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Where do food cravings come from?

Where do food cravings come from?
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It’s near bedtime, and your stomach is growling. You succeeded with that dinner of healthy protein with some veggies … but in truth? You’re not satisfied. All week you’ve secretly wanted to snack on chips.

Sound familiar? Food cravings often feel like they sneak up on you – as in, why are you craving this particular food, and why right now? Until recently, even scientists weren’t sure, according to endocrinologist, Dr Frank Greenway.

However, more recently, research has found an answer that might be the real sweet spot. Says Dr Greenway (who has studied the science of food cravings for decades): “We used to think hunger was controlled by an area of the brain, known as the hypothalamus, as a way to ensure survival. But our most current research suggests it’s actually the brain’s reward system that controls much of our eating habits, including cravings.”

Understanding cravings in this way might make so much sense. Keep reading for more insights to explain your cravings from some of the latest research on this topic, along with input from dietitian Taylor Newhouse Leahy and nutritionist Katie Bressack.

Why you crave what you crave

Why you crave what you crave
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A couple of insights to start: Dr Greenway says research suggests women are more likely to report food cravings than men are, though most everyone reports more cravings at night than earlier in the day. This may bring even more evidence to back the notion that your brain perceives certain foods as rewards. After all, at the end of a demanding few days, does anything scream Rest and recharge! quite like curling up with a little something decadent to indulge in?

Dr Greenway explains that your cravings can give you a lot of information about yourself, including important things about your mental and physical health (beyond the fact that you have a major sweet tooth). Sometimes, an individual craves food simply because they’re hungry. Other times, there’s more behind the specific craving. Keep reading for some of the usual suspects.

Craving cookies and milk?

Craving cookies and milk?
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Do cravings get more classic? Milk is high in l-tryptophan, a compound that boosts mood, promotes relaxation, and encourages better sleep. So if your food cravings revolve around a tall glass of milk and cookies or a milkshake, it may just be that you’re in need of a little more R&R.

Indulging in a reasonable portion can be a good way to de-stress and feel better (but ideally, grabbing the occasional nap is a good way to feel more rested.

Craving pizza?

Craving pizza?
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Have you ever noticed that when you’re on a diet, your cravings for high-fat foods, like pizza and ice cream, suddenly seem to increase? It might feel like as soon as you start operating with some discipline, forbidden foods call your name – and there may be some accuracy to this. A 2018 study published in Behavioral Brain Research found that these increased cravings might be linked to the dieting behaviour itself.

The researchers found that going on a diet increased a brain chemical called ‘neuromedin-U receptor 2’ within a region of the brain that regulates food intake to make it clear you’ve had enough. So if your cravings for fatty foods are intense, it might mean your diet is a little too extreme to be practical for you.

Craving burgers and fries?

Craving burgers and fries?
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Our modern world is full of stress – everything from distressing news reports to family stress, work deadlines, and more.

These stressors add up over time, leading to chronic stress, which in turn leads to elevated adrenal hormone levels. Eating high-kilojoule, high-fat comfort foods puts the brakes on these hormones, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Craving ice?

Craving ice?
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The idea might make your teeth ache, but some people really love chewing ice. Science suggests if you find yourself craving the cold stuff, it might be a sign of anaemia.

A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners concluded that doctors should ask patients if they crave ice, as it’s a sign of iron deficiency. Ice cravings are a form of pica – a desire to eat non-food items like dirt and laundry soap – and are linked to low iron levels. The researchers hypothesised it might be because chewing the ice might temporarily increase blood flow to the brain, counteracting the slowdown caused by iron deficiency.

Meanwhile, Bressack offers this possibility: “Crunching on foods (or chewing gum) can actually release stress in the body, via the act of chewing.” Her suggested swap? “Eat more carrots or cucumbers to get that crunch on.”

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Craving chocolate?

Craving chocolate?
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If you find yourself constantly reaching for chocolate – one of the most popularly craved foods – you may be one of many people who count this as a reliable mood-lifter. A survey of more than 13,000 people found that those who ate dark chocolate during a 24-hour period were 57 per cent less likely to report symptoms of depression than those who ate no chocolate.

A possible explanation? Dark chocolate contains magnesium and theobromine, two compounds shown to reduce levels of stress hormones and promote muscle relaxation. “Eat more magnesium-rich foods, with dark leafy greens, nuts, seed, and avocados,” Bressack suggests.

Or, if you really need that cocoa kick, “Always look for chocolate bars with at least 80% cacao,” she advises. “Most of the chocolate in the store is just dairy and sugar, and your body needs the cacao to feel satisfied.”

Craving sweets?

Craving sweets?
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Do you find yourself daydreaming about chewy candy bars and sour sugar-coated gummies? If so, you might need to spend more time in dreamland. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people increased the number of hours they slept, they significantly decreased their intake of sugar.

Other research in the journal Physiology & Behavior found a link between the stress hormone cortisol and the desire for sweet foods. Prioritising sleep could be key to keeping sweet cravings at bay.

Craving cheese?

Craving cheese?
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Cheese is a star ingredient in so many comfort foods, like pizza and nachos – and for good reason. There are plenty of explanations for a cheese craving, besides its creamy texture.

One possibility: cheese is a great source of tryptophan, an amino acid that plays a role in producing the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, per the Journal of Amino Acids. So if your Friday night cheese board date can’t seem to come soon enough, there might be an underlying need for a serotonin boost.

Likewise, dairy products such as cheese contain casein which helps in the process of releasing dopamine, according to Agricultural and Biological Chemistry. This other feel-good neurotransmitter is specifically associated with feelings of reward and motivation. The brain releases this chemical, attracting us to whatever produces it … including cheese.

One other potential reason you are constantly craving the melty treat may be because you’re having issues with concentration and memory. A 2015 study found that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were twice as likely to crave cheese as others.

Though, again … let’s not forget about the creaminess factor. “You might notice that you reach for cheese or ice cream after a long day,” Bressack says, as “dairy is a super comforting food.” Your best bet? “Look for organic, antibiotic, and hormone-free dairy.”

Craving soft drinks?

Craving soft drinks?
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Whether you get a longing for a fix of fizzy sweetness every day, once a week, or just a time or two a month … if you’re craving soda, it’s possible that what you’re really craving is the caffeine hit. One 350-mililitre serving of Coke provides around 45 milligrams of caffeine – about half the amount of a cup of coffee, which is arguably enough to give you a nice wake-up jolt but not enough to make you jittery.

A less common reason for soda cravings is a calcium deficiency. According to a 2017 study in Front Endocrinol, the dialy consumption of cola can leach calcium and magnesium from your bones, creating a vicious cycle of depletion and craving.

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