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Food Craving

A survey of young Canadian adults found that 97% of women and 68% of men experienced food cravings (3). These cravings were, however, highly selective, chocolate being by far the most commonly and intensely craved item (4, 5, 6). As 85% of the Canadian sample reported that more often than not they gave in to their cravings, they are clearly powerful phenomena.

To date the term food craving has been used in a similar way to the lay definition; it is a strong desire or urge for a particular food. All research has been limited by the way that cravings have been measured. In the majority of cases, subjects have been asked simply to rate their desire to eat a particular food. A single-item scale is unreliable and there has been an implicit assumption that craving can be explained using a single dimension. To counter these problems, Benton et al. (7) asked 330 people to respond to 80 statements concerning chocolate and statistically established the dimensions that accounted for their reactions.

The first dimension that was found was labelled craving. It was associated with a considerable preoccupation with chocolate and acts of compulsion. In fact, the questions that defined this first dimension fell into two groups. Chocolate was a source of some distraction; it is 'overpowering', 'preys on my mind', you cannot 'take it or leave it' and 'can't get it out of my head'. Those scoring heavily on this factor liked the taste and mouth-feel of chocolate. The second type of questions on the first dimension reflected a weakness for chocolate when under emotional stress; it was eaten 'when I am bored', 'to cheer me up', 'when I am upset' and 'when I am down'. The coupling of these two groups of questions demonstrated a link between negative mood and an intense desire to consume chocolate. A colloquial way of describing those who eat chocolate for these reasons is that they are indulging in 'comfort eating'.

This association between negative mood and chocolate craving was found by Benton et al. (7) in a sample chosen to be representative of the population rather than having a history of psychiatric complaints. In contrast, others have described a group who reported 'self-medicating' with chocolate who were more likely to have personality traits associated with hysteroid dysphoria (8), a syndrome characterized by episodes of depression in response to feeling rejected. The experience of strong food cravings has been associated with being bored, anxious and having a dysphoric mood (6). Similarly, a desire for chocolate has been reported to be associated with depression, although not related to suicidal thoughts (9). Thus, there is considerable evidence that chocolate craving is associated with depression and other disturbances of mood, although it should be recognized that this is not causative; rather, it is seen by those affected as more 'curative'.

The second dimension found by Benton et al. (7) was labelled guilt and again it included two types of question. First, there were comments associating chocolate

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