Craving is defined as a desire or overwhelming yearning to consume a food even when one is not hungry. Pica is a rare condition when an individual develops a craving that leads to the intentional consumption of things commonly considered as inedible, such as chalk, paper, soil, and other substances that can cause significant health risks.
Food cravings have been the study of research for decades by anthropologists, dietitians, doctors, and others. Food cravings are still not well understood and they have distinct biological and cultural themes. Some research suggests that cravings for carbohydrates occur in an effort to elevate mood. This theory hypothesizes that food, usually carbohydrates or chocolate, is being used as a form of self-medication to decrease unpleasant moods. It is thought that these foods increase the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to have a positive impact on mood. However, evidence for specific macronutrient cravings as a form of self-medication appears to be inconsistent in research.
Cravings for foods are extremely common, with up to 97% of women and 68% of men reporting episodes of food cravings. Chocolate, the most frequently craved food in North America, is the choice of 40% of women and 15% of men when having a craving. Women in particular report extreme cravings for foods that are both sweet and high in fat (for example, chocolates, cakes or pastries, and ice cream), especially during their menstrual cycle. Dieters are another group who experience stronger cravings that are more difficult to resist than the general population, and for foods they were restricting themselves in eating.
There are a number of theories as to why people crave certain foods, including:
FOOD RESTRICTION. The theory of food restriction holds that people desire those foods that they feel should be avoided. According to research, the ability to stop a food craving does not cause weight gain, but a low self-control for cravings does.
COMFORT FOODS. Certain foods are usually served during holidays or special occasions. These foods become associated with comfort and happy times, eliciting feelings of relaxation and reduced stress, and are thus called “comfort foods.” Comfort foods vary among cultures and are those foods that are traditionally prepared during social times. One's cultural background plays a large part in comfort food choices. Mood also plays a role in cravings for comfort food. Women are more likely to eat when they are sad, mad, or anxious, while men look to food when bored or lonely.
Those who find themselves reaching for comfort foods frequently should ask themselves if they are truly hungry, or whether they are using food to soothe themselves. For those who are feeding emotions with food, it is helpful to begin to replace the food with healthier activities, such as taking a walk, participating in a favorite form of exercise, getting together with a friend, or reading a good book.
HORMONES. For women, these cravings can be more intense than for men. Hormonal changes tied to the menstrual cycle are often a cause of cravings. Immediately prior to the menstrual period, the body's estrogen level drops, as does the serotonin level in the brain.
SEROTONIN. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that plays a role in maintaining a relaxed feeling. When the level decreases, irritability and mood swings increase, as does the craving for carbohydrate- and fat-rich foods, such as chocolate, cookies, cake, potato chips, and roasted nuts. When chocolate and other craved foods become the mainstay of the diet and healthier choices get overlooked, the cravings have gotten out of control and health may be compromised.
GENDER DIFFERENCES. Men tend to crave salty or savory foods, like potato chips or meat dishes, while women tend to crave sweet foods, like chocolate. Registered dietitian Debra Waterhouse attributes these differences to sex hormones and body composition. Men have larger amounts of the hormone testosterone and about 40 lb. (18 kg) more muscle mass than women. They need larger amounts of protein to build, repair, and synthesize muscle.
STRESS RESPONSE. Many people today lead stressful lives, which can lead to stress eating. Increased stress results in a need for carbohydrates to provide energy for the stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response (a defense reaction of the body that prepares it to fight or flee by triggering certain cardiovascular, hormonal, and other changes). When coping with stress, a person needs increased energy to deal with the demands placed on the body. Carbohydrates provide a fairly rapid source of fuel to the body by raising blood-glucose levels. However, when experiencing stress, it is common for those with cravings to reach for any available food, regardless of calories or nutritional content.
Dealing with stress in a healthful, nutritional way can have a positive impact on self-esteem, energy level, emotional outlook, and weight. To deal with cravings:
Cravings can be the exception instead of the rule when it comes to diet. Developing a lifestyle that includes healthful food selections and regular meals and snacks can help control cravings.
