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Hi, my name is Shandley and I’m a chipaholic. When I’m stressed, tired, anxious, lonely, or a little blue, I tend to self-soothe with (most of) a bag of salted, rippled Lays. There’s something about the crunch that seems to instantly melt my worries away while the salt satisfies my taste buds. When it comes to food cravings, chips are my weakness.
In fact, I’m salivating a la Pavlov’s dog as I type this, just thinking about the tasty treat I could be eating right now (if I allowed myself to keep them in the house). And I’m not alone in my quest for indulgence: Food cravings are common and they start at an early age. According to Monell Chemical Senses Center, nearly 100 percent of young women and almost 70 percent of young men have experienced food cravings in the past year.
What Causes Food Cravings?
Food cravings are intense longings for a certain food. These desires activate three areas of your brain: the hippocampus, insula, and caudate, which are responsible for emotion, memory, and reward. These are also the three areas involved in drug cravings, according to researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center. No wonder it’s so hard to say no to those chips.
Food cravings come in two forms: physical and emotional. The physical type of food craving occurs when you haven’t eaten for a few hours. Your stomach starts to rumble, your head might hurt, and you may start to feel weak. Your craving was born from hunger, so you’re likely to focus on multiple foods instead of just one.
An emotional food craving, on the other hand, is more often related to mood. Whether you’re feeling stressed, bored, angry, sad, or anxious, food may be your go-to solution for feeling better. Problem is, the foods people crave when they’re emotional are often high in calories, sugar, and fat. Eating them frequently can lead to a bevy of health problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Common Food Cravings and What They Mean
We all may be different, but we tend to reach for the same types of “comfort foods” when under emotional duress. The following five foods, which top the list of food cravings, may have something important to tell you about your health, so listen up.
- Cheese or a milkshake: You’re emotional or feeling tense. High-fat dairy products are high in protein and contain the amino acid tryptophan, which aids in the production of melatonin and serotonin to help us feel more relaxed and sleepy. A 2016 study linked low amounts of tryptophan to a depressed state.
- Candy: You’re hungry, tired, stressed, or addicted. If you’re reaching for sweets, it’s really sugar you crave. You could need an energy boost due to lack of food (maybe you’re dieting or skipped breakfast this morning) and your blood sugar is fluctuating. Or, you’re not getting enough sleep. Another possible culprit is stress. Brazilian researchers found that stressed women were more likely to crave sweets. If neither of these are the cause of your craving, you may be a sugar addict. In a study of rats, researchers from Princeton University found that sugar is as addictive as drugs.
- Salty chips: You’re stressed. Crunching on something helps relieve stress while you chew. You could also be anemic, which explains your quest for extra salt.
- Carbs: You’re depressed or dieting. A study published in the journal Obesity Research found that eating carbohydrates boosts our levels of serotonin (the feel-good hormone), which is why we want them when we’re feeling down. Another reason for carb-loading could be due to dieting. If you’re restricting your carbohydrate intake, it’s not surprising that your body is craving more.
- Chocolate: You’re sad, lonely, or stressed. Consuming 500 mg of chocolate a day for 30 days improved feelings of calmness and contentment, according to an Australian study. So, we could be craving it to boost our moods. Others say we crave chocolate as a result of a magnesium deficiency, but this is up for debate.
Food Cravings Before Your Period
IF YOU CRAVE THESE, SEE A DOCTOR
Sometimes, what you crave can indicate a serious problem with your health, says the National Eating Disorders Association.
Pica is a condition in which people yearn for non-food items such as clay, chalk, hair, ice, paint chips, or dirt. This condition often precludes a severe problem such as a nutrient deficiency (e.g., iron) or a mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia). See your doctor if you’re experiencing any unusual non-food cravings.
“Cravings in women have been shown to increase in frequency and intensity at two distinct times: during the perimenstrum (i.e., a period of about eight days around the onset of menstruation) and in pregnancy,” say researchers of a study published in Frontiers of Psychology. About half of American women crave chocolate during this premenstrual phase, which researchers of a study in the journal Appetite originally chalked up to the work of hormones.
In surveying both pre- and post-menopausal women, however, they found only a small (13.4 per cent) drop in chocolate cravings after a woman reached menopause. That wasn’t high enough to blame on hormones, so the reasons for pre-menstrual cravings are still up for debate.
Food Cravings During Pregnancy
While not every pregnant woman craves pickles and ice cream, a large number long for specific foods—sweets (mainly chocolate), fruit, ice cream, fast food, pizza, and pickles top the list. Previously, pregnancy cravings were blamed on hormones or a nutritional deficiency.
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Research has proven that pregnancy hormones alter a woman’s sense of smell and taste, possibly to create aversions to foods that would harm a fetus. A 2014 article in Frontiers of Psychology, however, claims that there isn’t enough evidence to prove a link between hormones and food cravings.
The same study debunks the idea that pregnancy cravings are linked to a nutritional deficiency. As the researchers explain, while chocolate contains magnesium, and ice cream contains calcium, neither boast enough to make even a small dent in a woman’s deficiency of either nutrient. Plus, many women are turned off meat during their pregnancy, which is full of protein, a nutrient that is essential for a baby’s health.