What’s your weakness?
Is it cupcakes, potato chips, bread, a big bowl of pasta, cheese fondue, fried chicken, pizza, ice cream or something else?
Do you crave something creamy that melts in your mouth or a salty crunch that takes the edge off?
If you do, you’re similar to 100% of women and 75% of men who reported food cravings in the last year, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
Cravings, once considered the body’s way of signaling that we’re missing important nutrients, are now understood to be something quite different. If they were merely a signal that we were short on, say, magnesium (a nutrient found in chocolate), then why do we tend to crave salty and sweet snacks, rather than healthier options of nutrient rich foods?
Bran, pumpkin seeds and molasses all contain magnesium, but rarely rank high on anyone’s cravings list.
Instead, The Wall Street Journal reports that studies suggest that cravings are a complex combination of different factors. Social, cultural, psychological and environmental cues all play a part in whether you experience a craving or not. Craving mom’s apple pie or creamy mashed potatoes are often more about the emotion they evoke than the taste of the actual food or the nutrients found in them. A hot dog at a ball game or popcorn at a movie are often more about the environment than hunger.
Cravings are powerful things. They are triggered by our environment, our internal need to soothe ourselves or evoke a particular feeling, our cultural expectations and by the people around us. Not only are they triggered by a wide variety of circumstances, they also affect our bodies like an addiction.
Research on the brain indicates that food cravings activate the same parts of the brain as drug and alcohol cravings. And, like drug and alcohol, giving in to the craving results in a release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain that plays an important role in the experience of pleasure.
But, when we give in to cravings too often, our dopamine receptors become flooded. The neurons compensate for this overload of dopamine by becoming less sensitive. What this means is that with continued overindulgence, more and more food is required to create the same pleasurable experience.
Instead of craving one cookie, you crave a whole box, and even that doesn’t feel satisfying. Pam Peek, a physician and author of the book “The Hunger Fix” notes that food addiction changes the brain in the area associated with impulsivity and addictive urges.
The idea that we are constantly surrounded by circumstances that cause us to crave food—often that which is sugary, salty or otherwise unhealthy—can be disheartening. However, studies show that as we learn to delay gratification and hold off on satisfying our cravings, our urges become weaker.
Although curbing cravings can be difficult, particularly if you’re already in a pattern of indulging, you don’t need to live at the mercy of your cravings.