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Are food cravings really the body’s way of telling us we’re lacking certain nutrients? The belief holds that nature creates these strong and specific food cravings so we’ll consume the necessary foods to make up the deficit.
It seems like a logical connection. Pregnant women, for example, must crave ice cream because they lack calcium, or pickles because they need sodium. Or that we turn to chocolate to cheer us up, because it supplies us with compounds that are supposedly lost during a crying bout.
Scientific studies discount these notions and instead say that cravings—specifically, the intense desire for a particular food, drink or taste—are triggered not by nutritional shortages, but by a more complex set of circumstances.
Yes, chocolate does have some biologically active compounds. Two of them—phenylethylamine and anandamide—could potentially trigger the release of mood enhancing chemicals in the brain. But there’s so little found in chocolate that it’s doubtful there’s enough to have much effect. On top of that they’re broken down during the digestive process, so it’s unlikely that they reach the brain intact, which is the only way they’d do any good.
Pregnant women do yearn for foods that are very sweet, spicy or salty. But it’s thought that these food cravings are driven not by any specific nutritional need. Instead, they reflect a natural drive put there by Mother Nature. In ancient times when food was scarce, a craving for highly palatable foods would help boost calorie intake and ensure a healthy pregnancy. Nowadays, getting enough calories is usually not the problem. Pregnant women may be using cultural norms (they’re ‘eating for two’) to support giving in to their urges for high-calorie fare.
In another blow to the theory that nutritional deficits drive food cravings to replace the nutrient in question, it’s been well documented that some women who are iron deficient will eat huge amounts of ice. But ice is virtually iron-free. My mother-in-law used to do this. When she was going through menopause, she’d munch through two trays of ice cubes during the evening news. It’s not known why low iron stores trigger this craving, but the yearnings usually go away when the iron deficiency is corrected.
So, it looks as if it’s the complexity of the individual, not so much the complexity of foods, that sparks these strong urges. We’re influenced by personal, physiological and social pressures in making food choices. We may be using cravings as a way to justify their consumption.
Ice doesn’t repair an iron shortage, but some people apparently derive pleasure from chewing it. Pregnant women don’t crave ice cream because they need calcium. They crave it because it’s delicious and because its consumption is sanctioned during pregnancy. It’s not just the bioactive compounds in chocolate that we ‘need.’ We crave chocolate because it’s such an amazing sensory experience. It’s sweet, smooth, creamy, aromatic and extremely pleasurable to eat. And since it’s loaded with fat and calories, it’s also a sinful, forbidden food—which just makes it that much more appealing.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.