When You've Got to Have It

Article excerpt

Twelve simple steps to controlling your cravings

It's the rare person who doesn't experience food cravings on a regular basis. Kelly Kochendorfer, a former chef and Internet consultant, admits to a yen for candy, which she satisfies nightly around 4 a.m. Lisa Kim, a nonprofit fundraiser, claims that the mere smell of french fries can make her "totally lose control." She also lusts after her mother's spicy tofu stew and kimchi, a staple Korean dish with pickled cabbage. And Elizabeth Carlson's main weakness is chocolate, though this magazine editor also has been known to walk blocks for her favorite potato chips.

While most of us experience food cravings, no one really knows what causes them. Nutritionists have been trying to find an explanation for years. One theory, largely discounted by researchers, is that cravings are your body's way of telling you that you're deficient in a certain nutrient. "People would like to believe this because then they feel justified in eating their favorite foods," says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist with the Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institute devoted to the study of nutrition and the senses. "But in study after study, people go for what they like, not what they need," she says. And what they like is usually what they're already getting plenty of Very few Americans are salt-deficient, yet so many of us have a predilection for mixed nuts and potato chips. As for sugar, nobody can claim a nutritional deficiency caused by a lack of glazed donuts.

Not only do cravings have little to do with nutrition, they also rarely have much to do with hunger. The fact is that when you're truly hungry, any number of foods will satisfy you. But a craving can only be satisfied by one particular food. Regardless of whether the foods you crave are salty, savory or sweet, what they have in common is that they're all high in fat and loaded with calories.

"Prehistoric peoples sought out high-- density, high-fat foods like meat as a matter of survival," says Adam Drewnowki, Ph.D., director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Meat and other high-fat foods cause the body to release endorphins, hormones that ease pain and anxiety and produce a feeling of pleasure. Of course, these days we could do without the extra calories, but unfortunately our brains seem hardwired to seek them out.

There is an explanation for why people specifically crave sweets, according to Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Food and Mood (Henry Holt, 1999). Eating simple carbs like sugar and white bread stimulates an immediate rush of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps improve your mood and calm you down. She believes that people who suffer from an imbalance in serotonin learn to reach for a donut or candy bar to allay their bad mood or relieve nervous tension.

Amidst all the controversy, one thing is for certain: Cravings can be powerful, even impossible to resist. That goes double for women. In a study of college students, Pelchat found that 100 percent of women experienced cravings, whereas only 70 percent of their male classmates had hankerings for specific foods. What's more, men and women have predilections toward different foods. Women crave chocolate and other sweets more often than men, who usually lust after savory foods like cheesy pizza and chips.

The differences between men's and women's cravings remain somewhat of a mystery, however, despite having been studied extensively. One theory is that women are more likely to experience cravings because their hormones fluctuate, specifically during their menstrual cycles when serotonin levels drop. And pregnancy notoriously causes strange food cravings. "Pregnancy may be the one exception during which you should pay attention to your instincts," says Susan Calvert Finn, Ph.D., R.D., author of Women's Nutrition for Healthy Living (Perigree, 1997). …