Do you have foods you crave? Chocolate, perhaps? Potato chips? Cheeseburgers? Food cravings are common and problematic, because they can lead to overeating that undermines health and promotes obesity. But there's not much agreement about what their cause may be or how to manage them.
Gaining ground these days is another idea: that food cravings are true addictions, like those to drugs and alcohol. Some addiction experts suggest that the underlying problem is a disturbance of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that mediates pleasure. But they can't say whether potato chips trigger dopamine release or we have simply learned to associate eating potato chips with pleasurable sensations.
Another school of thought, popular among clinical ecologists, is that we crave foods we are allergic to. I don't buy it. True food allergies--like anaphylactic reactions to peanuts or shellfish--are rare. Many more people may be intolerant of certain foods, but the reactions they have are idiosyncratic and not caused by the immune system.
In fact, all those theories are speculations. We just do not understand food cravings and where they come from. I suspect there is a great deal of social and cultural conditioning involved. For example, it is popular to argue that chocolate is addictive and point out that women often crave it uncontrollably, especially after disappointments in love or before their periods. While that may be true of American women, the urge is not universal. Spanish women don't yearn for chocolate; they crave cream puffs.
So, what should we do about our food cravings? It may help to shift them in healthier directions: to chocolate sorbet from chocolate ice cream, for example. And to the extent that stress does drive our cravings, it can't hurt to practice some techniques to neutralize stress, like progressive relaxation or simple breathing exercises. Depriving yourself often backfires. A better strategy might be to indulge moderately and occasionally, perhaps as a way of rewarding good behavior.
Have a question for Dr. Weil about your food cravings? Go to time.com/askdrweil