“If cravings were an indicator of nutritional deficiency, we’d all crave fruits and vegetables,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RD, CDN. “The fact that we all want high carb, high fat comfort foods, along with the research, is a pretty good indicator that cravings aren’t related to deficiencies.”
The literature backs Ansel’s assertion: research consistently finds that cravings are most often related to social rather than nutritional cues. Even a commonly perceived craving-culprit, hormonal fluctuation caused by menstrual cycles, turns out to have no measurable impact on cravings. There is one exception: those who crave ice, clay or paste may have pica—an iron deficiency that is most common in women, according to Ansel.
But that doesn’t mean that cravings aren’t real—and don’t have a true, physiological origin. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have been able to determine that brain regions associated with memory, emotion and—big surprise!—stress light up when a person is having an intense food craving. And that brain response, in combination with a visual cue, another study found, increases the level of the “hunger hormone,” leptin.
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