The Facts About Food Cravings

7 ways to deal with those irresistible urges

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Ask anyone what foods they crave, and most people will be able to reel off at least a couple of items without hesitation.

Take me, for example. My name is Elaine Magee, and I'm a chocoholic. Just about the only food I crave is chocolate (and sometimes cake and, about once a year, cream puffs or eclairs).

I find comfort in knowing I am not alone. Surveys estimate that almost 100% of young women and nearly 70% of young men had food cravings during the past year. That covers most of us, doesn't it?

It's All In Your Head

Those who don't have food cravings might say that such cravings are "all in your head," and new research suggests they are right. It is all in our heads: several specific areas of our brains, actually. Areas of the brain responsible for memory and sensing pleasure are partially to blame for keeping those food cravings coming.

Three regions of the brain -- the hippocampus, insula, and caudate - appear to be activated during food-craving episodes, according to new research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Their brain tests suggest that memory areas of the brain (which are responsible for associating a specific food with a reward) are actually more important to food cravings than the brain's reward center.

Further, blocking the opiate receptors in the brain, which sense pleasure, can blunt a person's desire to eat foods rich in fat and sugar, according to new research by Adam Drewnowski, PhD, of the University of Washington.

De-Stress to Discourage Cravings

Beyond the physiological reasons for food cravings, they often have something to do with emotion and desire.

"Food cravings arise to satisfy emotional needs, such as calming stress and reducing anxiety," says Drewnowski, a well-known researcher on taste and food preferences.

For many of us, cravings kick into high gear when we're stressed or anxious. Carbohydrates boost our levels of the hormone serotonin, which has a calming effect. And recent research suggests that the combination of fat and sugar may also have a calming effect.

Researchers from University of California at San Francisco put rats in a high-stress environment and discovered two key points: the stressed-out rats preferred to eat sugar and fat, and when the rats ate fat and sugar, their brains produced less of the stress-related hormones (the ones that trigger the fight-or-flight response).

It's in Our Genes, Too

Getting fat is an evolutionary advantage embedded in our genes, according to a recent American Psychological Society Observer article.

Humans have been able to survive times of famine and hardship throughout history due largely to our ability to store excess calories, consumed during times of plenty, as body fat. At some level, our bodies may be programmed to crave foods high in calories.

Also, several studies have suggested that eating a diet lacking in variety can lead to more food cravings. But let's not overlook the obvious: It also doesn't hurt that the foods we typically crave taste so good and that we usually have many enjoyable memories associated with them. That history can be plenty powerful.

Don't Blame the Carbs

I don't know how many times I've heard people say that it's those awful, terrible carbohydrate foods they tend to crave. When I ask them what "carb" foods they are talking about, they usually name:

  • Potato chips
  • French fries
  • Chocolate
  • Rich ice cream
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Macaroni and cheese

Here's the thing: When you crave these foods, you're not just craving carbs, you're craving fat, too! According to Drewnowski, cravings that are spurred by emotions are typically for foods containing fat, sugar, or both.

Take a nutritional look at the top foods people say they crave and you'll see that almost every food contains more calories from fat than from carbohydrates.

% calories
from fat
% calories
from carbs
Chocolate chip cookie 50% 46%
Macaroni and cheese 46% 37%
Milk chocolate candy bar 51% 46%
Dove chocolate ice cream bar 57% 42%
Fast-food french fries 44% 50%
Potato chips 56% 40%


7 Tips About Food Cravings

1. Out of sight is usually not out of mind