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Why People Have Food Cravings

Many readers tell me that they just can't seem to resist sweets and desserts. Others say potato chips are their downfall. They say they are easily tempted and succumb almost immediately to their food cravings. They tell me that if not for these cravings, they would be able to lose weight. I sympathize with them because I, too, have my own cravings. I had to learn to live at peace with them so I could maintain my weight but more on that next week. First, let's discover why we have food cravings.

What exactly is a food craving?

Biological psychologist Marcia Pelchat, in an interview with Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter (July 1998), says it is difficult to define food cravings objectively since laboratory instruments cannot measure them. Researchers, like her, have to rely on what people say they experience.

Based on what her study participants have told her, Pelchat defines a food craving as "a very intense desire to eat a particular food, strong enough that you may go out of your way to get it".

She says there is a difference between hunger and a craving. Hunger can be satisfied by eating any kind of food while a craving can usually only be satisfied with a specific type of food. For example, a craving for pizza cannot be satisfied with spaghetti in tomato sauce. Oftentimes, not just any pizza will do. People will go out of their way to buy a particular brand or type of pizza.

More women than men get cravings.
According to a survey done by Harvey Weingarten of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, 97% of women and 70% of men interviewed admitted to having food cravings. Bear in mind, however, that this survey is not representative of all ethnic groups.

Pelchat confirms that, in her studies, both older and younger women report having more cravings than men. However, she notes that older people, in general, have fewer cravings.

Cravings and menstruation.
Pelchat says it is a well-documented fact that certain phases of the menstrual cycle are associated with cravings. Scientists are not sure if hormones are to blame for these cravings but it has been observed that women have cravings for sweet or salty food three days before and three days after menstruation. Meanwhile, as many pregnant women know, cravings can happen any time during pregnancy. No one knows if these cravings are psychological or physiological in nature.

Time of day.
Cravings tend to happen late in the afternoon or late in the evening, according to Pelchat. She says scientists don't know why but some possible reasons may be low blood sugar, the smell of dinner cooking and food commercials on TV.

Chocolate most craved for food.
Research in Canada and the U.S. shows that chocolate is the number one craved for food with pizza coming in a close second. Pelchat notes that chocolate and pizza have three things in common: they are highly palatable, very aromatic and flavorful.

"Serotonin hypothesis".
The "serotonin hypothesis" is an interesting but still controversial idea that seeks to explain why women crave for chocolates before and after menstruation. Proponents of the theory say that women are depressed due to low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. They claim that chocolate and other sugary carbohydrates are a natural anti-depressant because eating foods high in carbohydrates make serotonin levels rise. However, Pelchat says that the serotonin hypothesis doesn't explain why women would prefer chocolate to other carbohydrate foods like bread or pasta. She says that maybe women just like chocolate for its sweet taste, aroma and texture.

Dieting and craving.
Researchers have noticed that people who have just started a diet have more cravings than people who have been on a diet a long time. Pelchat gives several reasons that may explain why this is so. She says that long-term dieters may be following a "sensible" diet that is rich in variety and that's why they are less prone to cravings. Meanwhile, short-term dieters may be following a more rigid and monotonous diet that forbids eating many kinds of food. Boredom with the food could trigger cravings. Cravings could also be an "emotional response" to feelings of being deprived. Additionally, just knowing you can't have a certain food could make you crave for it. After all, forbidden fruit is more tempting.

Nutritional deficiency theory.
A popular concept, according to Pelchat, is that cravings reflect nutritional deficiencies. However, there is currently no scientific proof for this, she says. There is some evidence that people who have a severe sodium deficiency may develop cravings for salt but this theory doesn't explain why many people who take in more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day (the body only needs 500 milligrams) still crave for salty food. She says that iron-deficiency anemia is also associated with cravings but not necessarily for iron-rich foods so, again, the theory doesn't seem to make sense.

Cravings may encourage eating a variety of foods.
Pelchat tells of an experiment wherein people who drank nothing but vanilla Sustacal and water for five days started to crave for the opposite type of flavor of food like steaks and pizzas rather than the same type flavor of food like ice cream, cookies, and cake. Pelchat notes that while the Sustacal diet was boring and monotonous though nutritionally complete, many monotonous diets (like eating bananas only) are nutritionally unbalanced so cravings might be the body's way of encouraging you to eat a more varied diet.

"Sights and smells" may trigger cravings.
Another possible reason why people have cravings could be the sights and smells around them, explains Pelchat. If this is true, it is no wonder then why "Mrs. Fields Cookies" outlets are located near mall entrances. Those Japanese restaurants that feature plastic replicas of food aren't far off the mark either.

Cravings and stress. Psychologist Isaac Greenberg of Harvard Medical School says that food may act as an "efficient relaxant" since digesting your food switches off part of the nervous system that is responsible for making you tense. When we are tense or anxious, we tend to crave for "comfort food" or food that our parents used to give us when we were feeling bad. This may explain why so many people crave for chocolate or sweet things like ice cream and cake.

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