Give In, but Not Completely

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

From the late-afternoon urge for a chocolate bar to the hankering for a plate of barbecued ribs while cheering on your favorite team, food cravings can fuel a lot of overeating.

Popular wisdom -- okay, maybe it's rationalization -- suggests that these cravings may represent some physiological need. So should you indulge your food urges or work hard to resist them?

That appears to depend on what you crave, according to a new study that finds overly restricting some foods, especially carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and cookies, can backfire and fuel cravings.

Rather than "eating in moderation all along, you end up rebounding" and consuming more calories, notes Jennifer S. Coelho, lead author of the University of Toronto study, published in this month's edition of the journal Appetite. "It's better to try to find a balance."

Food cravings have long intrigued scientists. But the obesity epidemic has added a new urgency to understanding why hot fudge sundaes, chocolate chip cookies, french fries, chocolate eclairs, fried chicken, pizza and porterhouse steak are nutritional sirens for so many people.

Rare, indeed, is the person who craves broccoli. Some scientists, including Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington in Seattle, define food cravings as the desire for high-calorie or energy-dense foods that are full of fat or sugar or both. "If people say, 'I crave radishes,' " Drewnowski says, "I would say, 'No, you don't.' They're not energy-dense, nor sweet or filled with fat. But potato chips, yes."

Nor do people crave foods that they have not already tasted. "Think of food cravings as a sensory memory," says psychologist Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research organization in Philadelphia. "You remember how good it felt the last time you had that food. You have to have experienced eating it before."

Whether it's possible to learn to crave healthful, lower-calorie foods is not known. "In theory, you ought to be able to learn to crave carrot sticks," Pelchat says. "But 95 to 97 percent of the foods that people report craving are energy-dense."

In the brain, food cravings activate the same areas that are affected by cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes and even the pleasure that some people get from buying lots of shoes, says Pelchat, who in 2004 published the first brain images associated with food cravings.

Both men and women experience food cravings, but studies suggest that these urges are more common in women, who report experiencing them most often premenstrually and during pregnancy. Women are more likely to crave sweets, with chocolate topping the list. Men are more likely to hear the call of savory foods such as pepperoni pizza, barbecued ribs, meatloaf and nachos.

A new study suggests that men may be more susceptible to the appetite-enhancing effects of food advertising. When study participants viewed photos of tantalizing food and were asked to rate their appeal, men were more likely than women to assign high scores, regardless of whether they had just eaten or had fasted for at least 12 hours.

"We think that this reflects that women are more sensitive to their internal signals, while men seem to be more prone to ignore them," says James E. Cox, a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a co-author of study.

That's what Drewnowski has found, too. In studies, "if women tell you they are not hungry, they eat less at lunch," he says. "If men tell you they are not hungry, it doesn't mean anything. They still eat."

Body weight may also affect food cravings. Studies show that the higher a person's body mass index, the greater the likelihood for food cravings. What comes first -- the added pounds or the food cravings -- isn't yet known.

But with two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight or obese, experts say that's one more reason to start reducing the many environmental cues to eat, whether it's putting away the dish of candy at the office or keeping certain foods hidden in cupboards at home. "They really trigger and reinforce cravings," says Pelchat, who adds that she sometimes turns off the Food Network in an effort to avoid high-calorie temptations.

What else helps thwart food cravings? Variety. One study found that when participants consumed only a sweet, vanilla-flavored beverage that met all their nutritional needs, they had three to four times as many cravings for salty and other non-sweet food.

The good news: Food cravings appear to decline with age. The older people get, Pelchat says, the more likely they are to report they can soothe a food craving with a substitute, preferably a healthier choice. ยท

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