by Willow Chavez
We have all heard that if you are craving certain foods, it must be because your body is in need of a crucial vitamin or mineral. Many people believe that if you’re craving orange juice, it’s because your body needs Vitamin C or that those chocolate cravings are linked to a magnesium deficiency. While it is true that extreme nutritional deficits can cause food cravings, these instances are very rare. In addition, true nutritional deficiencies are extremely uncommon in the United States due to enriched food products and the high consumption of manufactured goods. Let’s take a look at the science behind those cravings so we can figure out their true cause and how to manage them.
There has been much debate in recent years over what truly causes food cravings. The common belief is that we tend to crave foods that fulfill some kind of nutritional deficit. However, the scientific community has been unable to prove any nutritional link between what we crave and our body’s nutritional status.
Another train of thought in reference to food cravings is that they are a psychological and social construct. In many ways this makes sense. If you think about the foods you crave, you might notice that they are usually calorie dense, meaning that they are high in fat, sugar, or both. It is not common for someone to crave nutritionally dense food like kale, avocado, or beets. Instead, we typically crave feel-good-foods like chocolate, ice cream or cheese. This lends some credit to the idea that cravings may have more to do with our mind than our physiological needs.
An editorial article in Frontiers in Psychology explains that food cravings “can occur as a result of specific mood states (often negative mood) and is marked by the anticipation of mood-enhancing effects of food intake.” This implies that food cravings are often linked to emotions and general psychological states. The article goes on to explain that cravings are often stimulated by negative emotions as a way to spur the release of dopamine (the brains feel-good chemical) and negate those unpleasant emotions.
Another aspect of the craving debate is culture and its impact on behavior. A study published in 2017 looked at women and addressed the construct of menstrual chocolate craving in American women versus foreign-born women. The study also looked at those born to U.S. parents and second-generation immigrants to determine if there was a trend in cravings dependent upon the length of exposure to American culture. It may come as a surprise, but the study found that almost 50% of American women reported chocolate cravings near the time of their menstrual cycle as opposed to foreign women who were closer to 15%. In addition, it explained that those exposed to American culture had significantly increased reports of chocolate cravings over time.
The popular opinion regarding menstruation and chocolate cravings has been that it is related to hormone shifts, nutritional deficits (as mentioned before), or as a way to alleviate certain premenstrual symptoms. However, this study along with other similar studies have shown that none of these potential explanations have any scientific clout. Instead, it is theorized that in American culture, menstruation is perceived as a cause for chocolate cravings. Due to this social construct, over time, acculturation occurs and in women, it creates the perception of chocolate cravings during that certain time of the month.
Yet another study looked at craving during dieting. It would be logical to assume that while sticking to a strict diet regimen one might have cravings for all of their favorite foods. While anyone who’s ever dieted can attest to this fact, it has also been discovered that cravings subside over time.
A study called the “POUNDS LOST Trial” looked at cravings in groups of individuals participating in four different diet programs. At month 24 in the study, it was shown across all groups that participants had significant reductions in their cravings for fatty, sweet and high carbohydrate foods. In addition, these participants reported an increase in cravings for other foods such as fruits and vegetables. This proved the studies hypothesis that caloric restriction reduces cravings for high-calorie foods over time.
So the next time you’re craving a luscious piece of chocolate or a big juicy steak, you may want to think twice. It may not be your body telling you what it needs, but rather your subconscious telling you what it wants. Although there is nothing wrong with indulging every once in a while, it is important to keep the facts in mind. If you’re craving a big bowl of ice cream or a hunk of cheese it might be your brain’s way of trying to cheer you up. This should spur some self-reflection and internal analysis to ensure that you’re truly taking care of your body and mind in the best way possible.
Knowledge is power, so now that you know food cravings are often a result of negative mood states, rather than nutritional deficiencies you can keep an eye on your cravings and your overall wellbeing. Maybe that craving is due to a rough day at work, because of all the stress you’ve been under lately, or maybe you just don’t feel well. Either way, consistent food cravings and snacking can be detrimental to your health and your waistline. If you’re able to curb those cravings and choose healthier options you may just find that your cravings decrease over time. So instead of that candy bar, maybe just a small piece of dark chocolate or fruit. Instead of choosing that big steak, maybe a piece of salmon is a better option. By making small positive choices you’re likely to see an improvement in how you feel both physically and mentally.