British sailors suffering from scurvy in the 1740s may have craved and devoured fruit "with emotions of the most voluptuous luxury," but there's no hard evidence to suggest their bodies yearned for vitamin C. That's the premise of a recent post on The Conversation, a beta site that accepts contributions from academics around the world. In it, Australia-based gastroenterologist Vincent Ho nods to several studies that disprove an idea we all want to believe: that when we crave a certain food, it means our bodies really need it.
While a study of over 1,000 people showed that 97 percent of women and 68 percent of men experienced food cravings, Ho argues that such cravings are due to a combination of social, cultural and psychological influences. His evidence: studies showing that food cravings actually decrease during weight-loss diets that include heavy food restrictions.
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Ho explains that some believe chocolate cravings stem from a lack of the chemical phenylethylamine, which is linked to romantic love. If this were true, Ho points out, lovesickness would induce cravings for cheddar cheese and salami—both of which have far higher levels of phenylethylamine. Additionally, North Americans are the only ones to report strong chocolate cravings when heartbroken, which leads us to believe that this craving is cultural. That's not to say a chocolate bar can't help to heal a broken heart, but it's simply not due to biology.
Even if our nutritional deficiencies and food restrictions don't drive our food cravings, that doesn't mean we don't need the foods our bodies crave. There's no better feeling than to satisfy a late-night pizza craving or a post-workout protein craving. Perhaps the satisfaction that comes from eating the foods you crave is just as important to your mental health as correcting any nutritional deficiency might be to your physical health. Either way, science won't keep me from my pizza.