Food cravings may contribute to excessive overeating; unhealthy snacking behavior; poor adherence to diets where calories are being restricted; increased frequency of eating fast foods or prepared foods, such as cookies and candy; or binge eating. There is a growing amount of literature suggesting that chronic dieters, or people eliminating foods for weight loss, are prone to food cravings that lead to increased food intake over time and thus weight gain or regain. Cravings have also been shown to be more predominant in those with bulimia nervosa, premenstrual syndrome, seasonal affective disorder, major depression, and substance abuse. It has also been reported that individuals who do not get enough sleep, skip breakfast, or go long periods of time without eating will crave foods more. For those who experience pica, it may be an important sign of iron deficiency or a more serious mental health issue that should not be ignored.
Cognitive defusion is the process of reducing distress by focusing on the process of thinking rather than content or meaning. Research shows that cognitive defusion can be a simple and efficient approach to manage food cravings and, potentially, other behavioral contributors to obesity, such as overeating. Other studies have shown that smelling an odor may help alleviate the craving; for example, smelling jasmine while having a craving for chocolate can reduce or diminish the craving.
High-energy density and high-fat foods, as well as foods with low protein and fiber contents, have been identified as frequently craved foods. If a person has multiple cravings weekly and gives in to temptation, weight gain may occur over time. Portion size of craved foods and frequency of giving in to food cravings are important considerations in weight loss or management. Cravings may also be triggered for high-calorie, sweet foods when a person decides to quit using cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, and the cravings may lead to weight gain, making the person less motivated to quit the substance.
Children who have repeated incidents of eating indigestible substances, such as chalk, dirt, sand, wax crayons, soap, feces (either their own or animal feces), or other non-edible items may be experiencing unusual cravings called pica. This may be an indication of nutritional deficiencies or even mental illness, and parents should discuss with their primary physician for further evaluation.
For women who are pregnant, their food cravings may have a future impact on their baby. Research has shown that women who binge on unhealthy food are during pregnancy more likely to give birth to a child who craves sugar, fats, and salt. If expectant mothers eat nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, their child could have more of an appetite for these foods as well.
If a child is having many food cravings, the parents should look into the nutrient value of all foods served and eaten and whether the child is going too long without eating, skipping meals, or watching too much television. Proper nutrition and timing of meals, as well as setting limits on how much television and what type of television the child watches to decrease food commercial viewing, may help with food cravings.
See also Binge eating ; Bulimia nervosa ; Carbohydrate Addict's diet ; Carbohydrates ; Intuitive eating ; Obesity ; Pica ; Sugar .
Waterhouse, Debra. Why Women Need Chocolate. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Gilhooly, C. H., et al. “Food Cravings and Energy Regulation: The Characteristics of Craved Foods and Their Relationship with Eating Behaviors and Weight Change during 6 Months of Dietary Energy Restriction.” International Journal of Obesity 31, no. 12 (December 2007): 1849–58.
Massey, Anna, and Andrew J. Hill. “Dieting and Food Craving. A Descriptive, Quasi-Prospective Study.” Appetite 58, no. 3 (2012): 781–85.
Moffit, R., et al. “A Comparison of Cognitive Restructuring and Cognitive Defusion as Strategies for Resisting a Craved Food.” Psychology & Health 27 (June 12, 2012): 74–90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2012.694436 (accessed March 21, 2018).
Yanovski, Susan. “Sugar and Fat: Cravings and Aversions.” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 133, no. 3 (March 1, 2003): S835–37.
Hellmich, Nanci. “Stress Can Put on Pounds.” USA Today, January 2, 2002. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/diet/2002-01-02-usat-diet.htm (accessed March 21, 2018).
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plz., Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, email@example.com, http://www.eatright.org .
Revised by Megan Porter, RD