The Science Behind Food Cravings

By:    Published: May 16, 2012

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Nearly everyone will experience food cravings from time to time, but where do they come from and do they mean anything? We'll examine food cravings so that by understanding them, people can combat unwanted food cravings and keep them from wreaking havoc on their health.

What Are Food Cravings?

By definition a craving is the strong desire for something very specific. Though this is usually a food item, cravings are very different than hunger. To understand food cravings, we must first understand hunger. Hunger is a biological response to a lack of food. In the case of hunger, any food will do the job, it's usually not specific. Cravings, on the other hand, could be called mental hunger as they are more mental in nature and they can occur whether a person is hungry or not. Typically, food cravings are responsible for sabotaging diet and weight loss plans, not hunger. (To learn how to control your cravings, check out 10 Tips To Help You Curb Cravings While Dieting.)

The type of cravings that people have is based upon a number of factors, but scientists have shown that our sense of taste develops while in the womb. As early as the second trimester of pregnancy, babies begin to taste differences in the amniotic fluid based upon what their mothers have eaten and scientists theorize that this is how we develop our preferences for certain tastes.

Nearly everyone experiences food cravings from time to time, and women are more likely to have cravings than men. A survey by the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that almost 100 percent of women and 70 percent of men had some type of food craving in the year prior to the study. And while both men and women experience cravings, what they crave is very different, according to the survey. More on that shortly.

Where Do They Come From?

Cravings, unlike hunger, come from the brain. When we eat something we crave, our brain responds with chemicals called opiods. These are feel good chemicals that give people feelings of pleasure and, in some cases, mild feelings of euphoria.

The parts of the brain that are responsible for food cravings are the hippocampus, insula and caudate:

  • The hippocampus controls memory storage. This is how we as humans know we like and want a food. It is located in the temporal lobe of the brain.
  • The insula are located on either side of the brain and are responsible for emotional response based upon physical information. This is what lets us know that the particular food we are about to eat is a "feel good" food.
  • Finally, the caudate is located deep within the center of the brain. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for the release of the opiods in response to the food that someone has just eaten.

If it sounds like satisfying cravings is similar to a drug addiction, it's true. The same pathways and receptors in the brain that are stimulated during drug use or sex are also stimulated when a craving is satisfied. When put into the context of a weight loss program, that can spell disaster.

The Most Common Cravings

The most common cravings vary significantly from men to women and even by geographical area.

In Europe and North America, both highly developed nations, women tend to crave sweets above anything else. However men in the same areas tend to crave more savory items.

Geographic area plays a huge role in determining one's diet and also one's cravings. For example, women in Egypt tend to crave savory dishes like eggplants stuffed with meats. People of both sexes in central Asia may crave spicy, curried dishes. This is simply because that is what their brain has been programmed to crave based upon their environment.

One thing that is true for nearly everyone is that the foods that are craved tend to be high in fat, which is one of the factors that helps release the opioids from the brain. This also means that these foods are high in calories, which is why it's a good idea to try and curb cravings as much as possible.

Scientists do recommend giving in to cravings on occasion. One study showed that by indulging on a very limited basis, people were able to maintain a healthier weight and were happier than those who didn't indulge at all or who indulged every craving. The trick is learning to manage the cravings and not let the cravings run the show.

When Cravings Become A Problem

Cravings can become a problem when people overindulge their cravings. This can lead to a food addiction, obesity and a whole host of associated health problems. Most American consume far too much in the way of fats and sugars in their daily diets, which is why there is an obesity epidemic, and when cravings for french fries and chocolate shakes hit, indulging that craving can send the numbers of fat and calories in a diet skyrocketing. (For more information on food addiction, see 5 Simple Ways To Overcome Food Addiction.)

Another craving problem is a condition called Pica. Pronounced Py-Ka, this condition is an eating disorder that causes people to crave, and sometimes eat, non-food items. The most common thing eaten is ice, although clay, dirt and paint chips are common as well. Pica mainly affects women and children, and can be life-threatening. Those suffering from pica should seek medical consultation immediately.

It's acceptable to indulge cravings occasionally, but overall, it's best to learn ways to control cravings, rather than giving in. Remember that the food cravings don’t control the person, the person controls the craving.

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