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February 1, 2012 at 9:10 PMComments: 3 Faves: 1

Cravings: What They Are & What to Do About Them

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Have you ever had an intense craving for a certain food? Such desires are seemingly insatiable. So much so, that they can be very difficult to resist! So, we end up at the take-out window of a fast food restaurant or the ice cream aisle of the grocer. We often joke about this inner battle or consider it normal in the face of body changes such as pregnancy. But could there be more to it than the simple desire for a food we enjoy? Could we actually be deficient in something that beckons us subconsciously toward certain foods?

Hunger vs. Cravings

To understand cravings, it is important to first understand what cravings are not. For starters, a craving is different than hunger. While hunger is a physiologic process that occurs within the gut sending signals to the brain, a craving is actually an emotional state that originates in the mind.

The process of hunger and satiety (feeling full) is an amazing and complicated process that involves many hormone messengers and neural links between the stomach and the brain. The area deep in the brain that reads signals from hormones, blood sugar levels, and nerve signals from the stomach is called the hypothalamus.

Hunger is a necessary tool for survival. Cravings, on the other hand, are more about pleasure and satisfaction. Cravings are more about desire than actual need. Science has pretty much debunked the notion that food cravings are our body telling us that we need something such as a certain vitamin or mineral. After all, most every food craving is for something unhealthy. How many times have you craved chocolate as opposed to a banana? Or pizza as opposed to broccoli? 

Cravings and Addiction

Smoking cigarettes, French fries, caffeine, ice cream, narcotic pain killers, chocolate, alcohol, M&M's, gambling, pizza and sex: what do they all have in common? The answer: they can all drive the addiction center in the brain! When we eat such fatty or sugary foods, we actually get a temporary release of chemicals called opioids ( related to the narcotic opium!) into our bloodstream.

Opioids flip switches in our brains called receptors that give a temporary feeling of pleasure or euphoria. This is modulated through release of the neurohormone, dopamine. Since it feels good, we are tempted to go there again, especially in times of stress. Thus, cravings are our minds beckoning us toward that feeling again via this chemical reward system.

This cycle of craving-reward-dopamine surge is seen in similar fashion with drug addiction, compulsive gambling, and sex. Yes, when you compare those amazing brownies to crack, you are actually not far off! 

Hormonal Imbalance and Cravings

Sometimes another neurohormone plays into this mix: serotonin. For example, swings in the female sex hormones that can happen before periods and in pregnancy lower serotonin levels. Such deficiencies can lead to an activation of this reward system and cravings.

Sometimes it works the other way - as a side effect of medications aimed at boosting serotonin. When serotonin is elevated, it can suppress dopamine stores. This deficiency leads to activation of cravings in order to recover dopamine. Fatigue sets in, and intense cravings for the things that raise dopamine develop - sweets, caffeine and cigarettes for example.

Managing Cravings

So, how do we break this bond if we are trying to eat healthy and even lose weight? Suppressing food cravings can prove to be overwhelming. Sometimes, it is not so simple as just taking one bite to satisfy and further suppress the craving. 

Just like with drugs, we can develop a higher threshold with continued exposure! In other words, the more chocolate you eat, the more is needed to give the brain that dopamine jolt. That one Hershey's kiss that used to satisfy you may not do it anymore, but rather only serve to open Pandora's box.

Working on mentally curbing your cravings is tricky business also. A study on women who tried to quit thinking about eating chocolate lead to 50% more consumption compared to the group allowed to express their desire. Psychologists and dietary experts advise the occasional giving in to our cravings; the key, though, is limiting the frequency. In studying calorie restriction and weight loss, studies found that those who satisfied their cravings the least lost the most weight.

Success is more about managing cravings than beating them into the ground.  Theoretically, aerobic exercise can also give a boost of dopamine and may serve as a healthy antidote to a craving. Admittedly though, this is the last thing that comes to mind when I am on the couch craving chocolate.

Health Conditions and Cravings

Some special cases exist with cravings. Perhaps the most bizarre is called "pica." Pica is a physiological eating disorder that is characterized by a desire to eat non-food items. Most often, pica is triggered by iron deficiency anemia. Most commonly, pica involves the consumption of dirt or ice. Various explanations have been proposed but none prevail.

In summary, food cravings are common. They are considered an emotional response to activation of the reward system in the brain. Beating the bonds of craving involves giving in on occasion but working to decrease the frequency. 

Live, and live well!


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  • But what about salt cravings? I've heard our body eats through salt like crazy when we're stressed out and cause a craving. Also that it can be a sign of a hormone problem. I'm a crazy salt eater myself. Foods that other people are think are way too salty - kalamata olives - for example, I love. Sometimes I'll even eat rock sea salt just by itself.

    On the other hand, my tolerance for sweet things is pretty low. I even cut juice with water because it tastes too sweet to me. I hardly ever eat candy or cookies or anything like that. Just doesn't really appeal as much as salty or savory food. Yeah... I know. I'm kinda weird.

    But why is it that taste in foods vary so widely? Why are some people super picky while others will eat anything? Why does a food that one person finds delicious taste disgusting to another? What can affect our preferences for sweet or salty or spicy or bitter or sour or savory? Could our genetics or biology be any part of that or is it all just exposure and experience?

  • Great comments, Erin. Really, it all boils down to taste. For salt, we can blame our sea-faring predecessors. Salt was used as a preservative. By salting things heavily, bacteria could not grow in the food and it remained healthy. Through time, we have developed a "liking" for this that has been passed down. I have to believe that this is the same with sweets or other foods. Cravings require a memory-- for instance, I don't crave Indonesian food because I have never had it. There is also a lot of room here for preference. Some people like certain foods and others do not. I hope that helps!

  • I love eating ice, especially icicles growing outside. The ones that grow on trees and leaves are my favorite, but I'll also eat them growing off something clean like the grill. I also always look forward to enjoying a little fresh, clean snow, especially if it's still falling.

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