Food craving refers to an intense desire to consume a specific food and is part of everyday life for many. However, there are inter-individual differences in the frequency and intensity of food craving experiences, which is often referred to as “trait food craving”.
Research to date has focused on laboratory studies but experts at the University of Salzburg in Austria set about characterising food craving experiences during people’s everyday lives.
The team asked the 61 young female participants to complete a questionnaire to determine their food cravings. This was then followed by an ecological momentary assessment (EMA), during which they reported snack-related thoughts, craving intensity, and snack consumption five times a day over the course of a week.
6 times a day
On average, individuals thought about snacks 5.75 times a day and 86% of these involved high calorie products. Chocolate treats were the snack participants thought about most – both in the questionnaire and during the EMA. Of all snack-related reflections, 26.3% focused on chocolate.
When both thoughts about snacks and craving intensity were high, more snacks were consumed. High trait food cravers also “thought more often aboutsnack foods and consumed more snack foods, particularly whenthey experienced intense cravings for these foods”, the authors explained in their paper for the journal Appetite. While those with low trait food craving may also experience intense cravings for food, the end result isn’t the same.
High trait food cravers are “more prone to think about high-calorie snacks in their daily lives and to consume more snack foods when they experience intense cravings, which might be indicative of a heightened responding towards high-calorie foods”, they concluded. Trait-level differences as well as snack-related thoughts should be targeted in dietary interventions, the authors suggested.
Not all thoughts or cravings led to consumption: participants ate 2.67 snacks a day.
“While the elaborated intrusion theory of desire proposes that thoughts about tempting foods are essential for the emergence of cravings and, thus, making causality between these thoughts and cravings likely, several processes may moderate whether snack-related thoughts and/or cravings result in snack consumption,” the authors noted.
Unexpectedly, for example, there were no direct effects of trait food craving on momentary craving intensity or snack consumption. This contrasts with laboratory studies. During exposure to attractive foods or when they’re hungry, cravings can influence consumption more directly. These were termed “hot” motivational states. In “cold” states self-control “likely prevents consumption”.
Snack-related thoughts, cravings and consumption are “highly interrelated in daily life”, the team concluded. Future studies could look at a more comprehensive set of environmental (for example the availability of food) as well as individual characteristics in order to build a more detailed picture of when food craving experiences result in snack consumption and when they don’t.
Published June 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.02.037
“Food cravings in everyday life: An EMA study on snack-related thoughts, cravings, and consumption.”
Authors: Anna Richard, Adrian Muele, Julia Reichenberger, Jens Blechert