Why we want food so much it hurts?

Posted on April 28, 2015

Photo: flickr

There's nothing like the salty tang of beef-flavoured Top Ramen broth and a mouthful of slightly overdone instant noodles. At least, not for me. I've gone on record about my obsession before, writing about how ramen noodles helped me get through adolescence. But the truth is that I crave it still, especially when I'm tired or sick. You probably have something similar in your personal food pantheon ‒ the craving that tops all other cravings.

Not all cravings are so familiar ‒ have you ever craved something you'd completely forgotten about, like a discontinued flavour of doughnut or a salad dressing from a long-ago garden party? Pregnant women are said to crave extremely unlikely food combinations, from ice cream and pickles to strawberry and tuna. But all cravings worthy of the name seem to have that singular intensity. They feel like important messages from your body.

But they're not. Eva Kemps, a professor of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, explains that despite a long folk tradition of trying to link cravings to nutrient deficiencies ‒ I need this chocolate, for biological reasons! ‒ that's not the case. One common justification for chocolate cravings, for instance, is that the cravers are deficient in magnesium, which chocolate can provide. But many, many foods, including spinach, contain more magnesium than chocolate, which is the most commonly craved food in Western societies. "Funnily enough, people don't crave spinach," she observes.

To understand the process of craving and see how it might be interrupted, Kemps and her colleague Marika Tiggemann have studied exactly what it feels like. They asked 130 subjects to recall a craving they'd had and write down a description, collecting what amounted to lyrical rhapsodies about the object of desire. They found that people don't think about sound or touch all that much in cravings, with visual images playing a major role, along with imagined taste and smell, of course. They wondered whether having people imagine non-food images, like rainbows or rose gardens, could nip cravings in the bud.

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Source material from BBC