Do Food Cravings Guide us to Good Nutrition?

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Do Food Cravings Guide us to Good Nutrition?

Research has shown that women of childbearing age are most likely to report intense food cravings. Chocolate is the most often reported craving for these women. Men are more likely to report cravings for meats and salty snack foods. Since nearly all craved foods by men and women are calorie dense, it is not surprising to find overweight people reporting intense food cravings.

Since dietary restraint in the form of calorie restriction or portion control invariably increases hunger and hunger increases the desire to eat all foods, it is not surprising that people on calorie restricted diets often end up bingeing on a highly preferred food or craved food.

Many people believe that a craving for a specific food is an indication of nutritional need. Some researchers have suggested that since most cravings are for nutrient poor foods high in fat, sugar and or salt, that such cravings appear unlikely to have anything to do with real nutritional needs. These researchers note that it is food items, which are highly palatable that are most likely to be craved. They hypothesize that most food cravings simply reflect a desire for pleasure; often people who are depressed, anxious or lonely often report the most intense food cravings.

Other researchers note that certain neurotransmitters increase the desire to eat certain types of food. For example, galanin increases the desire for fatty foods while neuropeptide is associated with a desire for high carbohydrate foods. Of course research also shows that the more fat in one's diet, the more galanin is produced and the more galanin that's produced, the more one prefers or craves fattier food. Indeed, research shows that eating less fat for several weeks reduces galanin levels and the desire to eat fatty foods. It is clear that the only way to reduce ones desire for fatty foods is to not eat them. There is no evidence that avoiding a certain food will create a more intense craving or desire to eat that food. In fact, avoidance is the only proven way to reduce ones desire for a craved food item.

The bottom line: contrary to popular myth, food cravings do not reflect a real nutritional need and often undermine rational attempts to improve one's diet. In general, the only way to reduce the desire for nutritionally undesirable craved foods is to avoid them for several weeks. With time, such cravings diminish and become easier to control.

By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.

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