Why we have food cravings and what to do about them

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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

What do all of these things have in common: French fries, cupcakes, cookies, pasta, pizza and bread? They all fall in the category of foods we crave. A craving is defined as a powerful desire and when it comes to food, almost everyone has had a first-hand experience. Let’s unpack the science of cravings.

Physical or psychological?

Despite a popular theory suggesting that cravings are related to nutrient deficiencies, there’s scant scientific support for this notion. That may explain why you’re unlikely to hear chatter about craving chickpeas, despite the fact that this food will supply fiber, magnesium, potassium, iron and folate — nutrients that are often shortchanged in an American diet. Still, cravings are partly driven by nature and partly by nurture.

Here’s where the physical part comes in: Processed foods are craved more often than natural, whole foods because they’re more reinforcing. Research shows that high fat, high carbohydrate foods (think: ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookies, mac and cheese, cakes) light up reward circuitry in our brain more than foods that are either high in fat or high in carbs (as nature might supply them) — and more than you’d expect given people’s stated liking for those foods. Other research suggests that sugar acts on similar pathways in the brain as addictive substances, which would explain some of our cravings, binging behaviors, and use of food as a reward.

Other biological factors come into play, too. Studies suggest that insufficient sleep can drive up cravings for less healthy fare. Sleep deprivation can make food seem more enticing, and it can lower our inhibitions, putting us less in control of our eating choices.

Eating plays a central role in just about every major life event, social activity and religious ceremony so food is very intertwined with emotions and culture.

Often, though, a craving is a learned response. Say when you were growing up, Friday night was pizza night, and everyone was relaxed and in a good mood (because mom and dad can sleep in on Saturdays, no one had to cook dinner, and dishes are pretty effortless when pizza is involved). Deep down inside, you might couple these experiences in a number of ways. Maybe Fridays roll around and you have a hankering for pizza because you’ve paired pizza with Friday. Or maybe you want to relax and chill and that triggers a craving for pizza because you’ve coupled chill time with pizza. Or maybe you watch a movie about a family and the craving strikes because you’ve unconsciously coupled pizza with a family setting. You may not be aware that you formed these associations, but once they’re linked, a similar association (fun, relaxation, family, Friday) can cue the craving regardless of how hungry you are.

Just think: Eating plays a central role in just about every major life event, social activity and religious ceremony so food is very intertwined with emotions and culture. We start to associate good feelings with the food that takes center stage in these moments.

But we also form habits around food and unpleasant feelings. Breakup? Fight with a friend? Bad day at work? We want these feelings to go away ASAP! Since food can light up pleasure centers in our brain, we might make ourselves feel good with rewarding foods and then another association is formed (bad feeling + rewarding food = momentary good feeling).

source: nbcnews.com