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Food for Thought Pt. 2: Food Cravings

Dive into the sequel of "Food for Thought: Pineapples" to explore what scientists have to say about food cravings.

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You’re in math class one day, trying to concentrate on your teacher who tediously works on the proof for the Pythagorean Theorem…you can’t help but see the right triangles slowly turning into pizza slices. Instantly, you imagine yourself opening a box of pizza as the smell of crispy, fresh…


You wake up to your desk is completely covered in slobber. As you turn your head, the blurry image of your annoyed teacher who stares straight down at you starts to become clearer. You tell yourself that right after class ends, you are heading straight towards Pizza Hut.

Sounds relatable? Cravings are common for everyone and can range from a small desire for ice cream to a full course meal of barbecue steak. In fact, food craving is defined as an “intense desire to eat a specific foodstuff” that is prevalent in all cultures and societies. Psychologists Hofmann, Baumeister, and their colleagues in 2011 performed an experiment with 200 people in which individuals were randomly asked throughout the day if they were currently experiencing a desire. The results revealed, “On average, desires were actively resisted on 42% of occasions and enacted on 48% of occasions.” (1) In short, desires constitute a major part of human nature, arising in any possible situation.  

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There is a variety of factors that result in particular food cravings. For instance, individual food preferences may correlate to childhood upbringing where earlier and more frequent exposures to specific foods influence less opposition to them in the future. Additionally, genetics may also affect people’s food preferences. A study done at the European Society of Human Genetics discovered that several foods like artichokes, bacon, dark chocolate, and broccoli are linked to various genes. (2) A person’s situation can also cause food cravings with stress being a common factor. Taste cells on the tongue have receptors termed glucocorticoids, which are activated in times of stress that lead to yearnings for more sugary foods. More importantly, the physical appearance of foods, including sight, sound, and smell, greatly affect our reactions where those with more pleasant scents and visuals receive more customers.

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Interestingly, gender discrimination is prevalent even when it is dealing with food cravings. According to the results of the Monell Chemical Senses, almost 100 percent of females and 70 percent of males experienced a food craving in the last year, suggesting that women are more likely than men to get food cravings. (3) More specifically, women in North America and Europe desire sweets, while men lean towards savory plates like barbecue or french fries.

Image from Pixabay

While food cravings may simply be related to dietary restriction, other studies have shown that there is much more that goes beyond the scenes. Researchers who used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) determined that components of the amygdala, anterior cingulate, orbital frontal cortex, insula, hippocampus, caudate and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are involved in stimulating food cravings. (4) While there are numerous links between food cravings and mental imagery, new research findings suggest that there could be an inverse relationship where the results of a particular experiment demonstrated that particular sights, like a flickering pattern of black and white dots on a television set, may cause a reduction in cravings. (5) All in all, the science behind food cravings is definitely not that simple.

References and Footnotes

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addicted-brains/201202/the-science-craving
  2. https://www.shape.com/blogs/working-it-out/weird-science-behind-your-food-cravings
  3. https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/food-craving.htm
  4. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-food-cravings-the-bod/
  5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100517172300.htm

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