Women are hard-wired to crave chocolate

The luxurious candy triggers physiological, psychological urges

Health & Fitness

April 20, 2003|By Julia Sommerfeld | Julia Sommerfeld,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Fluffy doughnuts slathered in gooey chocolate.

A chocolate-chip cookie dipped in a steaming mocha.

Warm turtle brownies topped with rocky road ice cream.

Many women crave chocolate over all other foods. In fact, "craving" may not quite capture the level of desire. It's more like a burning obsession that cannot be quenched until the last smidgen of the creamy confection has been licked from shaky fingers.

Why can't women crave a less destructive snack -- say, carrot sticks?

Because, according to nutritionists, cravings are nearly always for high-fat, high-calorie foods.

"It's not just lack of willpower; we are hard-wired to desire high-density foods," says Lola O'Rourke, a spokes-woman for the American Dietetic Association. She says that cravings for high-calorie foods were a survival mechanism in the ancient past, but now that we're surrounded by junk food, our evolutionary dietary urges are wreaking havoc on our waistlines.

Cravings should be distinguished from mere hankerings or bored eating, explains Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. "It's a state of arousal directed at a target food, not just: 'I'm hungry, what do I have in the fridge?' " he says.

Studies show that while women tend to crave chocolate, ice cream and other sweets, men prefer salty or meaty treats such as potato chips, pizza and fries.

Scientists aren't sure why gender affects the palate, but the observation that chocolate cravings intensify for many women during the premenstrual phase suggests that hormonal factors play a role.

Drewnowski says cravings are simply about the desire to feel good. Those concoctions give us pleasure, both psychologically and physiologically.

Most of us have comfort foods -- mac-and-cheese, mashed potatoes, birthday cake -- that conjure up happy childhood memories. And in the brain, high-fat, high-calorie foods cause the body to release feel-good chemicals.

In an experiment to test whether chocolate cravings were linked to release of pleasurable brain chemicals, Drewnowski gave some subjects naloxone, a drug that blocks the body's receptors for natural opiates, the brain's own version of heroin. Subjects were then offered a variety of foods, among them chocolate bars. Those given naloxone reduced their chocolate consumption, indicating the sweet was no longer giving them the chocolate "high" they craved.

"This is the first real scientific evidence that cravings have a physiological basis," Drewnowski says.

Seattle dietitian L. Kathleen Mahan says that eating a balanced diet and avoiding overloading on simple carbohydrates such as bagels or pasta makes it easier to control cravings. Starches produce drastic swings in blood sugar, which trigger cravings for sweets.

Curbing Cravings

* When a craving hits, don't indulge right away. Distract yourself for 20 minutes. Cravings often subside.

* Don't keep chocolate or other craved foods in the house.

* Don't completely deny yourself. Deprivation can turn a craving into an obsession.

* Eat your treat slowly to savor every morsel.

* Reduce the calorie penalty by consuming small, rich tokens of your favorite foods.

* If your cravings are a regular occurrence, find low-calorie ways to satisfy them.

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