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The Science of Cravings and Why We Want What We Want

The Science of Cravings and Why We Want What We Want

Published by Programme B

Have you ever wandered past a bakery only to find yourself inside, buying more bread and sweets than you need? Or maybe you’ve spent the better part of an hour trying to resist ordering pizza but end up with a large pepperoni pie and cheesy bread anyway. In these moments, your craving completely overtook you, to the point where you simply couldn’t resist it. 

For many people, this happens more often than they’d like to admit. If they could just figure out where these cravings come from, maybe they could stop giving in to every passing fancy. To do that, however, you must first understand why you want what you want. 

Debunking the Deficiency Myth

Despite a popular theory that cravings are your body’s way of communicating nutrient deficiencies, there’s little evidence to support this widely-held belief. I mean, when was the last time you or someone you know craved chickpeas? They’re full of fiber, folate and iron — nutrients that are often lacking in American diets. Yet, we pass up this nourishing legume for pasta, chocolate and many other craveable, albeit less nutritious, foods. 

Of course, there’s the argument that a salt deficiency from excessive sweating can trigger a craving for sodium-rich foods. However, you probably don’t crave electrolyte-infused water or rice cakes, even though they would replenish your body’s salt stores. No, you desperately need a bag of potato chips or a 10-piece chicken nugget — now!

The Science of Cravings 

So, where do these cravings come from and why can’t you just say no? Well, after millions of years of evolution, most of which featured the constant threat of starvation, humans desire food that provides more calories per bite. Now, food is readily available to most people in the U.S., but their innate cravings haven’t gone away. If anything, they’ve gotten worse. 

Today, nearly half of U.S. adults age 20 and older are obese, and the harder they try to kick the cravings, the stronger they become. However, people don’t fail to overcome cravings for a lack of determination but, rather, the presence of very strong chemical reactions in the brain. 

When you smell or see the object of your desire, the gut and liver send hormones up through the vagus nerve to the brain. These signals boost your body’s dopamine production, which causes you to crave whatever you want even more. Then, when you give in, your body and brain will affirm your choice with an influx of opioids and other feel-good chemicals. Thus, the cycle of desire and reward can continue forever without intervention. 

What Makes You Give In?

While cravings have very strong biological and neurological components, they also vary greatly from person to person. While you might drool over a box of doughnuts or pizza on Friday night, your spouse’s weakness might include a Monday afternoon candy bar or glass of wine. 

These variations are the result of an individual’s vulnerability to triggers, manipulation, associations and more. In other words, both nature and nurture play important roles in determining what makes you crave — and give in to — certain things. Here are a few common environmental factors that may make you more susceptible to developing and indulging cravings. 

Routines and Associations 

Often, craving is a learned response, something that you developed in early childhood from a family routine or habit. In some cases, this habit can be so deeply ingrained in your subconscious that you don’t even notice you’re playing into it when temptation strikes. For example, you may be more apt to order pizza when Friday rolls around because your family frequently celebrated the end of the workweek by buying takeout. 

Likewise, you may have formed associations between certain activities and foods, which can increase the likelihood of you giving in to cravings. For instance, maybe you associate pizza with a family setting, so when you watch Schitt’s Creek, you get a hankering for a slice. This and similar associations can even cue cravings regardless of how hungry you are. 

Manipulation and Availability

Constant industry manipulation and product availability also provoke cravings and addictions. Images on commercials, food packaging, menus and billboards depict generous portion sizes and often exaggerate the food quality. Meanwhile, there’s a Starbucks and McDonald’s on practically every corner, which makes these highly-advertised, calorie-dense foods seem even more convenient and appealing. 

Of course, combating cravings that stem from environmental influences is easier said than done, especially when it comes to food. After all, you can’t just up and move because the Taco Bell on the corner calls your name every time you drive by. However, you can avoid triggers by limiting your TV and social media use, avoiding certain parties and events, and taking a different route to work. 

Sleep Deprivation 

If you’re experiencing more intense cravings than usual, you might want to catch up on your beauty sleep. Sleep deprivation sends your nose into hyperdrive and sharpens food odors so you can find something to eat more quickly. However, your brain might not get enough information to make a wise decision regarding caloric intake, which will inevitably cause you to overcompensate by choosing foods with richer energy signals. In other words, that donut will win over an apple practically every time.   

Can You Cut Cravings?

While it is possible to cut cravings, doing so will require time, patience and determination. More importantly, it will require you to actively shift your focus away from your object of desire. Because the more you focus on preventing cravings, the more you’ll end up wanting whatever’s tempting you. 

Start nipping bad habits and insatiable cravings in the bud by first becoming more mindful and aware. Why do you want a piece of cake? When did you get an appetite for a large french fry? Once you identify your triggers, you can work towards avoiding them. Better yet, you can replace old habits with healthier ones to keep yourself on the right track.

Photo by Alex Azabache from Pexels