Craving Clues: Gender's Role in Food Cravings

Women, Men and Comfort Food

Tomas del Amo/Perspectives/Getty Images

It's 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and cravings are running rampant at your house. So why does your hubby have a hankering for a steak when all you want is chocolate and plenty of it? Science just might have an explanation for your disparate cravings.

Researchers at the Food and Brand Lab at UL Urbana-Champaign found when it comes to foods eaten in the hope of gaining psychological comfort, men like hearty meals, while women look for snacks that require little or no preparation.

What's on the Menu?

While the tendency for us to experience cravings for salty and sweet foods has been documented previously, the lab found that nearly 40 percent of "comfort-giving foods" do not fall into the traditional categories of snacks or desserts. Instead, they can be classified as relatively natural, home-made foods and main course items like pizza, pasta, and steak.

Craving Comfort

This research reinforces the idea that it's not the hunger for a given, but the feeling it provides that brings on a craving. Brian Wansink, a marketing professor who heads the lab, explained: "Comfort foods are foods whose consumption evoke a psychologically pleasurable state..." which points out that it is the comfort, not the food itself, that we desire.

Drawing from national survey questionnaires, the lab concluded that a person's comfort food preferences are formed at an early age and are triggered, in addition to hunger, by conditioned associations.

What a Girl Wants... isn't What a Guy Wants!

In addition, this study showed chromosomes play a part in the foods you reach for: Men, for example, find comfort in foods associated with meals prepared by their mothers (e.g., mashed potatoes) rather than from snacks and sweets (except ice cream).

Women, however, want foods that don't involve preparation, such as pre-packaged sweets.

The researchers pointed to one study that showed 92% of self-reported "chocolate addicts" are women.

"Because adult females are not generally accustomed to having hot food prepared for them and as children saw the female as the primary food preparer, they tend to gain psychological comfort from less labor-intensive foods such as chocolate, candy and ice cream," Wansink said.

Mood Matters

Over the years, experts have suggested that giving into cravings is often the result of falling victim to emotional eating which is commonly linked to feelings of sadness, loneliness or anxiety.

"The opposite is often true," Wansink said. "People are more apt to seek out comfort foods when they're jubilant or when they want to celebrate or reward themselves."

Wansink also stated that the types of food that give us comfort may vary according to mood.

Cases in point: If you're feeling happy, you're likely to get a jones for pizza. Get the blues and you won't be able to get those chocolate chip cookies off your mind.

The study also showed that adults often crave foods that connect with specific personal events or to people in their lives (e.g., desiring particular foods someone you love enjoyed).

Some foods stir vivid reactions when tasted or smelled or come to be associated with personal identity.

The following resources may help you cope with cravings and find ways to enjoy comfort foods without consuming too many calories:

Continue Reading