Food cravings are those overwhelming desires for a specific food. Differing from hunger, which can be satisfied by just about any food, cravings are a continuous calling regardless of a full or grumbling belly. Food cravings have been linked to both physiological and psychological triggers, including nutrient deficiencies, lack of sleep, PMS, emotional status and stress, and even the sight or smell of food (1).
Dominating underlying thoughts, strong cravings can actually interfere with reaction time and working memory capacity (2). In the brain, food craving episodes have been linked to activity in the hippocampus, insula and caudate–areas important to memory and emotions (3). The function of the hippocampus is also associated with the sense of smell, highlighting how certain smells can remind someone of positive (or negative) feelings. For many of us, food was associated with rewards and positive experiences early in life, perhaps setting the stage for future cravings in times of stress or a need for pleasure. Strong food cravings can also be a risk factor for binge eating disorders, a higher BMI and obesity (2,4).
Generally, craved foods share a high-fat, high-calorie make-up along with a low showing of protein and fibre (5). Women experience food cravings more often than men, with self-reports ranging all the way to 100% of women experiencing cravings compared to just 70% of men (3). The gender difference also applies to the types of foods being craved with women gravitating toward the sweeter foods and men to the more savoury of flavours (6).
Can’t get chocolate off your mind? You are definitely not alone. Chocolate is one of the most craved foods in Western society, followed by ice cream, salty snacks (e.g., potato chips, fries), baked treats (e.g., cookies, cakes), even breads, pastas, meats, and fish are listed as foods of desire. This chocolate association is explored further in studies on women with food cravings and PMS, one of which overwhelmingly posted that 49% of the women indicated chocolate as their craved food (7). In regards to nutritional deficiencies, a craving for chocolate has been linked to low levels of magnesium in the diet, yet we don’t crave spinach and pumpkin seeds, leading to a questioning of this theory.
Combating cravings isn’t an easy task. Resisting seems to only increase the desire to tear into a chocolate bar or to rationalise with self-talk and grab a chocolate flavoured protein bar at the gym check-in counter. There are multiple approaches to consider to this challenge, including:
Exercise Alleviates the Crave
Exercising can decrease food cravings, which is a positive for those combining efforts of exercise and diet for weight loss. This was shown in both fit and obese women performing 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise in a recent study from Brigham Young University (8).
Mindfulness Eating Strategies
As reviewed above, the foods we crave often carry emotional baggage. When eating, pay attention to internal cues such the taste of the food, hunger sensations, thoughts and feelings about eating, stress level and emotions. Mindfulness interventions can reduce the strong pull of food cravings (9).
Don’t Give In, or Maybe Just a Little
Is giving into cravings that bad? Maybe, if the quantity and frequency are excessive. A study by Gilhooy et al, suggested that portion size and the frequency of giving into craved foods were important variables to consider for long-term weight loss and lifestyle modifications (5). For those with modest-weight loss or fitness goals, the coveted “cheat” meal (or day) could address the preconceived need for a small serving of ice cream (with a drizzle of chocolate sauce) and not the entire carton.
Find alternatives or modifications that will appease those cravings. Chocolate has become a theme throughout this article, so instead of a chocolate bar consider a bowl of strawberries with a smear of chocolate sauce to dip them, just enough to experience and savour the flavour.