Sometimes we eat foods not because of their nutritional properties, but because we like them. We might even say that we like certain foods so much, that it feels as if we are addicted to them. These foods have something special about them. What is this special something that makes us crave the foods, and how we can control our cravings?
Foods are much more than nutrients, vitamins, and minerals for us. As humans we have complicated sensory organ systems, which allow us to explore the world around us. We like to stimulate our senses as much as possible, and eating is a big part of it.
When it comes to cravings, there are two aspects. First of all, we have a very strong desire to eat. Secondly, we have a very strong desire to eat a certain food, experience a certain taste. Cravings should not be confused with a simple desire to eat more. If anything, most of the time, cravings have nothing to do with being hungry. For example, you probably experienced being absolutely full, but still wanting to experience a certain taste. ‘There is always room for dessert’ is a great example of how cravings work, as cravings are about wanting to experience a particular taste no matter how full you are.
We often talk about cravings being at the core of various emotional associations we might have with certain foods. For example, if as kids we were given sugary treats as a reward for behaving well, we might subconsciously associate sweet taste with feeling rewarded and comforted even in adulthood. So, a piece of cake is irresistible not because we want to taste eggs, milk, flour, and sugar, but because we want to feel rewarded and loved.
Environmental element is also very important when it comes to strong emotional associations with certain foods. Different foods might evoke various pleasant memories, experiences, and images for us: ice cream might remind us about summer and warm weather, Asian food about travelling and the culture we like, pizza about lazy days at home with friends and family. That’s why if we look at a menu in a good restaurant, we will see descriptive names with adjectives like ‘home-style’, ‘succulent’, ‘fresh’. The restaurant management is trying really hard to make their dishes more appealing for us by creating images we might relate to.
We have talked about emotional associations, now let’s look if there are any physical associations with craving certain foods? Physical associations would look at the ways certain foods stimulate our senses. We would analyse things like temperature, sound, texture, flavour, and taste. The idea is that we might be craving foods not because of their taste, but because they stimulate our senses in a certain very pleasant and sometimes helpful way. Maybe you have noticed that when you are very busy, stressed, under lots of pressure, you would crave crunchy or chewy foods? These foods are proven to help with focus and attention, as the jaw muscles need to work really hard to break the foods.
Foods that stimulate different senses are more appealing to us. There is a good evolutionary explanation to it. Our survival depended on getting the right nutrients, and the easiest way to do it was to consume a varied diet and be willing to try new foods with different textures, flavours, tastes, and smells. We are wired to want to stimulate our senses as much as possible. Of course, food manufacturers are aware of this, that’s why they create irresistible foods we love and crave so much. For example, we have soft chocolate truffles with hard chocolate shells, crispy, soft donuts with gooey fillings; chewy pizza with soft cheese; and so on.
So, what are the best tips when it comes to controlling our cravings based on the emotional and physical associations discussed above? First of all, we need to try and get to the bottom and the origin of the craving. Maybe there is a strong emotional association with wanting this food? Would it make us feel rewarded, sooth us, are we bored? We are not suggesting that we shouldn’t give in to the cravings but becoming more aware of emotional associations and looking for non-food ways to deal with the emotions, is an important skill. Secondly, let’s think about how the food stimulates our senses, and what can be a better alternative? Again, in no way, we are suggesting swapping salty peanuts for cabbage leaves, but there might be interesting options you would be willing to test for yourself.
Enjoy the foods and be more aware of your cravings and why you have them!
Daria is a qualified Nutrition and Lifestyle coach, CI Level 4, Institute of Health Sciences. Her main area of expertise is daily balanced nutrition and lifestyle to support an individual’s optimal health. Her IG account is @dariasplate.