I WANT IT… NOW!
Whenever I read a book and a selection of characters are, say, hanging around a cosy Irish farmhouse kitchen making pots of tea in a big old brown stoneware pot, I want a cup of tea. Now.
Or the scene is set on a warm summer’s evening: two people meet outside on the loggia of an Italian seaside villa and pull the cork out of a bottle of wine straight from the fridge, as condensation drips slowly down the cool, green, icy-cold glass. I think: Is it too early for a sauvignon blanc?
Does this say something about the author’s skills of evocation, or more about my feeble-minded suggestibility?
Or just the curious nature of food cravings? Has that notion itself – “craving” – been invented by Americans?
A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this week gathers together a raft of scientific research from around the world to explain food cravings. As the obesity epidemic continues apace, scientists say it is important to look at the urges that govern the food we eat.
The studies show that your body doesn’t really know what’s good for it (as your grandmother may have said). Food cravings are not “hormonal” or “instinctual”. Food cravings are NOT some subconcious effort by the body to correct imbalance for (say) more protein or salt or iron.
Cravings are, instead, a complex mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues.
For example: Japanese hanker after sushi while North American women want chocolate.
And as for that term “craving”?
“Many other languages don’t have a word for ‘craving.’ The concept seems to be uniquely important in American culture,” says one psychologist.
The author of the WSJ article, Melinda Beck, posed questions about the nature of food cravings – “is it really the food you crave, or the pleasant associations it brings? Or do you crave it partly because you know you shouldn’t have it? Will fighting the urge make it go away or only make it worse?”
The answers are surprising.
Among the findings so far:
Food cravings activate the same reward circuits in the brain as cravings for drugs or alcohol, according to functional MRI scans, tests that measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.
Nearly everyone has food cravings occasionally, but women report having them more often than men, and younger people crave sweets more than older people do.
In one study, 85% of men said they found giving in to food craving satisfying; of women, only 57% said they did.
Researchers haven’t found any correlation between food cravings and hormone levels, and postmenopausal women don’t report a big drop in chocolate cravings, a 2009 survey found.
While many women report craving salt, fat or bizarre combinations of food during pregnancy, researchers can’t find much scientific validation. They suspect folklore and the power of suggestion instead.
Ah, the power of suggestion.
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