By- Meena Ganagani,Practicing Clinical Nutritionist,Mumbai.
A food craving is an intense desire to eat a particular type of food. Humans typically crave energy-dense foods: chocolate and other chocolate-containing foods are the most frequently craved foods, followed by other high-caloric sweet and savory foods. Among low-caloric foods, cravings for fruits are also reported quite commonly.
Hunger refers to the absence of fullness, that is, feelings of hunger are brought about by an empty stomach. Food craving can be differentiated from feelings of hunger through its specificity and intensity. That is, while a food craving can usually only be satisfied by consumption of a particular food, hunger can be alleviated by consumption of any type of food.
Physiologically, it is associated with several processes that prepare the body for ingestion and motivates food seeking and consumption such as increased salivary flow and activation of reward-related brain areas such as the striatum. It also includes cognitive (i.e., thinking about the food) and emotional (e.g., desire to eat or changes in mood) components. Finally, it often also includes a behavioral component of seeking and consuming the food. Yet, while experiencing a food craving often leads to consumption of the craved food, the craving–consumption relationship also depends on inter-individual differences and situational factors. (1)
Most surveys find food cravings are extremely common events, and are reported by the great majority of young adult samples. Food craving is closely associated with liking, since the most-commonly-craved foods, such as chocolate, are highly palatable. However, craving is not synonymous with increased eating. Foods are frequently eaten without being craved for and craved foods are not always eaten. Similarly, hunger is not a precondition for craving. Instead, there are stronger links between mood and craving. Cravings that lead to episodes of binge eating, for example, are more likely to happen against a backdrop of reduced hunger but increased negative affect.(2)
Laboratory and questionnaire-based studies revealed that individuals with elevated levels of trait food craving (i.e., high trait food cravers) seem to have a preference for high-calorie foods and are more susceptible to experience food cravings spontaneously or when confronted with external food cues. For instance, relative to low trait food cravers, high trait food cravers displayed an implicit approach tendency towards high-calorie foods and showed more reward-related brain activity during food picture viewing. High trait food cravers also reported higher craving intensity when they were asked to imagine their favorite food or were exposed to pictures of palatable foods. Similarly, high trait chocolate cravers displayed more positive implicit attitudes towards chocolate, higher reward-related brain activations during thoughts about chocolate, and had difﬁculties disengaging their attention from chocolate cues. (3)
Tips for Coping with Food Cravings
Cravings can be very challenging to manage when you’re trying to stay healthy and lose weight.Here are some techniques to help you overcome cravings:
- Cravings sometimes result from a lack of nutrients, so be sure you’re consuming a variety of foods to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs.
- Listen to your cravings and adjust your diet accordingly. For example, if you frequently crave something salty, consider adding more salt to your diet.
- Seek out healthy options for your cravings. If you’re craving something sweet, try a piece of fruit or some frozen yogurt.
- Since dehydration is often mistaken for hunger, have a large glass of water or some flavored seltzer water.
- If you’re simply thinking about or craving food due to boredom, call a friend, read a magazine or occupy yourself with one of your hobbies. Sometimes a small distraction is all you need to forget about your food craving.
- Avoid diets that restrict certain foods. Including some of your favorite foods in your plan will help set you up for success.
- If you’re craving something salty, try pretzels or lightly salted nuts.
- Select a small portion to give in to a craving. If you really want chocolate candy, buy one piece rather than a whole bag.
- Skipping meals will make you ravenous and more likely to make poor food choices that may result from cravings. Make sure you eat breakfast and lunch every day to keep you going. (4)