Most people have experienced food cravings. According to WebMD almost 100 percent of women and nearly 70 percent of men experience cravings for particular foods. Unfortunately, many times the types of food people crave are high in calories, fat and carbohydrates.
To prevent food cravings, it’s important to better understand what causes them. Here’s what health experts say are main causes of food cravings.
To boost serotonin. People may actually tranquilize themselves with food. Some scientists believe that people crave carbohydrates to boost serotonin, says Dorothy Foltz-Gray in the Health article “Make Peace with Your Cravings.” Serotonin “regulates mood and sleep, relieves depression, and calms anxiety.” According to Foltz-Gray researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been studying such phenomena since 1973 after they discovered that eating sweets and other starchy carbohydrate foods increases levels of tryptophan, an amino acid, in the brain which triggers the manufacturing and release of serotonin.
To recreate happy past experiences. Sometimes people associate particular foods with happy memories from their childhood or other pleasant times. Jeffrey Hampl, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Arizona State University in Mesa says, “‘People often crave food because of pleasurable connection they have with that food…You want Mom’s apple pie, for instance, or the fast-food burgers your dad treated you to on Friday nights'” (qtd. in Foltz-Gray).
Junk food causes addition. Some researchers claim processed junk food is addicting. The additives in processed foods–MSG, aspartame, glutamate and other excitotoxins–and lack of nutrition cause addiction. Susan Blackard, R.N., N.D.c, M.H.A., F.N.Rc., in The American Chiropractor article “It’s Not Your Fault” says that researchers argue there is much experimental evidence that additives in food affect the neurological development of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the brain’s “master and commander.” It controls things like “body temperature, hunger, thirst, sexual behavior, reproduction and even emotional response.” When people eat empty junk or processed foods the hypothalamus becomes unbalanced causing hunger pangs and food addiction.
To balance the hypothalamus, Blackard says people should avoid food additives and eat plenty of “organic, nutritious, whole foods.” Keep in mind that fresh fruits and vegetables lower the levels of ghrelin–the hormone that controls hunger. Junk foods, on the other hand, increase ghrelin levels and cause more food cravings.
To offset hormone fluctuations. For women during the two weeks before their period levels of appetite-suppressing estrogen decrease, which cause them to eat about 15 percent more calories during this phase of their cycles, says Brittany Risher in the Prevention article “Outsmarting PMS Cravings.” And even though the metabolism speeds up because of an increase in progesterone, it’s not enough of an offset to compensate for the number of extra calories most women consume.
Instead of going overboard on chocolate and potato chips or other food cravings, opt for other snack alternatives such as Greek yogurt with fruit and cheese. According to Sari Greaves, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, women should eat snacks that incorporate a combination of carbohydrates and protein to reduce levels of hunger hormones, so they eliminate cravings (qtd. in Risher).
Blackard, Susan. “It’s Not Your Fault.” The American Chiropractor. June 2011.
Foltz-Gray, Dorothy. “Make Peace with Your Cravings.” Health (Time, Inc., Health) Jun2002, Vol. 16 Issue 5, p52.
Magee, Elaine. “The Facts About Food Cravings.” WebMD.
Risher, Brittany. “Outsmarting PMS Cravings.” Prevention. Nov2010, Vol. 62 Issue 11, p44.