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The Science of Comfort Food

Why you crave it and how to handle your I-need-it-right-now urges.

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The Science of Comfort Food

You know that can’t-stop-thinking-about-chocolate-peanut-butter-ice-cream-and-will-die-if-I-don’t-get-some-right-now feeling? That’s what we call a craving.

Contrary to hunger, which is usually more of a generic feeling (anything will satisfy), cravings tend to be specific and are often centered around high fat, sugary or salty foods, says Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., Director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and author of "Crave."

Cravings are not only dangerous to our waistlines, they can actually hinder our ability to perform common tasks, like work or driving. Seriously! A study by researchers at Flinders University in Australia concluded that cravings can cause small reductions in cognitive resources. These reductions can lower “optimal task performance” in everyday situations. In other words, cravings could prevent you from firing on all cylinders.  

But why do they appear out of the blue to taunt us? It’s a complicated question, with a number of possible answers:

1. Addiction chemicals are surging in the brain. Once you feel the sensation of a craving, these chemicals (like the neurotransmitter dopamine) could already be in overdrive, says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and nutrition at Tufts University.

In a recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, women who tended to be compulsive eaters had more activity in parts of the brain associated with addiction when viewing or tasting chocolate milkshakes. “The MRIs showed that more blood was rushing to these brain regions (indicating that neurotransmitters are surging) during the anticipation or craving period,” says Ashley Gearhardt, lead study author and clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University.

THE STUDY, EXPLAINED: Food Can Be Addictive

2. Low blood sugar causes a vicious cycle. When you skip meals or snacks (and don’t stick to a consistent healthy eating routine during the day), your blood sugar can drop or spike dramatically, says Susan Albers, Psy.D., psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of "50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food." This can lead to moodiness, which then causes you to feel the need to eat for comfort or to quell your emotions.

3. Habits reinforce cravings. If you eat a bowl of chips in front of the TV every night, your body will remind you (via a craving) that it’s time for chips once the sun goes down, says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and YouBeauty Psychology Advisor. Your body doesn’t need it, but it expects it.

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