We Don't Really Crave the Foods Our Bodies Need

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Chances are you’ve justified indulging in everything from cheeseburgers to chocolate because you thought your body "needed" it. Food cravings are common among women and men, and many people think they're caused by nutritional deficiencies or dietary restrictions. Yearning for a juicy T-bone steak? You must be low on iron or protein. Gobbling up a Snickers bar? Surely you require more phenylethylamine, a chemical that's found in cocoa-based foods.

If this is the case, you’ll be disappointed to find out there's no real scientific evidence to support this theory. Studies show that certain food cravings actually decrease among dieters sticking to carbohydrate-, sugar-, and fat-restricted meal plans, writes Vincent Ho, a clinical academic gastroenterologist at Australia’s Western Sydney University, for The Conversation. Plus, some foods like cheddar cheese and salami contain more phenylethylamine than chocolate. Why don’t we desire them more than the sweet stuff?

Turns out, your cravings aren’t that simple, and likely arise from a variety of factors. For one thing, they're highly shaped by the culture you live in. You might have also conditioned yourself to crave certain foods by eating them when you’re hungry. Emotional states like stress or depression are tied to cravings, as are our gut microbiomes. Hormones during pregnancy can also play a part. In short, there are a lot of reasons why we yearn for some foods—but nutritional deficiencies aren’t one of them.

"If we craved foods because we needed them, why would people ever have nutrient deficiencies? Cravings are based on custom," Richard Mattes, a professor of nutrition at Purdue University, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "When people are stressed or depressed, for whatever reason, they gravitate toward foods that are associated with better times and happier sensations. Pregnant women might crave chocolate, depressed people might crave ice cream. But if there were some biological need, if chocolate were really special, there would be universal cravings, not culturally specific cravings." 

Now that we know our cravings aren’t necessarily beneficial, what can we do to curb them? Psychological tools like mindfulness can help. Other helpful practices include learning to identify emotional eating triggers like stress; distinguishing cravings from actual hunger; and getting more rest, as cravings for junk foods are tied to a lack of sleep.

Still having trouble kicking your chocolate habit to the curb? According to one study from the scientific journal Appetite, 97 percent of women and 68 percent of men have experienced food cravings. Even if researchers don’t quite know why we have them, you’re not alone in your quest to resist temptation. 

[h/t The Conversation]