Food cravings – we’ve all been there. It’s late in the afternoon and you have that overwhelming desire to eat that nutella-filled donut and before you know it, you’re dreaming about biting into that delicious piece of bliss.
Naturally, we tell ourselves it’s our body’s way of telling us we are lacking nutrients and we must eat that specific craving. As a baby I was lactose intolerant, and as I got older I soon outgrew it. Interestingly though, now as an adult, I am not a fan of milk at all! Sure I’ll have it in my coffee, but ask me to drink a cup of milk and I’ll tip it out! So when I started craving milkshakes, like they were the last food on earth it got me wondering, what is it about food cravings? Is it simply just desire or is our body trying to tell us something? In some cases nutritional deficiencies are the cause, however research is showing that they are more about the want rather than the need.
What do we mean by food cravings?
Food cravings have been defined as an intense desire or longing to eat a particular food. Food cravings can be associated with nutritional deficiencies, however research is showing that food cravings are more likely associated with pregnancy, hunger or other triggers such as mood and cognitive influences. Overall, food cravings appear to poorly studied and understood. There are however are several aspects of cravings being studied including hormonal changes in women, neurological, cultural and psychosocial factors, biological foundations and mood and food relationships.
Food Cravings – a need?
While it has been suggested that food cravings are a result of a nutrient deficiency in the body, most evidence indicates otherwise. So whilst we can’t rule out that food cravings can be associated with nutritional deficiencies in a small percentage of cases, for the most part current literature finds that nutritional deficiencies isn’t the cause. As most Australians don’t meet the requirements for fruit and vegetables every day, we would expect that if food cravings were responsible for nutritional deficiencies, then we would be craving that bowl of broccoli not cake!
A literature review focusing specifically on premenstrual or pregnant women found that nutrient deficiencies were not related to food cravings. Deficiencies are possible, such as the need for iron in premenstrual women. Such women however typically craved foods like chocolate, which is not in response to iron deficiencies.
Food Cravings – a want?
Food cravings seem to be very common and are usually correlated with likeability of the food, with chocolate being the prime example as one of the most commonly craved foods.
As mentioned previously, the aforementioned literature review focusing on cravings in women identified i) pregnancy and ii) premenstruation as two primary times where food cravings are prominent. This review found that there is no meaningful connection between food cravings and the quality of one’s diet during pregnancy. Typically women tend to crave sweet, high fat and fast foods, more commonly in the earlier weeks before any demands are actually placed on the body for extra nutrients. Beneficial foods like meat, which is a great source of iron or other high protein foods, actually tend to be the ones women have food aversions to. Individuals often assume that pregnancy cravings are due to nutrient deficiencies but let’s be realistic about that, typically we crave foods high in calories and fat like chocolate, ice cream and cake! However most pregnant women get the adequate nutrition they need from their usual diet.
Regardless of being pregnant or not, craving chocolate is not because you need it. People assume that being on a diet will lead to food cravings because we are depriving ourselves of energy from food. One study found that depriving food does not result in food cravings – rather it is more typically correlated with a person’s mood or emotional eating. In this study, the participants felt their cravings were preceded by a negative mood. Consequently, their moods changed when eating that desired craving. It’s unclear the reasoning, but it could be speculated that they were hungry prior and the improvement in mood is a result of eating.
Sometimes the research in this area seems to provide more questions than answers, leading us to think is it really a This vs. That scenario, or could it be a combination of factors that will depend on the individual? One study looking at energy regulation found a significant relationship between food cravings and hunger at the end of six months, meaning that food cravings were commonly found to be a related to a persons hunger. At the beginning of the study when the individuals were consuming their usual diet, they rated their hunger on a scale of 0-14. The hunger score was based on the craving frequency, strength of the craving and how frequently participants acted on those cravings. If a participant reported no to experiencing food cravings then they were given a 0 and scaled up from there. No relationship was found between food cravings and hunger at the beginning of the study. Participants were randomly placed on two different energy restricted (ER) diets and were provided with all food and energy-containing beverages to meet their ER energy prescription. Hunger scores were repeated over six months and by the end of six months, it was thus concluded that the food cravings were more likely during periods of energy restriction compared to usual. Although, it was suggested that there are likely several influences which impact the development of food cravings.
In another study looking at low carbohydrate and low fat diets, researchers found that restricting a specific food resulted in cravings for that food. However when promoting the restriction of carbohydrates, this resulted in a reduced craving and inclination for high carbohydrate, high sugar foods. Similarly encouraging the restriction of high protein and high fat foods, also reduced the craving for those food types. In this study, obese adults who planned to follow either low fat or low carbohydrate diets, saw their food cravings disappear during a two year period. Perhaps it could be contributed to the person’s willingness for change, as other people can be uncertain starting diets thinking they will have to cut specific foods. It is thought that emotions or stimuli associated with foods can change, so once they are no longer associated together than food cravings will lessen.
How to manage cravings if less than ideal?
If you are having the odd craving for that piece of cake, eat it and enjoy it! But if you struggle with food cravings and it leads to excessive eating then it takes a very individual approach. Unfortunately there is no one-way to manage if they are a problem for you, you may benefit from seeing a dietitian who can help you and provide tailored specific advice!
When experiencing a food craving, try and avoid acting on it for 20 minutes, often it will pass! If boredom is a driving factor, then find a hobby or interest that keeps you busy and your mind off food. As food cravings can be due to actual eating behaviours, working on portion control and the frequency at which you give into food cravings compared to simply trying to suppress the feelings may be of greater benefit in the longer term.
One study found that an effective way of reducing cravings is to practice mindful eating. Here at the Nutrition Press, we’ve talked about mindful eating before, you might want to check it out again here, it is a great tool to utilise as it can help you truly enjoy the food, being mindful of hunger and satiety cues, whilst eating without the judgement!
Weighing it all up
The research tells me that food cravings are more about the want than need. Going further than this, we can still debate whether the food cravings arise from a want such as when a person is in a state of metabolic food deprivation and continually eats high calorie, energy dense foods or rather, being related to mood, emotions and stresses in everyday life.
Overall we have a long way to go before we can truly understand the causes behind food cravings and further studies are needed. Of course if you are craving foods that are known to have important nutrients, then its worthwhile exploring any nutritional deficiencies you may be experiencing. However, as food cravings tend to be foods that are high in calories and typically can lead to excess snacking or binge eating, it is important to understand the reasons behind the cravings if not due to nutritional deficiencies. The focus is leaning towards emotional needs but more research is needed in order to draw more convincing conclusions.