Do Food Cravings Actually Mean Anything?

The science behind food cravings and how to break them.
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"Sometimes I really strongly crave certain foods. Does that mean I'm deficient in a certain vitamin or nutrient? For example, if I crave orange juice, does that mean I need more vitamin C?"

-- Anonymous

There is some interesting anecdotal, historical evidence that our bodies crave foods high in nutrients that they lack. Vincent Ho, a clinical academic gastroenterologist at Western Sydney University writes in a recent piece for The Conversation that sailors suffering from scurvy appeared to crave fruit and, when they managed to get hold of some, ate it with “emotions of the most voluptuous luxury.” Interestingly, this account, written by a ship chaplain on a voyage that embarked in 1740, predates the first published scientific treatise about how scurvy can be cured by eating citrus, which came in 1753. In modern times, we understand scurvy as primarily a vitamin C deficiency.

But more generally, Ho writes, modern scientific experiments show that food cravings are socially constructed, which means they are mostly based on nostalgic and cultural feelings about foods you ate as a child that now serve to comfort you.

"If cravings were an indicator of nutritional deficiency, we'd all crave fruits and vegetables," adds Karen Ansel, a nutritionist. "The fact that we all want high carb, high fat comfort foods, along with the research, is a pretty good indicator that cravings aren't related to deficiencies."

The literature backs Ansel's assertion: research consistently finds that cravings are most often related to social rather than nutritional cues. Even a commonly perceived craving-culprit, hormonal fluctuation caused by menstrual cycles, turns out to have no measurable impact on cravings. There is one exception: those who crave ice, clay or paste may have pica -- an iron deficiency that is most common in women, according to Ansel.

But that doesn't mean that cravings aren't real -- and don't have a true, physiological origin. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have been able to determine that brain regions associated with memory, emotion and -- big surprise! -- stress light up when a person is having an intense food craving. And that brain response, in combination with a visual cue, another study found, increases the level of the "hunger hormone," leptin.

In other words, stress (or sadness or boredom) and external influence conspire to make you feel hunger. And what you crave may be steeped in the culture -- such as old tropes, like women crave chocolate, or advertising visuals that command you to "crave" -- or it may be based in childhood. Very often, Ansel explains, people crave the things that soothed them growing up.

"That's why many commonly craved foods like mac and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches or cookies -- are childhood foods. They are associated with happy memories, with a feeling of being soothed," says Ansel. What's more, there's a feedback loop of positive reenforcement. Foods that are high in fat and sugar assist in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel calm and relaxed. So when we eat the foods we crave, we remember that it worked and we may return to that same food the next time we need a fix.

So how can you fight the intense cravings you'd rather give up? One recent study found that a morning workout reduced cravings throughout the day. And, Ansel suggests, think long and hard about how you feel when the craving hits. If stress makes you reach for the ice cream, try to look for another way to wind down. Feeling bored as you munch on those chips? Aim to find a low-maintenance hobby that busies your hands and mind.

Another theory about how to get rid of a craving is not to indulge it in moderate amounts, as common sense and most nutritionists advise, but instead to just go completely cold turkey on the food. For example, low-carb diets result in decreased cravings for carb-rich foods, while low-fat diets result in decreased cravings for fatty food, notes Ho.

And if you want to cut down on something like chocolate, only eat it after meals (when you’re full), as opposed to when you’re hungry. This is based on a study that suggests conditioning your body to associate hunger with a certain food makes you crave that food more, says Ho.

UPDATE: This 2012 story has been updated throughout with new information.

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