association. "Eating in Stressful Times." Available from <http://www.eatright.org/pr.html>
Hellmich, Nanci. "Stress Can Put on Pounds." USA Today. Available from <http://usatoday.com/news>