Print Share RSS

Research Probes the Psychology of Food

Does the "Chocoholic" Really Exist?

Women are from Mars and men are from Venus, even when it comes to the foods they crave and how they eat at meal and snack times.

Mindy Kurzer, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist at the University of Minnesota, has studied for several years how food affects people, particularly women. So far, she says scientists have barely scratched the surface in their studies, but they hope to better understand the desire behind food cravings, how foods may affect behavior and many other topics related to the "psychology" of food.

One aspect is already becoming clear: men and women have some definite differences at the dinner table.

"Women have much more of a relationship with food, and that is why they are studied much more than men when it comes to foods' psychological aspects," notes Dr. Kurzer. "Men approach food from a much more biological perspective -- ‘I'm hungry, it's time to eat, what's in the refrigerator?'"

Women are more apt to consider their food choices and they are more likely to crave foods -- particularly sweet foods such as chocolate, and particularly at certain times.

Chocolate is the number one food craved by women, studies have shown. While research has attempted to demonstrate that these cravings are due to certain substances present in chocolate that are known to improve mood, most studies suggest otherwise. It has been suggested that women may crave the magnesium in chocolate. But women, Dr. Kurzer points out, do not report craving giant bowls of leafy greens—a rich source of this mineral. Women also do not report craving such foods as cheddar cheese, leafy green vegetables, pickled herring and salami—all foods with higher amounts of the same substances found in chocolate.

In other words, so-called "chocoholics" may enjoy chocolate, but they are not "addicted" to it.

"Women who crave chocolate appear to do so because of its enjoyable sensory properties -- its smell, taste and mouth feel, and they also appear to have positive psychological associations with the food," says Dr. Kurzer. While many men certainly enjoy chocolate, few report craving it. Instead, pizza tops their list of foods craved. "The sexes are different in so many ways, it should be no surprise that our food cravings are quite different, too."

Food cravings, particularly for sweet foods and chocolate, increase during the menstrual cycle. Women with PMS also report increased chocolate consumption. "The ‘whys' behind this consumption pattern aren't fully known yet," Dr. Kurzer explains. "Many foods, including chocolate, contain bioactive compounds, but few studies show that consumption of these foods actually can improve one's mood. It's an intriguing area that we will continue to study."

The most important information when it comes to eating is to choose a nutritionally balanced diet and to exercise daily. Any food—craved or not—can fit a sensible eating plan.