Deprivation & Desire: Decoding The Science Behind Food Cravings
Image Credit: Representational image.

Ever found yourself frequently getting the munchies for chaat, samosas, vada pav or melt-in-your-mouth desserts in the evening or when you are bored? Food cravings are a universal phenomenon, often manifesting as an intense yearning for specific dishes or flavours. But what sparks these cravings, and why do we hanker for certain foods over others? Let’s unravel the mystery behind food cravings and examine the factors that shape our appetites for particular dishes.

The Science of Cravings

Food cravings can be incredibly specific and may emerge even after we've eaten. Say wanting to have that rich sizzling brownie with vanilla ice cream on top, post your lunch or dinner. Dr Allison Childress, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, explains that cravings are generally psychological rather than physiological, unlike hunger. They're satisfied by the feelings or sensations derived from consuming certain foods. Brain imaging studies reveal that some foods, like sugar, can trigger euphoric sensations (The Science Behind Food Cravings, Brain World Magazine).

Our evolutionary past offers some insight as well. Dr Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, posits that our brains evolved to respond to food whenever it was available, particularly if it was delectable and palatable. Nowadays, we're constantly surrounded by cues for delicious food, far more than in our evolutionary history. Our brains naturally react to these cues, urging us to eat despite the hunger actually not being there. 

Mental Imagery and Cravings

Research suggests that mental imagery plays a pivotal role in food cravings. When we crave a specific food, we conjure up vivid images of that dish relentlessly until we give into our cravings. One study found that the intensity of participants' cravings correlated with the vividness of their food imagery (The Psychology of Food Cravings, Association for Psychological Science).

This link between food cravings and mental imagery, coupled with the fact that mental imagery consumes cognitive resources, may explain why food cravings can be so disruptive. As we visualise a particular dish, our brain power is focused on that food, making it difficult to concentrate on other tasks.

The Role of Food Deprivation

Experimental studies have explored the impact of food restriction on cravings. Selective food deprivation, where participants are instructed to avoid certain types of food, appears to increase cravings. However, caloric restriction studies, which involve creating an energy deficit primarily through reduced energy intake, have found that food cravings actually decrease (Meule A., The psychology of food cravings: The role of food deprivation).

These contradictory findings may be attributed to methodological differences between the studies, such as sample characteristics (e.g. body weight) and the duration of deprivation periods. It's possible that avoiding specific foods may initially increase cravings but decrease if the selective food deprivation studies were conducted over longer periods.

Emotional Factors and Cravings

Food cravings often stem from emotional needs, such as alleviating stress and reducing anxiety. Dr Adam Drewnowski, a researcher on taste and food preferences, posits that cravings arise to satisfy these emotional needs.

High sugar consumption has been found to disrupt the body's natural ability to sense hunger or satisfaction, causing people to continue eating despite being full. A review of clinical trials discovered that sugary foods have addictive effects and induce changes in brain chemistry akin to other addictive substances, producing negative withdrawal symptoms when sugar intake is halted (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).

Cultural Influences on Cravings

Cultural factors also significantly shape our food cravings. The dishes and flavours we're exposed to growing up can leave a lasting impression on our preferences and desires. In the United Kingdom, for example, the diverse regional cuisines offer a rich array of flavours and ingredients, leading to cravings for specific dishes that evoke memories of one's upbringing or cultural heritage.

Moreover, certain foods may be linked to specific memories or experiences, triggering cravings when we encounter similar situations or emotions. The aroma of freshly brewed tea, for instance, might bring back memories of afternoon tea gatherings, sparking a craving for the comforting beverage.

In essence, food cravings result from a complex interplay of factors, including brain chemistry, mental imagery, food deprivation, emotional needs, and cultural influences. By understanding the science behind our cravings, we can make more informed choices about our eating habits and devise strategies to manage these desires. So, the next time you find yourself yearning for a specific dish, pause to consider the factors influencing your craving and make a conscious decision about whether to indulge or seek an alternative way to satisfy your longing. In doing so, we can better navigate our relationship with food and maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle.