We have all experienced an intense desire to consume a particular food at some time. In fact, one study of more than 1,000 people revealed 97% of women and 68% of men experienced cravings. This is different from hunger.
It has been long thought that food cravings were due to the body’s effort to correct nutritional deficiencies or food restrictions such as iron or protein. Deficiencies in vitamins may potentially result in food cravings. Sailors on long sea voyages in the past who were suffering from scurvy were said to crave fruit.
In general, however, there is no real evidence to link our common food cravings with nutritional deficiencies.
Several studies have shown that food cravings decrease during weight-loss diets rather than increase, as might be expected.
If the nutritional deficiency theory were to be true, this does not explain why some foods that are richer in nutrients lead to generally less cravings than other foods.
What causes food cravings?
Food cravings are believed to come from a mix of social, cultural and psychological factors. In North America, chocolate is the most-craved food, but this is not the case elsewhere. In Egypt only 1% of young Egyptian men and 6% of young Egyptian women reported craving chocolate. Japanese women are more likely to crave rice and sushi, reflecting the influence of traditional food products and culture.
Food cravings can develop from matching consumption of certain foods with hunger, suggesting a conditioning response. Sweet food cravings can also arise from experiencing higher levels of stress. There is also emerging evidence suggesting our gut microbes (the bacteria in our guts) influence our food cravings.
The good news is that food cravings can often be controlled. Restricting certain types of foods can decrease food cravings, often leading to long-term benefits. Cognitive techniques such as mindfulness can help.
The good news is that food cravings can be controlled. Restricting certain types of foods can decrease food cravings, often leading to long-term benefits. Cognitive techniques such as mindfulness can help.
Researchers working with a group of self-identified chocolate cravers instructed half the group in cognitive restructuring, a technique that involves challenging inaccurate thoughts and replacing these with more accurate ones.
The other half of the group was taught a mindfulness-based technique – cognitive defusion. They were asked not to change their thoughts but to notice them and to visualise themselves as different from their thoughts.
At the end of the study participants in the defusion group were more than three times more likely to abstain from chocolate than participants in the restructuring group.
Defusion interventions work to resist food cravings by creating a sense of distance from them rather than trying to eradicate and replace them.
Author: Vincent Ho, Lecturer and clinical academic gastroenterologist, Western Sydney University | Source: The Conversation