For many years, researchers believed that a food craving was a signal that your body was missing a particular nutrient. For example, if you crave red meat then you may have an iron deficiency. Studies have shown, however, that cravings have nothing to do with a nutritional deficiency. So what are food cravings? They are caused by chemical signals in the brain. According to Karen Ansel, “if cravings were an indicator of nutritional deficiency, we’d all crave fruits and vegetables. 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.” Yes–it’s really all in your head.
When you crave something, the same reward centers in the brain responsible for drug and alcohol addiction become more active. This includes the hippocampus (memory), the insula (emotion and perception) and the caudate (memory and learning). These areas are all very receptive to dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are responsible for feeling relaxed and calm and which spur reward-driven learning. The reason you crave things like potato chips and chocolate is that these items are full of fat and/or sugar. Both fat and sugar are involved in an increased production of serotonin and other chemicals that make us feel good.
There is a large societal aspect to cravings as well. For instance, women in Japan tend to crave sushi and only 6 percent of Egyptian women say they crave chocolate. Approximately half of American women claim that their cravings for chocolate reach a peak just before their period. However, research has found no correlation between fluctuations in women’s hormones and cravings. In fact, postmenopausal women do not report a large reduction in cravings from their premenopausal levels.
Studies have also found that the more people try to deny their cravings, the greater the craving they have for the forbidden food. Researchers suggest that it is better to give in to the craving in a controlled way rather than denying yourself altogether. Just be sure to restrict what you consume to a reasonable amount. If high-fat and high-sugar foods (or drugs and alcohol) constantly bombard your dopamine receptors, they shut down to prevent an overload. This makes your cravings even greater and you end up eating more in an attempt get the same reward. However, you never really feel satisfied.
Exercise and distraction are two good ways to reduce food cravings. One study found that a morning workout can reduce your cravings for the whole day. Smelling a non-food item can also help. Keep a small vial of your favorite perfume with you when a craving comes on and take a whiff when the craving hits you. The smell occupies the aroma receptors involved in food cravings.