"Food cravings are a real phenomenon. There definitely are food cravings," says Marsha Hudnall, a registered dietitian and nutrition program director at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women's weight management center in Ludlow, Vt.
What causes food cravings? The jury is still out, says Edith Hogan, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for American Dietetic Association, an organization of 70,000 food and nutrition experts. Some believe the causes are physiological, others cite psychological factors. Or it may be both, Hogan says.
One theory is people crave foods that contain nutrients they need. Chocolate is a source of magnesium, but an article in the September 1995 University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter questions if magnesium-starved bodies wouldn't turn to wheat germ, an even richer source of magnesium than chocolate.
Then there's the genetic or taste-bud theory, says Mitchell. Some people, called "supertasters" have more tastebuds than others and taste things differently.
Hormones and food cravings is another area researchers are trying to muddle through, Hudnall says.
The level of estrogen drops in premenstrual women, Mitchell says. Seratonin, a brain chemical connected to eating and emotions, also drops. Eating a couple of chocolate kisses can raise seratonin levels, making some premenstrual women feel better for a while, Mitchell says.
Women's tastes can change during pregnancy, and those changes probably result from hormonal changes, Hogan says. Pregnant women may develop aversions to certain foods as well as cravings for others. These changes are harmless unless they result in unbalanced eating with insufficient amounts of nutritional foods.
Chocolate is No. 1 on the list of craved foods, Mitchell says.
Social and cultural influences also play a role, Hogan says. We want and expect certain foods at certain times of the year, for example, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, chocolate on Valentine's Day.
Desiring so-called "comfort" foods is another phenomenon in our "channel-surfing" lives, Mitchell says. People long for feelings they had during simpler times. A taste of macaroni and cheese or meatloaf that Grandmother made can evoke warm fuzzies for some people.
Pizza for him; sweets for her
For many people, food is an outlet for stress. Mitchell is co-author with Catherine Christie of "I'd Kill For a Cookie," a book about how to conquer stress eating. When it comes to stress and eating, men and women crave differently, Mitchell says. Men seek protein and fat, hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza and tend to eat in crowds - at a game or a party. Their craving is more a reaction to positive stress.
Women tend to crave sweets, says Tammy Thornton, a registered dietitian at Washington County Health Department. And women tend to crave and eat when they are upset or anxious, Mitchell adds.
Is all this talk about food cravings upsetting you so much you want to eat a whole chocolate cake? The experts wouldn't recommend that, but they probably would tell you to have a little.
Hogan says that there are good studies that show that if craved foods are avoided altogether, they will become irresistible. You likely will overindulge, then feel guilty. Hogan's advice is to eat a small portion of everything you enjoy. It's OK, as long as your eating plan is balanced and moderate.
Give yourself permission to eat real food without guilt, Mitchell advises.
Hudnall agrees. She says the bottom line is to satisfy your cravings in moderation, and know that if you do get off track, it's not the end of the world.