Cravings: Food for thought


  Posted by: Dental Design      10th December 2020

We’ve all been ambushed by the sudden, inexplicable hunger for specific foods at least once in our lifetime. Food cravings can sabotage any efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, particularly in December when we are beset with delicious temptations on all sides. The challenges of 2020 will certainly give people all the more reason to treat themselves this festive season. At a time when our willpower to resist cravings is put to the ultimate test, it is important that dental professionals remind patients to indulge in moderation, especially as gorging on decadent food and drinks can be damaging to both general and oral health.

With most restaurants and pubs forced to temporarily close earlier this year, it’s no surprise that the nation developed a hankering for certain foods. According to a recent study, pizzas, burgers and doughnuts topped the list of foods people in the UK most craved during lockdown.[1] Even for the most health-conscious of eaters, it can be difficult to dismiss a craving for food that is typically high-calorie and rich in sugar, fat, salt and/or carbohydrates. Food cravings can feel as though there’s no way to satisfy them other than to eat the food you’re yearning for, but what exactly motivates this behaviour? 

It’s all in your head

The science behind food cravings is complex and multi-faceted. Food cravings are thought to have evolved from our time as hunter-gatherers and, for years, it was a popular belief that this was the body’s way of signalling to us what our diet lacked. Although there is some evidence to demonstrate an association between food cravings and certain nutritional deficiencies, there is more to the story.[2] In fact, further research has linked cravings with particular brain mechanisms that are responsible for memory, pleasure and reward, including the hippocampus, insula and caudate.

Located in the temporal lobe of the brain, the hippocampus filters sensory data into short-term or long-term memory. The insula is located on either side of the brain and helps to control your emotions by interpreting your physical state, while the caudate nucleus – within the striatum deep in the centre of the brain – influences the dopamine (a feel-good hormone) reward system.[3] The psychological stimulation that we obtain from fulfilling our food cravings is recognised as a milder version of that experienced by drug addicts when they get high, as both behaviours follow similar neural pathways.[4] 

Additionally, psychological factors can affect the intensity and nature of our food hankerings, with studies on mood demonstrating that our emotional state typically has a greater impact on cravings than hunger.2 Diet can also influence the levels of serotonin in our body – another feel-good hormone that regulates our disposition.[5] Our food cravings and desire for high-calorie nutrition are only reinforced by sensory memories that develop from as early as inside the womb.[6] Babies are even born with a preference for sweet tastes, which can follow them into adulthood when food cravings tend to occur most.[7] Interestingly, the more adventurous a mother’s diet is, the greater the likelihood that her child will be open to new foods.[8]

Dangers of a sweet tooth

Cravings are essentially a reward-seeking behaviour for food that we have come to associate with positive, pleasurable experiences. Unfortunately, food cravings can have unwanted consequences of expanding our waistlines, which is why many diets emphasise curbing the urge for certain foods and opting for healthier alternatives. Besides their impact on general health, cravings – particularly for sweet, sugary treats – can negatively affect oral health. Sugar itself is an addictive substance that can trigger constant cravings, driving people to consume excess amounts.[9]

As you know, a diet high in sugar can increase the risk of developing oral diseases such as dental caries, which can lead to tooth loss if left untreated.[10] Therefore, it is important that dental professionals engage with patients about the benefits of following a healthy diet that involves eating sugary, fatty or salty food and drinks in moderation. In addition, dental teams should seize the opportunity to reinforce good oral hygiene habits, including daily interdental cleaning and twice-daily toothbrushing with a fluoride toothpaste.

Clinicians can also recommend ‘Perio plus’ mouth rinses to patients who are more vulnerable to oral diseases. These revolutionary solutions offer the benefits of natural ingredients in a unique formula that is optimised to temporarily support at-home oral care in order to minimise the risk of infection. ‘Perio plus’ mouth rinses combine chlorhexidine (CHX) with Citrox® – a natural bioflavonoid extracted from bitter oranges – which is scientifically proven to be more effective than CHX alone at protecting against the damaging effects of plaque.[11]

Christmas has always been a time for treats. It is also an occasion for inhibitions to be cast aside and for any craving to be far too readily indulged. We should all be able to thoroughly enjoy ourselves – especially given the difficulties of the past year – but it is important that dental professionals encourage patients to eat and drink responsibly for the benefit of protecting their general and oral health during the festive season and beyond.


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[1] Fresh Student Living. (2020) Revealed: The nation’s biggest lockdown food cravings. Available at: [Last accessed: 21.09.20].

[2] Meule, A. (2020) The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current Nutrition Reports. 9(3): 251–257. DOI: 10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0.

[3] Pelchat, M. L., Johnson, A., Chan, R., Valdez, J. and Ragland, J. D. (2004) Images of desire: food-craving activation during fMRI. 23(4): 1486–1493. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.08.023.

[4] Adams, R. C., Sedgmond, J., Maizey, L., Chambers, C. D. and Lawrence, N. S. (2019) Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients. 11(9): 2086. DOI: 10.3390/nu11092086.

[5] Giuliani, N. R. and Berkman, E. T. (2015) Craving is an Affective State and Its Regulation Can Be Understood in Terms of the Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation. Psychological Inquiry. 26(1): 48–53. DOI: 10.1080/1047840X.2015.955072.

[6] Schaal, B., Marlier, L. and Soussignan, R. (2000) Human Foetuses Learn Odours from their Pregnant Mother’s Diet. Chemical Sense. 25(6): 729–737. DOI: 10.1093/chemse/25.6.729.

[7] Liem, D. G. and Mennella, J. A. (2002) Sweet and sour preferences during childhood: role of early experiences. Developmental Psychobiology. 41(4): 388–395. DOI: 10.1002/dev.10067.

[8] De Cosmi, V., Scaglioni, S. and Agostoni, C. (2017) Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices. Nutrients. 9(2): 107. DOI: 10.3390/nu9020107.

[9] Avena, N. M., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B. G. (2008) Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 32(1): 20–39. DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019.

[10] Moynihan, P. (2016). Sugars and Dental Caries: Evidence for Setting a Recommended Threshold for Intake. Advances in Nutrition. 7(1): 149–156. DOI: 10.3945/an.115.009365.

[11] Malic, S., Emanuel, C., Lewis, M. A. O. and Williams, D. W. (2013) Antimicrobial activity of novel mouthrinses against planktonic cells and biofilms of pathogenic microorganisms. Microbiology Discovery. 1: 11.

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