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There’s a lot of talk about food cravings stemming from nutritional deficiencies, but research has not proved this to be true. If you've ever been tempted to blame your chocolate urges on a magnesium deficiency, Kimberly Snyder, a clinical nutritionist and the author of , would beg to disagree. She claims your desire for chocolate is more likely coming from an emotional place than a biological one.
“I do believe it’s important to listen to your body and feel what foods you are naturally drawn to,” says Snyder. “Overall though, many common cravings are tied to emotional root causes. We often crave foods with specific textures — crunchy, soft, creamy, or smooth — and these textures correspond to particular emotions.”
“There are two types of hunger,” explains Amy Gorin, RDN, of Amy Gorin Nutrition, in the New York City area. “Homeostatic hunger, or the physical need to eat, and hedonic hunger, the desire to eat foods for pleasure.” For instance, she notes, “you might be craving salt when your body actually needs it, such as after a hard workout during which you lost salt through sweating. Or you might be craving the salty food as more of a comfort food, since foods that tend to be salty are also ones that are higher in fat, like potato chips, which is what we crave sometimes during hedonic hunger.”
It’s not hard to grasp the psychological component of food cravings and how we may have been conditioned, from childhood, to want certain foodsright now. Take sweets, for instance. “Most of us grew up with sweets being presented as a reward,” says Snyder. “The very anticipation of a reward triggers the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain and studies show that regular bingeing on sugar stimulates dopamine — the ‘feel-good’ chemical, which is very addictive.”
Or maybe you don’t have an out-of-control sweet tooth but you still find yourself wanting to reach for the carton of cookie dough ice cream. Snyder sees clients craving fatty foods like ice cream and cream-laden dishes during extremely busy times, when they are being pulled in different directions. “During these times, fat can feel stabilizing. It’s heavy in your stomach and takes a while to digest, which can feel like it is grounding for you,” she says.
Different cravings also appear to have different consequences. A study published in December 2015 in the journalEating Behaviorslooked at the relationship between food cravings and addictive eating. Researchers found that cravings for sweets and other foods high in carbohydrates may be more closely linked with bingeing and other addictive eating behaviors, while cravings for fats seem to be more closely associated with increased body mass index.
Cravings announce themselves clearly, but what’s behind them is complex, and various factors come into play. While cravings aren’t always tied to emotional eating, before you reach for that piece of cake or bowl of pasta, check to see if your emotions may be to blame — and learn the smart ways to combat the cravings.
Additional reporting by Deborah Shapiro.
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