Volume 16, Number 1
“I’m hungry” is a rather nonspecific utterance for many adults in Western societies. It may mean that one is experiencing physiological sensations or weakness due to the need for food (hunger), or it may be that one is experiencing a psychological desire for a specific type of food (craving). When one is truly hungry, a wide range of foods may be satisfying, including vegetables. When one experiences a craving, only a specific type of “food” is likely to be satisfying, commonly something rich in sugar, fat, or salt (or a combination of these). It is also possible that “I’m hungry” is simply a response to some cue, such as the time on a clock, the sight of food, or an emotional state. While cues can certainly prompt awareness of physiological hunger, cues frequently stimulate cravings.
Cravings often lead to the consumption of high-calorie but poor nutrient foods, irrespective of any physiological hunger. Common objects of cravings include snacks that are available in vending machines or in supermarket checkout lines, edibles in advertisements, or items on the desert menu.
In a 2018 article published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), investigators from New York University reported results of research related to how cravings impact the perceived economic value of the object food. Whether or not participants were hungry before and after exposure to a snack food, they were willing to pay more for a snack after exposure to it (in this research the snacks were not consumed). Participants were also inclined to pay more for snacks that had higher caloric content (largely a result of sugar and fat), as well as for larger portions of the snacks that they craved.
Study participants were asked to rank snack preferences prior to any exposure to them. After exposure to a given snack, that particular snack typically was ranked higher in desirability, even replacing pre-exposure preferences. Also interesting was that exposure to a specific snack resulted in greater desire for similar snacks as well. Cravings were found to be transient, such that the higher valuation assigned to craved snacks did wane over a period of approximately two hours.
Cravings are obviously powerful. They can be manipulated based upon exposure, and the laboratory research cited here certainly reflects what has been observed in consumer behavior. From a health perspective, awareness of the distinction between hunger and cravings is an important first step in managing cravings. If one is experiencing a strong desire for a specific type of edible, particularly if it is dense with calories from sugar or fat, it is most likely a craving that needs to be managed. Using accurate language for the experience may help (i.e., “I’m craving a Snickers bar” rather than “I’m hungry”).
Other important strategies for managing cravings include:
– minimizing exposure to foods that are likely to be craved (“out of sight, out of mind” applies here)
– minimizing other cues that may stimulate cravings
– making healthy food choices more evident and available
– establishing habits in which craved foods are not regularly consumed
– taking advantage of the transient nature of cravings (while a craving may initially intensify, with time it will dissipate)
In environments replete with calorie-dense snack foods, recognizing and coping with cravings is an important component of health and weight management.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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