New York City psychologist Catherine Monk yearns for Chocolate and pralines-and-cream ice cream. My brother-in-law, Darren craves "anything from chips to teriyaki pork." As for me, it's (honestly) greens. Not dainty salad greens, mind you, but a big pot of pungent rapini or kale, braised in plenty of olive oil, garlic and salt.
Nutrition experts define a food craving as a pronounced desire for a specific food in the absence of hunger. For many of us, it's the desire that doesn't go away until it has been reckoned with. Like Monk, the majority of women60 percent, according to one surveycrave sweets. Men tend to go for protein-laden or salty foods: steaks, burgers, and pizza.
Despite their universality, food cravings still provoke debate about what triggers them and what they mean. Some researchers believe they are dictated by biologythat certain chemicals in our bodies cause us to seek out sweets (or carbohydrates, fat or protein). Others say they are more psychological in nature, associated with beloved traditions, for instance or happy childhood memories. Still others point to stress.
Most experts do agree that few food cravings stem from an actual nutritional deficiency. "There is very little evidence that Americans have a nutritional need for cookie-dough ice cream," says Patrick O'Neil, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
Why Cavemen Caved In.
Nutrition can however, help explain the origins of food cravings. "The foods we cravefoods with fat and sugar or fat and saltare all calorie-dense," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. "Until recently in human history, your body wanted those foods because you were hungry and needed fuel, and eating those calories made you feel good." Indeed, when faced with big doses of calories, the body releases endorphinschemicals that reduce the sensation of pain and may help ease depression and anxiety.
"These days," Drewnowski says, "our society is more sedentary. You don't need the calories, but you still reach for those foods because they make the brain release endorphins."
In The Origin Diet, dietitian Elizabeth Somer asserts that certain cravings were central to human survival and evolution. "Fat, and sugar were scarce hundreds of thousands of years ago," she writes. "Fat was a precious source of calories (supplying more than twice the calories per gram of either protein or starch), and our ancestors had no need to develop an appetite shut off valve for fat. Instead, when they found fatty food, they ate all they could get and developed an unlimited capacity to store extra calories."
The quest for fat and sugar Somer believes is now hard-wired into our brains, governed by dozens of chemicals including endorphins. Serotonin, for example, is the "feel good" chemical. When levels are low, we seem to crave sweets and carbohydrates, which raise serotonin and improve mood. This may help explain why many women crave chocolate near their periods.
Gotta Have It?
What about the cravings that many pregnant women experience? Growing research suggests that odd food yearningsand food aversionsmay protect the fetus. Some pregnant women lose the desire to drink coffee or wine and turn green at the site of fish, meat, eggs or vegetables. Instead, they crave sweets, fruits (especially citrus) and dairy products.
One explanation: These foods are least likely to carry harmful organisms or natural toxins. "It may be your body is telling you to keep your fetus away from anything that might be toxic," says Frances Largeman, RD, managing editor of FoodFit.com, a web-site promoting healthy eating habits.
Largeman acknowledges that the theory doesn't account for why some pregnant women hunger for pickles and others for apple strudel. Cravings are difficult to explain scientifically, she says, "because people don't eat nutrients; they eat food." And every-body's preferences differ.
Some experts think cravings are as much a reflection of our social and psychological makeup as they are of our psychological impulses. "Food adds solace to our lives," says Jeff Hampl, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "Often, cravings are tied to a childhood experience and good feelings associated with it. There's a subconscious desire to replace those emotions."
This would explain my predilection for rapini, since my mother serves it every Thanksgiving. Yet regardless of the reason, Largemanwho craves salmon sometimesthinks you should satisfy a craving when it strikes. "A craving usually just gets worse," she says, and it could lead to bingeing."
But most of us long for foods that aren't as nutritious as salmon. What should we do?
Before You Indulge
First, make sure you're experiencing a true cravingnot just plain old hunger or thirst. "Sometimes people don't realize that they're physically hungry," says O'Neil. If it's actually hunger, eating something reasonable such as a piece of fruit rather than a chocolate bar might do the trick."
Another option, he says is to "leave the scene of the craving. Change your setting and engage in other things that don't involve food."
Finally, if your craving just won't be rebuffed, indulge itjudiciously. "If have a salty craving," says Largeman, "it's better to buy a single-serving bag of salt-and-vinegar chips than to buy a large bag and keep it around the house." Or, try a less potent alternativesay, low-fat chocolate milk or a frozen fudge pop rather than a slab of fudge.
For years, Catherine Monk would ignore her sweet tooth, then splurge on half a pint of ice cream. Now, wiser she settles for a few tablespoons every night. "That does it for me," she says.