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Food Cravings: Giving in to Science
You never know when a hankering is going to strike. Feed your need for knowledge with Groupon's study of food cravings.
For years, scientists believed that food cravings were linked to nutrient deficiencies—a taste for steak might signify a lack of iron, for instance. But recent research has uncovered a different theory. A functional MRI study cited by the Wall Street Journal suggested that food cravings are more similar to an addiction, triggered by reward centers in the brain that relate to memory and emotion. Answering to the craving can trigger the release of neurotransmitters including endorphins (which produce feelings of well-being) and dopamine (which produces the sense of receiving a reward), explaining why we turn to less-than-wholesome "comfort" foods in times of stress.
Nutritionists would love it if we only craved broccoli seasoned with calcium chews, but the reality is that most hankerings tend toward the unhealthy. A survey of college students at an Ontario university found that 97% of women experienced occasional intense cravings, often for carb-loaded foods such as chocolate, donuts, and chips. In the same survey, 68% of men also reported food cravings, though usually for high-fat proteins such as burgers, steaks, and pizza. As you might expect from the “comfort” theory of food cravings, the results of such surveys change drastically depending on the culture.
Although humans may not normally crave foods based on nutritional need, it is true that weightlifters seem to actively crave muscle-building carbs and proteins such as potatoes and pasta. That's because the body can adjust its cravings to be able to perform everyday activities more efficiently. Sports scientist Dr. David Stensel and his colleagues found that runners crave hydrating fruits and cold-water swimmers crave fatty foods that will provide protective padding, just as professional Scrabble players crave alphabet soup.