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Study: Cultural Norms Influence Menstrual Chocolate Cravings

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ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 14, 2017) – Almost 50 percent of women in the United States report craving chocolate and sweets as common premenstrual symptoms – but is there a scientific reason why?

A new study by UAlbany psychologist Julia Hormes is pointing to cultural norms.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, found foreign-born women are significantly less likely to experience menstrual chocolate cravings compared to women born to U.S.-born parents and second-generation Americans. It also found that foreign-born women and second-generation Americans who do experience menstrual chocolate cravings feel more immersed in U.S. culture than non-menstrual chocolate cravers do.

“Our study sought to test the surprising, yet increasingly compelling hypothesis that menstrual chocolate cravings may be a culture-bound construct,” said Hormes, an assistant professor of psychology. “The findings add to growing evidence suggesting that the craving construct, or at least certain elements of the craving experience, may be uniquely meaningful to North America.”

To test their hypothesis, Hormes and UAlbany doctoral student Martha Niemiec surveyed 275 undergraduate women from diverse backgrounds. The participants answered questions related to both the frequency and timing of chocolate cravings and perceived causes of those cravings. Additionally, second-generation Americans and foreign-born women completed an acculturation assessment.

Julia Hormes, assistant professor of psychology.
Julia Hormes, assistant professor of psychology.

Non-U.S. respondents were no less likely to say they experienced any chocolate cravings than American women, but were significantly less likely to think of the menstrual cycle as the cause of those cravings.

Specifically, 40.9 percent of second-generation Americans and 32.7 percent of women born to U.S.-born parents reported experiencing chocolate cravings at specific times of the menstrual cycle. Only 17.3 percent of foreign-born women were menstrual chocolate cravers.

81 of the 275 participants were foreign-born. They represented five continents and more than 25 countries including China, Germany, Ukraine, Ecuador and New Zealand.

“While menstrual chocolate cravings are common in the U.S., they are rare in other parts of the world. For example, research has found only 28 percent of Spanish women experience chocolate cravings around the onset of menstruation and only 6 percent of Egyptian women crave chocolate at all,” Hormes said. “These geographic differences hint at the role of cultural norms. In a society that emphasizes the ‘thin ideal’ of female beauty, women may view menstruation as a socially acceptable excuse to indulge in otherwise ‘taboo’ food.”

These findings add to Hormes’ ongoing food cravings research. In 2014, she released a study in Frontiers of Psychology that suggested food cravings in pregnancy are mostly psychological. Last year, she published a second study in Appetite that found food cravings to be a strong predictor of excess weight gain during pregnancy.

Her end goal is to develop specific intervention techniques that target food cravings and other health-compromising behaviors related to food intake as a way to reduce gestational weight gain in the United States.

“Food cravings are common, but can act as powerful triggers of episodes of overeating and have been linked to higher body mass and elevated eating disorder symptoms,” Hormes said “The development of strategies that help people more effectively manage food cravings are the ultimate goal of our work, and could have important implications for interventions targeting weight- and diet-related health.”

You can learn more about Hormes’ research and expertise here.

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