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Cravings: Why, What, And When to Indulge

Asian woman indulging in a big chocolate bar

Do you keep a drawer full of chocolate or candy in your desk at work?  Have you ever run to the grocery store specifically for cheese puffs?  Do you have other food cravings that you must indulge now and then?  If so, you are in good company.  A recent study showed over 90 percent of the participants having food cravings.  Unlike hunger, which can be satisfied by any food, cravings are an intense desire for a specific food.

What Causes Food Cravings?

Food cravings are complicated, but here are a few of the usual suspects:

  • The brain.  Recent research has shown that the areas of the brain that are active when we crave food are important for memory recall and pleasure.  As a consequence, mental images of a particular food can greatly increase the strength of a craving. Many people also have happy memories associated with the foods that they love, leading to intense cravings when recalling cheerful moments.
  • Emotions and stress.  Many of reach for comfort foods when feeling stressed or sad.  Levels of serotonin, a hormone with calming properties, increase when we eat carbohydrates.
  • Genetics.  The foods we most often crave, like chocolate and French fries, are high not only in carbohydrates but also in calories in general.  Many experts agree that humans have a genetic predisposition to prefer high-calorie foods.  Consuming and storing extra calories when food was plentiful helped our ancestors survive times of scarcity.
  • Personality.  Alan Hirsch, author of “What Flavor Is Your Personality?” suggests that your typical food cravings may relate to your personality.  Hirsch’s research indicates that many individuals who long for milk chocolate, for instance, tend to be introverted and thoughtful.  People who love spicy foods are often highly organized and detail-oriented, while sweet and salty types tend to be withdrawn and creative.
  • Nutritional deficiencies.  Some experts propose that food cravings indicate certain nutritional deficiencies.  Women who crave salty foods, for example, may lack calcium and other important minerals. 

Giving In

Cravings for highly-caloric, energy-dense foods are very common, and do not necessarily go away as a result of dieting or weight-loss.  When you are trying to lose weight, it’s helpful to accept food cravings as normal, and not feel guilty about them.  According to researcher Adam Drewnowski, hindering the receptors of the brain’s feel-good chemicals can lessen an individual’s cravings for foods high in sugar or fat.  But rather than trying to eliminate these foods from your diet altogether, it’s best to eat them less frequently. 

Eat the foods you love in moderation, and really enjoy the experience.  If you tend to lose control around your favorite foods, try buying single-size portions.  It’s often possible to satisfy a craving with a lower-calorie alternative.  So go out for an ice cream cone rather than buying a carton of your favorite flavor, and try substituting frozen yogurt for full-fat ice cream.