The Science Behind Snacking

Submitted by Dr Becky Wise

The Science Behind Snacking

Food cravings. None of us are innocent when it comes to our favorite snacks, whether it be ice cream, chips, or loaded cheese fries. These cravings in general are usually for a particular food or drink and are different than normal hunger. At times, they can seem strong enough to pick you up and carry you straight to the refrigerator or convenience store independent of your will and better judgment. But have you ever stopped to think about why we experience these sudden intense cravings?

Sometimes a craving is your body telling you that it needs something. For example, cravings for bread, pasta, or other carbohydrates can be the result of low blood sugar, or craving salty chips or pretzels may indicate that your body is low in sodium. Chewing ice is actually a symptom of iron deficiency.

Sometimes a craving is your body telling you that it needs something
Sometimes a craving is your body telling you that it needs something

More often however, cravings are caused by a psychological rather than a physiologic need for food. Some foods, for one reason or another, make us feel good when we eat them. This result can cause almost addiction like behavior in the way we eat
Neurotransmitter release – Eating chocolate (and other sweets or carbohydrates) causes the release of the “feel good” chemical called serotonin in your brain.

Instead try: doing other activities that you enjoy and make you feel good such as listening to music, painting, or going for a walk. These activities can also release serotonin and thereby stop your craving.

Association/memory cravings – We associate certain places, activities, or even people with specific foods and begin to crave these foods when are put in that situation. For example, you may always get popcorn when you go to the movies, so every time you go to the movies, you have to have popcorn, even if you just came from dinner.
Instead try: Avoidance – if you know you can’t go past McDonald’s without stopping for a Shamrock shake, consider taking another route. When you go to the movies, go right into the theater without stopping for snacks. Once you are involved in the plot, you won’t want the popcorn anymore.

Stress and other emotions – Often, we let our emotions, rather than hunger, guide our eating habits. This results in “eating our feelings” during times of stress/sadness/etc.
Instead try: Learning to identify the cause of your “hunger.” If you are eating as an emotional response, try to cope with that emotion through other outlets. Try journaling, reading poetry, painting, going for a bike ride, etc.

Certain prescription medications can actually increase our appetites as well. These include several antidepressant medications (mirtazipine, tri-cyclic antidepressants), sleeping medications (ambien), anti-diabetic medications (glipizide, glyburide), and steroids (prednisone). Instead of allowing these side effects to get the best of you, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the sensation of cravings. Keep a journal/diary of when and what you are craving so upon follow up, they can assist you.

One thing we can do to help combat cravings is to make healthier choices when they do arise. Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and is much richer which will leave you more satisfied than regular milk or white chocolate. Fresh fruits are high in natural sugars and will often satisfy a sweets craving. Instead of soda, try fruit infused or sparkling water, and instead of salty chips, try popcorn or salted nuts. Try to exercise portion control as well. Don’t eat directly from a big container. Even in restaurants, get a “to go” container when your meal comes and before you even take the first bite, put some of it into the container, leaving only the amount you knowingly want to consume on the plate.

The bottom line is we all experience cravings at one point or another. However, cravings will pass if you resist them. Finding the reason behind each craving, as well as making healthier choices when these cravings do arise, can help you better control cravings in the future. Finally, if you are feeling a new craving, on a regular basis, talk to your doctor. Sometimes cravings indicate an underlying medical condition, or are the result of a medication.

For further reading:

Written by Lauren Altmeyer, PharmD Candidate, LECOM Class of 2015
Lauren is a student of Dr. Rebecca M. Wise in the School of Pharmacy

Be Well, Be Wise,


Dr. Rebecca Wise

Wise Words…. is a general medical information column from Dr Rebecca Wise. Dr. Wise has a master’s degree in education as well as her doctorate in pharmacy. She is an assistant professor and ambulatory care specialist at a Medication Therapy Management (MTM) clinic in Erie, PA.

Soon to be released is Dr Becky’s new website which will address women’s issues, watch for it:

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