You may think that intense desire you have for the chocolate bar hidden in the freezer is due to a lack of antioxidants in your diet, but that's likely not the case, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While researchers are not quite sure why you crave the foods you do, they believe it to be a combination of a physiological and psychological need.
Physiological Causes of Food Cravings
Certain foods may cause a chemical reaction in your body that increases your desire for those foods. According to a review article from the Food Addiction Institute, obese individuals who crave carbohydrates have the same dopamine receptors in the brain as alcoholics and drug addicts, even though they have no desire for those substances. Additionally, when you eat foods high in sugar or fats, your body produces opiods -- the same chemicals found in heroin and cocaine -- which makes you want those foods even more. Chocolate also contains substances that trigger mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain, bringing on feelings of euphoria.
Psychological Causes of Food Cravings
Forbidding yourself from eating certain foods generally increases your cravings and desire for the banned food, according to a 2007 report published in the "Proceedings of the Nutrition Society." While you might think your chocolate craving is caused by a deficiency in a certain vitamin, it's more likely that your restriction has made it more desirable. Food cravings also serve as a source of comfort or reward and as a way to deal with stress; this is referred to as emotional eating. When you're feeling stressed, you may feel a strong need to eat a food you view as comforting to help you cope.
Pica and B Vitamins
Craving nonfood items such as clay or dirt may be a sign of a nutritional deficiency. This condition, known as pica, is often seen in children and pregnant women and may indicate anemia. Lack of iron, vitamin B-12 or folate can cause anemia. Vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products such as meat, chicken or milk, and folate is found in green leafy vegetables, beans, rice and fortified breakfast cereals. Pica is a serious condition and should be evaluated by a physician.
Eating a healthy diet that includes foods from all the food groups may not only help stave off cravings, but also may help ensure you are not deficient in any vitamins. Before giving in to your food craving, wait 20 minutes, suggests Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cravings usually don't last long, and if you wait them out, they may pass. If a craving won't go away, try a healthier alternative. For example, if you crave something sweet, try a sweet fruit such as frozen grapes. If salty foods are on your mind, go for whole-grain crackers instead of chips.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Stop the Cravings!
- Bryn Mawr College: Is Chocolate Physiologically or Psychologically Addictive?
- The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society: The Psychology of Food Cravings.
- Food Addiction Institute: Physical Craving and Food Addiction: A Scientific Review
- Helpguide.org: Emotional Eating
- MedlinePlus: Pica
- MedlinePlus: Vitamin B12
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Folate
- NHS Choices: What Is a Healthy Balanced Diet?