You're sitting at your desk going about your workday when suddenly, out of nowhere, you're overcome with the desire—no, need is more like it—to devour a giant sticky bun. Your mouth is watering just thinking about the gooey-sweet glaze, the ribbons of butter and cinnamon. Is it your imagination, or is your heart beating faster?
That's when the bargaining begins: I'll have just a bite and freeze the rest. Or maybe I'll eat half of it—I've been good today—no, all of it, but I'll skip dinner tonight...
Cravings. Research is only just beginning to shed light on why so many of us succumb to them. Although scientists are still piecing together the puzzle of what exactly happens when you're in the throes of a craving, this much they know for sure: Every craving begins with a cue. The cue for a sticky bun may be something as simple as getting a whiff of its buttery aroma as you walk past your favorite bakery, or catching a glimpse of a TV commercial featuring one.
"Any cue that's repeatedly associated with high-fat and/or sugary foods can trigger a craving," explains Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, a psychologist and food addiction expert at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
In other words, if you like to celebrate the end of a workweek with margaritas and Tex-Mex, eventually a craving for those things will automatically kick in every Friday afternoon. If you grew up equating, even subconsciously, your mother's homemade chocolate layer cake with comfort, you'll likely crave some version of that whenever you have a bad day.
The cue activates your brain's pleasure center, causing it to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that pushes you to seek out the very thing you're lusting after, explains Gearhardt. Over time, this feel-good experience rewires the brain so that you're more likely to crave the food again in the future.
What's more, when you're in full-on craving mode, your brain convinces you that you are famished, making the food more difficult to resist. "Your brain starts pumping out the hunger hormone ghrelin, and your insulin levels drop, making you even hungrier than usual," Gearhardt says. As a result, it's very difficult to satisfy the craving with just a taste.
It almost seems unfair that cravings can increase feelings of hunger. You assume you'll satisfy a longing for sticky buns by eating one, but research suggests just the opposite will happen: Instead of paying attention to the physical cues of hunger and fullness, you're driven by the rush of dopamine that's telling you to find and scarf down a sticky bun (now!). And then another.
This also helps explain why you may be powerless in the presence of a dessert tray—even if you polished off a steak, two sides, and a roll only moments before. "The dessert tray, as well as the spoons and forks that are put in front of you, are all cues that you should eat," says Mark Gold, MD, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida and a specialist in addiction medicine research.
It doesn't help that the dopamine signal occurs immediately when you come up against a cue, while the satiety signals—those telling you to stop eating—are much slower, taking 12 or more minutes after you eat to kick in. "Your brain can always find more room for food, and for a while after eating, so can your stomach," adds Dr. Gold.
That explains part of the puzzle, but not all of it. New research suggests that your food preferences—and thus your cravings—may be formed not just in childhood, but in utero. "One theory is that pregnant women begin teaching their children what's safe and good to eat while they're still in the womb," says Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. So if your mom ate lots of potato chips and cheesy fries, you may be programmed to crave the same kinds of fatty, salty foods.
What's more, if you equate certain foods with feel-good moments from your childhood, you're likely to turn to them for an emotional pick-me-up. That's because often it's not the foods that we crave as much as the emotions we associate with them. In other words, it isn't just your mom's chocolate cake you're wanting, but the warm feeling you had whenever she gave you a slice.
"Pairing foods with particular feelings or situations can imprint an association between an experience and a food," explains Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. "What you might really want is to feel safe or to remember a time in your life when things were simpler."
Emotional cravings tend to sneak up on us since we're often not aware of the correlation between what we're eating and what we're feeling.
No matter the source of your craving (whether it began with an environmental cue or an emotional need) there's another tactic that helps derail the chemical cascade: Focus on your short- and long-term health goals.
By: Paige Greenfield