By Karlee Golightly, RD, RYT
You’re driving when it happens: you start salivating thinking about that bacon mac and cheese from your favorite restaurant. Or maybe all you want is a huge bowl of Rocky Road ice cream waiting for you at home.
Cravings, defined as an intense desire to eat a specific food, are something almost everyone will experience at some point. But where does the desire for rich, calorie-dense foods come from?
Science points to several answers, starting with infancy. Innate preferences are cultivated in the womb or during breastfeeding, as hints of a mother's diet can pass into amniotic fluid and seep into her breast milk, which exposes the infant to different flavors. Thus, the variety of a mother’s diet can predict her child’s palate and potentially increase the likelihood of the child being open to new foods.
Cravings can also be attributed to basic biological wiring, similar to hunger cues. When we experience hunger, a cascade of hormones and physical symptoms manifest (i.e. grumbling stomach) to notify the brain that more energy is needed. However, cravings are different than hunger because they satisfy a mental cue rather than physical signs of hunger. Typically, foods high in fat and calories are the objects of affection when a craving hits, but what makes these foods more appealing? The answer lies in the brain. Fatty, calorie-dense foods release chemicals called opioids into our bloodstream. Opioids bind to receptors in our brains and give us feelings of pleasure. Like any satisfying experience, we are biologically wired to want it again.
Cravings are so universal that in a study conducted through Tufts University, 91 percent of participants reported having food cravings, and 94 percent of the study participants reported cravings after six months of dieting. This tells us that food cravings are not only a very normal human condition, but that dieting and restrictive eating can increase cravings as well. Just as telling yourself you can’t have something makes you want it even more, dieting increases cravings for “off-limits” foods. In fact, studies on mood have found that emotional state normally has a greater impact on cravings than hunger.
So when you fight against cravings, you’re fighting against your biology. Rather than ignore them, be curious! Explore your mental state for possible triggers for cravings, and take a moment to pause and decide what action feels most nourishing and satisfying. Perhaps honoring yourself looks like eating a portion of the food while slowly savoring each flavor and texture, or perhaps it looks like engaging in another activity that doesn’t involve food. You may discover that by creating a pause and diving deeper into your craving that it wasn’t as powerful as you thought.
Karlee Golightly is a Registered Dietitian and Yoga Teacher at Feed Your Soul Fitness; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.