Food Cravings - Compulsion or Choice
Everyone experiences intense cravings that distract them from their daily lives at one time or another. Are these cravings an operation of the I-function or can one truly not resist said urges because of a chemical imbalance? There are many explanations for cravings, both physiological and psychological. By definition, to have a food craving is to strongly desire a particular food item, of which the most commonly craved are carbohydrates. Research has been done that shows that when one craves carbs, his/her body is actually in demand of more calories. The carb craving is in reality the result of a feedback mechanism in which low carbohydrate levels lead to low levels of serotonin in the body, which results in a craving. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for positive moods and satisfaction after eating; having low levels of such a substance leaves a person wanting so that he/she may achieve the elation felt when high levels of serotonin are present. Changes in serotonin levels can also explain the uneasiness felt during a craving: lack of this neurotransmitter is found to be a cause of depression, leading one to connect cravings and negative moods: being caused by a deficiency of the same substance, maybe the two go hand-in-hand (1).
Obviously people crave foods other than carbohydrates, though, and the carbohydrate-serotonin hypothesis is still a work-in-progress. Therefore, researchers explored cravings for other foods as well: studies have been done concerning cravings for sweets in which craving intensity decreased significantly after opiate-blocking drugs were administered. Opiates are hormones that act as sedatives, i.e. induce symptoms similar to those caused by narcotics that contain opium. So, the opiate-blocking drugs directly prevented the experience of what some consider pleasurable sensory inputs, including tasting, and reducing cravings. Therefore, opiate-blocking drugs are seen as a solution for severe cravings. In more severe cases of food addiction, a craving can only be temporarily staved off by consuming that food item which one craves. So, assuming that the origin of the cravings is purely biological/chemical, moderation in one’s diet is the ultimate cure for cravings because it generally balances the imbalances that bring cravings about (1,3).
Keeping all of this in mind, is it possible that there is a psychological explanation for cravings as well? The answer is yes: the biological explanation does not account for the role emotions play in cravings. Certain foods arouse certain feelings within us that are revisited each time one eats said food. These are called “comfort foods.” In times of high stress and discomfort, people experience strong cravings for comfort foods. The question is, do we consciously associate these emotions with the food, or do the two correspond unbeknownst to us? I think that the I-function plays a limited role: at first exposure to a food, we choose whether or not to partake; and, depending on our perception of the taste, we choose whether or not to partake again. From this comes our impression of the food item, i.e. whether it evokes a positive or negative feeling in us; and I am under the impression that this is where the unconscious association between a food and a feeling is forged because if I find spinach repulsive, there is no combination of pattern generators that will evoke positive memories and emotions in me in relation to spinach (1, 2).
So, regarding cravings in general, are they a choice or a compulsion that we cannot resist? Research on a condition known as pica leads me to believe that cravings are compulsions. Pregnant women sometimes suffer from pica, or craving non-food items, which can be dangerous to the mother and the unborn child. No sane person would consciously choose to eat something that would harm themselves and their baby. Therefore, pica is caused by a mechanism over which one has no control. But, not all women give into their cravings, e.g. not all women eat plaster when they crave it. So, then surrendering to a craving is a choice? I argue that a person’s body has demands and the I-function evaluates how rational the demands are. Some people have the internal strength (maybe pre-programmed into their I-function) to resist irrational demands, while others give in easily.
Cravings are road blocks that almost all people have to deal with from day to day. Because of their universal influence, I must conclude that they are somehow biologically beneficial, i.e. assist the body in obtaining what it needs. But, it seems that some people resist the urge to give into cravings by employing a “mind-over-matter” mindset, engaging their I-functions and consciously choosing to not yield to the demands of their bodies.