1 March 2012

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Nicole Senior

Cravings tell us what our body needs
I’m pregnant and have a real and persistent hankering for sour foods: I’m putting lemon juice on everything, have a new respect for balsamic vinegar and love the taste of anything that makes my mouth pucker. I think I’m experiencing cravings. It is common for women to experience both food aversions and food cravings during pregnancy but research is sketchy as to why. While we joke about women craving strange combinations like pickles and ice cream, more typical cravings are for sweet, salty or sour foods (so I tick box number 3). Although hormonal upheaval is blamed, there’s no good science to support the idea that women crave food they need more of. Weirdly, some women crave inedible things like dirt, clay and even cigarette butts (eeuw): this is called pica. But cravings are also recognised outside of pregnancy.

Some people — especially women—indulge their (non-pregnant) cravings because their ‘body knows best’. However, the most common food craving in women is chocolate – a food the body doesn’t need at all (although it is delightful). Unsurprisingly, cravings for broccoli, eggs and green leafy vegetables are rare. In fact, cravings are more common in women than in men and the facts point to the mind and not the body calling the shots.

Sweet cravings can fluctuate throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle, indicating hormones play a role. But I’ve never seen a premenstrual woman crave a bowl of oats that would best meet her need for slow-release carbs. For some people feeling low, food cravings may be an attempt to prop up serotonin levels – which is akin to self-medicating with food. However, it is non-physiological factors that guide them toward sweets and cakes because they would achieve a good serotonin boost with the carbohydrate in a glass of milk or a slice of grainy toast (and it would last longer due to their lower GI).

We’re hard-wired to eat a variety of foods to ensure our nutrient needs are met. In one way, wanting something different to eat is the body’s way of getting what it needs. But cravings for cookies, ice cream and chocolate all point to a desire for pleasure rather than nutrients. Food cravings are most often for ‘naughty’ foods and prohibition simply leads to greater desire. If food cravings are problematic, psychological help is needed. In one study, visually picturing something that is non-food related was able to reduce the grip of food cravings.

So cravings appear to be ‘in the mind’ and not the body, and we need to use our mind to steer ourselves towards healthier choices if cravings for rich pickings are out of control. If you’re feeling low, forego chocolate as daily medicine and try regular meals including low GI carbs and protein to balance serotonin levels and regulate mood. And pregnant ladies, eat what you crave (within reason) and enjoy as it’s only temporary!

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist. This is an extract from Nicole’s new book called Food Myths (New Holland) available from bookshops and online HERE. You can contact Nicole at nicole@nicolesenior.com.au