The Complexity of Cravings Redefined by Katie Fesler

“All I want is a huge steak. I must need more iron.”

Chances are you too have uttered similar words … and quickly proceeded to a local steakhouse for dinner.

You certainly are not alone in this craving validation. For years, popular belief has been that our cravings indicate what is lacking in our diet, that cravings are our bodies’ way of telling us what they need. While this belief may not be entirely false (there is still research which connects cravings to certain nutritional deficiencies) it is certainly not the whole story. And how can you try to battle a craving without knowing the whole story?

The majority of people have experienced at least one craving during their lives. In fact, close to 100% of young adult females and 70% of young adult males who participated in a cravings study published by NeuroImage reported that they have experienced one. These “cravings” are motivational states that give us the urge to seek and consume a particular substance. You know the feeling – no matter what you eat, you’re not satisfied until you eat that one, specific food.

Unfortunately these intense desires frequently lead to maladaptive behaviors. For example, they may cause us to overeat or form a negative relationship with food. On a daily basis, they may be a nuisance, a distraction from daily activities or even contribute to conditions including obesity, bulimia nervosa, and depression. Whatever the case, their effects are profound.

But where do cravings come from? There are several theories; it seems that the truth lies in a combination of them all. Still holding on to the idea that cravings shed light on nutritional deficiencies? Unfortunately, the NeuroImage study found that a monotonous diet may be more to blame. Healthy young adult men and women followed a diet that met all of their nutritional needs but consisted of only nutrition shakes each meal for five days. People on this monotonous diet reported significantly more cravings than when eating a varied diet, with cravings peaking after two days. Which raises the question: could our brains be the culprit?

The research is pointing to just that.

In fact, it seems that cravings are physiologically similar to drug addictions. The study published in NeuroImage used MRIs to investigate what arrears of the brain are involved in both drug and food cravings.  These MRIs, completed during induced chocolate cravings, showed that the parts of the brain involved in drug addiction are the same that are involved in food cravings. The hippocampus, caudate, and insula seem to be largely involved. The hippocampus is important for memory, which is essential for the reinforcement of the “reward seeking behavior” that causes us to crave. The caudate is also important to these reward mechanisms. Additionally, it helps us to form habits, including food-related habits. The insula is related to emotion and contributes to the emotional connection of food and cravings.

Additionally, like in drug addictions, hormones are involved. As an enjoyable food is consumed, the pleasant experience is determined in part by hormone receptors. Eventually, we must consume more and more of that food to feel the same pleasant experience. It follows the same reward circuit seen in drug and cigarette addictions.

It seems that various mechanisms, including hormones and memories, create a Pavlovian response – a sensory cue that causes us to crave. It is clear that food is strongly tied to our emotions and memories. This is why a simple cue of a picture or smell can cause us to crave a food. Our memories help condition us to desire particular foods based on a particular cue. Joint research completed by the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago indicated that this conditioned response is stronger when we are hungry or dieting.

The good news? Understanding that memory has such a large role in eliciting cravings makes creating a toolbox to manage them that much easier. Next time you have a craving you want to beat, try one of these tricks!

A picture is worth a thousand…cravings?

How many times have you lost focus on a task because of an intense food craving? Have you ever wondered why that is? Cravings are shown to interrupt cognitive functioning, partly because they use the same parts of the brain. In other words, you can’t focus on writing that important email because your craving is monopolizing the machinery.

Try beating the craving at its own game. Cravings use working memory, specifically the parts involved in sights and smells. Visualizing a vivid picture, for example a detailed rainbow, uses that same working memory. A study showed that engaging in these memory activities that use the imagery sections of the brain drastically reduced cravings. (Additional information about this phenomenon from the Psychological Issues).

Aromatherapy – not just for relaxation. 

Even a whiff of baking bread makes many people crave it for hours afterwards. Olfactory senses, or smells, are strongly tied to our memories and emotions. When you smell something that is associated with a happy time or a pleasant experience, the brain perks up. The smell cues a desire to experience the pleasure again, and we may consequently crave an associated food. Fortunately, we can outsmart our brains here too.

A study shows that smelling a non-food odor may once again monopolize the working memory. After smelling jasmine, college-aged females reported their craving for chocolate had reduced. It seems that smelling a non-food odor, such as jasmine, may help to defeat that craving.

A treadmill will stop me from eating chocolate? 

It seems that you can accomplish two things at once: calm the craving and get in a workout. Studies show that women who walked on a treadmill when a chocolate craving hit reported a reduction in their desire for chocolate. This supports the idea that engaging in any physical activity will help to reduced cravings.

While these studies help allow the creation of a valuable toolbox for combatting cravings, it is important to remember that they do not point to a definitive conclusion for the cause or cure of cravings. Studies are performed under experimental conditions that may not encompass all aspects of daily life, and therefore may not encompass all contributing factors to cravings. Additionally, it is important to remember that all cravings do not act exactly the same. What works for one may not for another.

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Cravings appear to be much more complicated than just a physiological response. They are wound up in the areas of the brain involved in memories, emotions, and addictions. Though cravings may be complex, learning to battle them is not that difficult after all!

Katie Fesler is a first-year Nutrition Communications student at Friedman. After years of battling cravings during late night studying, she knew there had to be better ways to fight them. 

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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