What an excruciating week for food cravings: lemon tart, chocolate, vegemite and Red Rock chips (the Honey Soy Chicken kind) – my tastebuds have been busy this week!
…I seem to cave each time a craving comes along and I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s my poor self control that is to blame…
Why is it that we crave certain foods? And are there other ways we can satisfy our cravings without actually eating? I turned to science to find some answers…
What are food cravings?
When we crave a particular food – the feeling is hard to knock. Food cravings are different from making regular food choices and simply feeling hungry because the desire for food is more intense and very specific for cravings.
Why do we crave certain foods?
There are different reasons why we crave certain foods. Food cravings are sometimes a way of our bodies saying we’re hungry or we need certain nutrients – such as sugar or carbohydrates. Cravings can also be associated with eating disorders, guilt, depression or stress. Women are particular prone to craving certain foods (especially during that cranky time of the month and during pregnancy).
Scientific research has shown that our minds and bodies can learn to crave specific foods. For example, a study carried out by University College London found that our craving for chocolate is strengthened when we repeatedly eat chocolate when we’re hungry but not when we repeatedly eat it when full (Appetite, Vol. 32, Issue 2, April 1999, pp. 219-240).
A study by Marika Tiggemann and Eva Kemps at the School of Psychology at Flinders University showed visual imagery also triggers food cravings. Tiggemann and Kemps found that the intensity of a craving for a particular food correlated with the vividness of an image of that food (Appetite, Vol. 45, Issue 3, Dec 2005, pp. 305-313).
Food cravings can also be culture-specific. For example, Egyptians crave vegetables but Western societies are suckers for chocolate. No surprise there!
It’s no addiction
Food cravings and drug addictions are not the same, but the feelings and behaviours associated with both are very similar.
Marcia Pelchat at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, US, found the action of many of the neurotransmitter systems in our bodies are the same in both food cravings and in cravings for drugs of abuse.
For example, levels of brain serotonin, a chemical associated with sleep, memory and relaxation, increases when we drink alcohol. Illicit drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine also trigger higher levels of brain serotonin. In terms of food, there have been studies to show that eating carbohydrates also raises brain serotonin levels (Physiology & Behaviour, Vol. 76, Issue 3, July 2002, pp. 347-352). This might explain the ‘heavy’ feeling and afternoon slump after we get after eating a high-carbohydrate lunch!
One major body of evidence for a relationship between food and the release of endorphins associated with taking certain drugs such as is the analgesic (pain-relieving) effects we get when we eat sweets. Infants who are given sugary water to drink cry less than those infants who are given plain water (Pediatrics, Vol. 87, Issue 2, 1991, pp. 215-218).
How can we manage food cravings?
The most obvious answer is to satisfy the craving – go and eat it! According to Tiggemann and Kemps, food cravings can also be induced by thought, smell or pictures. I might just go and spend a moment staring at a lemon tart.