BEHAVIOR
April 5, 2018

Riding the Crave

We happily pay more for unhealthy food we crave -- like chips or candy -- than for foods that are good for us. Learn to override the crave.

Most of us find it much easier to plunk down $3.99 for a bag of chips than a cup of fruit salad at the same price. People are routinely willing to dig deeper in their pockets to pay for certain snack foods if they have a craving for them, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has found.

One reason for this behavior is that hunger and craving are distinct experiences. “Craving, which is pervasive in daily life, may nudge our choices in very specific ways that help us acquire those things that made us feel good in the past — even if those things may not be consistent with our current health goals,” explained Anna Konova, lead author.

People were more willing to pay for something they craved when the craved foods were high in calories, sugar and fat — like a chocolate bar or chips — compared to a healthier option.

In a series of experiments that showed a connection between cravings, portion size and price, people were asked how much they would pay for certain snack foods after developing a craving for them. People were willing to pay more for a snack item if they had just been exposed to it and even more if they had a specific memory associated with eating the item, whether they felt hungry or not.

“In other words, craving Snickers does not make you hungrier; it makes you desire Snickers specifically,” said researcher Kenway Louie. The effect also applies somewhat to similar food items people were exposed to, such as other chocolate, nut and caramel candy bars, he added.

People also showed a greater willingness to pay for something they craved when the craved foods were high in calories, sugar and fat — like a chocolate bar or chips — compared to a healthier option, such as an apple or vegetables and hummus.

People were also willing to pay disproportionately more to have even larger portion sizes of the food they craved. “Our results indicate that even if people strive to eat healthier, craving could overshadow the importance of health by boosting the value of tempting, unhealthy foods relative to healthier options,” said Konova.

If you crave certain foods, you are not alone, and it’s okay to give in occasionally. But if your food cravings are out of control, there are several steps you can take to conquer them and save money, too:

  • Keep craved foods out of sight, and healthy snacks on hand.
  • Try to be satisfied with only a small portion if you must indulge.
  • Don’t let yourself get too hungry.
  • Get enough sleep; being tired and being up late both make you vulnerable to cravings.
  • Treat yourself to other pleasurable things that make you feel good on a regular basis, like a massage, a new book or a walk in the woods.
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