You just sent your partner to the store for a triple-fudge sundae and a large bag of chips. As you are ripping open the bag of chips, you can't help but wonder: how much of this craving is physiological in nature, and how much is psychological? You are not alone in asking that question; many researchers have as well. The debate lies between those who feel there is nothing scientific about cravings, and those who believe that cravings are Mother Nature's way of ensuring that you (and if pregnant, your baby) get the nutrients you need.A common theory is that if the body is deficient in, say, magnesium, it will trigger cravings for foods high in magnesium - such as chocolate. Of course, magnesium is also found in foods like whole grains, beans, nuts, and green vegetables. Studies do not consistently support the theory that specific deficiencies result in increased consumption of the associated foods. Some of the latest research suggests that areas of the brain responsible for memory and sensing pleasure are partially responsible. Three regions of the brain - the hippocampus, insula, and caudate - appear to be activated during food-craving episodes. Cravings, for many, kick into high gear when we are stressed or anxious. They arise to satisfy these emotional needs, such as to calm stress and to reduce anxiety. Researchers from UC San Francisco put rats into a high-stress environment. These rats preferred foods heavy in sugar and fat, and after consuming those foods, their brains produced lower levels of stress-related hormones. About half of all pregnant women report at least one food craving. Cravings may be for foods never even consumed before pregnancy! Numerous studies have looked at food cravings and aversions during pregnancy. In 2002, the medical journal Appetite concluded that food cravings are more common than food aversions in pregnant women. Unsurprisingly, a strong link was found between food aversions and morning sickness. Back in 1978, a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that ice cream, sweets, candy (especially chocolate), fruit and fish are the most commonly craved foods during pregnancy. A 1992 study in Appetite found that pregnant women are more likely to crave sweet foods during the second trimester than at any other point, and that a complex mix of psychological, behavioral, and physiological factors are involved. Experts are still divided as to whether pregnant women develop cravings because of expectations, or because of hormonal changes of pregnancy that cause certain foods to taste much worse or much better than normal. Hormones during pregnancy certainly do affect taste and smell, and this helps to make the case for a physiological factor in cravings. When a craving becomes dangerous, medical attention is necessary. For instance, some pregnant women have a condition known as pica, where they crave laundry starch, flour, dirt, etc. Regardless of the cause, what can we do in response to a craving? Let's say that our brain screams...GET ME ICE CREAM!!! We don't have to say no all the time, nor should we say yes too often. No matter the cause of cravings, here is what we can do about them: * If you feel that your cravings are out of control, avoid keeping excessive quantities of those foods on hand. * Look for more nutritionally balanced foods to use as alternatives to what you are craving. * Since our environment is filled with junk foods that are highly accessible, convenient, tasty and usually cheap, make a conscious decision to avoid such traps. Do your best to avoid those vending machines, fast-food restaurants, and convenience stores. * Don't let yourself get too hungry. This is an opportunity for cravings to set in, and for a quick fix in response. We have all purchased items at the grocery store simply because we happened to be hungry at the time. Don't go to the store hungry, and eat often and in a balanced manner (a diet lacking in variety can lead to more food cravings). * Keep a craving journal. Record times of cravings, emotions felt, foods eaten, and how much. You can look backwards for patterns, and attempt to understand these cravings. * High-fat and high-sugar foods are often craved. When you feed your stressed-out bodies carbohydrates, it helps to calm you down. The best way to calm our bodies, yet nourish them as well, is to choose "smart carbs" like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. * Focus on the big picture and take care of yourself. The more you are nourished in general, the less stress, anger, unhappiness, etc. you will feel. As a consequence, you will be less likely to seek comfort foods. I am sure you can think of many ways to nourish your soul, including taking a walk, hike, bicycle ride, or swim; having a massage or facial; spending time with friends, meditating, reading a book... Remember that your cravings are not necessarily a problem unless they cause imbalances in your diet or prevent you from eating important foods. Eat balanced and frequent meals, make healthful substitutions, and take care of your daily needs. Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: September 27, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 24