The Power of Food Cravings

The Power of Food Cravings

Many people feel as though they are often “driven” to eat certain foods or are responding to certain body needs or cravings. Sometimes it may be due to having a craving for something your body is lacking nutritionally. Many people will mention that they begin to think about a specific food, like potato chips, and just don’t feel relieved until they have some! Is that bag of chips calling out to you? So, what is going on?!

We have all suffered from food cravings at some point.

We can go through a period where we have several days of cravings for our favorite pizza, brownies, and so on. But, don’t give up, as you will have a chance to look at these desires and see if you can’t get back on track.

One mother told me that she would often stop at a bakery after she picked up her children after school. Her daughter would say to her, “Mommy, have you had another bad day?! We stop for brownies when you have had a bad day. Right?” So, are cravings due to going through periods of stress? Let’s see what the experts have to say.

Our relationship with food & food cues.

Brian Wansink, PhD at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, studies people’s relationships with food. “We uncover normal eating traps and try to help people change them.” Dr. Wansink and his research group think that it is important to understand our bodies and what environmental cues we personally might be responding to. The most relevant cues are smell and sight for most of us. If you walk past a bakery, such as Cinnabon, and the rich smells of the baking rolls rich in cinnamon might trip a strong desire for having a roll right there and then!

Do food cravings mean you actually have a nutritional deficiency?

A popular myth is that people crave certain foods to fill nutritional deficiencies. “It is a popular theory, but unfortunately it is somewhat naive to think that there is a mechanism within the body that represents some type of wisdom; to call out and ask for something the body misses”, as stated by Marcia Pelchat, PhD, Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

“My work has shown that people have cravings even with a diet that is adequate in calories and nutrients. They are interesting from a number of standpoints, as body function, fluids, electrolytes, personal circumstances, even the weather.” Even in the case of electrolytes and the need for salt? “But really, how many of us—aside from runners on a hot day—are deficient in salt?” Pelchat continues, “unfortunately, humans rely less on instincts and more on culture or individual experience to determine what they eat”.

Does gender matter when it comes to food cravings?

According to Dr. Wansink’s research, gender plays an important role. For example, men will think about eating pizza, pasta, cheeseburgers, and soup. Women tend to want more easily accessible foods, such as snack foods, candy, cookies, ice cream, and chocolate. The reasons for these differences may be cultural, family, and basic preferences of the individual person.

Personality, moods, and food cravings, oh my!

And, lastly, what about personality? Do your personality, good mood, and bad moods promote cravings? Pelchat says, “A bad mood can become a conditioned cue for eating. For example, not feeling well, so we buy a doughnut to feel better!” And, happy moods, what about them? These happy feelings may even be more powerful and likely create an eating frenzy.

Dr. Wansink surveyed 1000 Americans, and 86% craved comfort foods when they were happy, and 74% had cravings when they were celebrating or wanted a reward. Other factors included, 52% had cravings when they were bored and only 39% when they were sad or lonely. Full course meals will help to extend a happy feeling with sustained calories over 4-5 hours, while people who are sad, will want short and very sweet satisfactions over a sustained period of hours. By far, the favorite food choices for these times are potato chips, popcorn, ice cream, brownies, French fries, and burgers.

What should you do to tame these desires?

It is not really necessary for you to become fearful of responding to possible food cravings. It is important to realize that the researchers above just do not want people, like ourselves, to feel as though they have no real self-protection from these pending “up or down” times.

I do feel as a dietitian that I have seen many people with a repeat pattern of eating and enjoying certain foods on a schedule. It is predictable and I believe that the more we eat our favorites the more we will have them again. They come up as a mental reminder, “wouldn’t chocolate chip cookies” be good right about now!? There is some memory component to this that allows us to remember our most frequently eaten foods. What a servant the brain is to us as we navigate through life!

So, if you desire a change in all of this from a behavioral standpoint, here are some things you might want to consider to curb the cravings:

  • Eat the foods you crave less often. But be mindful to just eat them less frequently, not cutting them out completely.
  • Use portion control. Eat about the same serving amounts each time you enjoy a food craving item. People who eat the same amounts of their common food choices will generally remain the same weight.
  • Plan the best places for foods to be kept in your kitchen. Not in plain sight.
  • Substitute healthier foods. Like peanut butter and apples, instead of chips and dip.

All and all, these decisions are all yours to make and the purpose of this article is to give you the information you need to make your own decisions. And, accept any consequences that go along with them! Here is to your happy healthy life!


Rita Larsen Registered Dietitian at Elite Sports Clubs

Written by Rita Larsen, RDN, CD; Elite Sports Clubs Nutrition Educator & Diet Counselor

Rita is certified in Positive Psychology, University of Penn; has a BS in Dietetics from Kansas State University; and an Internship and Masters at the Indiana University Medical Center.

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This information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material in this article is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health program.

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