Food Cravings

Food cravings.

We all get them. They’re the intense urge to find and eat chocolate (or chips, cookies, ice cream) even though we aren’t hungry. When we get a craving, no other food will suffice.

Food cravings can appear when we least expect it. And, they often make themselves known at the wrong times, like when we actually need a glass of water, an apple, sleep, or even a little less stress.

When I first started working with Johanna at The Dietitian Center I was a complete slave to my cravings. I felt like I was continually on a hamster wheel of responding to whatever craving I was experiencing at the moment, never feeling satisfied, and always feeling guilty afterwards to making choices that were just making me overweight and constantly sick.

 

Once I started working with Johanna she was able to teach me about why my body was craving certain foods, and how to eat to hijack the whole system so I was eating to truly nourish my body and prevent cravings before they ever came. I am now 100% in the driver’s seat with my diet and uncontrolled cravings are a thing of the past. When I do have a treat, I’m able to enjoy it fully and mindfully instead of just feeling out of control and guilty for indulging the craving. I’ve already lost 30 pounds (of a 60 pound goal) and have better energy levels than I have since high school. I love knowing that I’m taking care of myself from the inside out every single day.
– Meredith G.

This blog post is all about food cravings: what causes them and how to curb them (not that you always have to curb them). And possibly most importantly, how to prevent them before they even happen. Before we dive in, I want to be clear that food cravings are not your fault. They are very common and are not a sign of bad choices. Most of all, having (or giving into) food cravings does not reflect your value as a person. Food cravings are a normal part of human physiology, hard-wired in neuroscience and hormones, and a few other biological aspects.

Plus, food cravings are not insurmountable. There are some smart and not-so-obvious things you can do to put you in the driver’s seat, so you feel like you’re managing your cravings instead of them controlling you. In this post I’m sharing a few strategies you can use that don’t require willpower of steel. Because let’s be honest–having better willpower isn’t actually a real solution.

We’ve all felt what it’s like to be hungry, have an appetite, an experience an intense food craving. Hunger is the feeling we get when our stomachs are empty (1). Appetite is the desire to eat food. Cravings are different. Harvard Health (2) defines cravings as, “an intense urge to eat a certain food—ideally right away.” While hunger can be alleviated by eating any food, cravings are very specific for a single type of food, like chocolate (the most commonly craved food) (1). Plus, cravings can pop up at any moment—we can crave a certain food even if we just finished filling up on dinner and we’re not hungry at all (1).

What causes food cravings? 

Food cravings can be specific and are usually directed toward sweet, salty, or fatty foods. And they’re not only the result of having a “sweet tooth,” easy access to craveable foods, or lack of control of our behavior (2). There are also several complex—and common—physiological causes of cravings. Many of these are hard-wired into our brains and are naturally regulated by hormones and other biochemicals. In short, cravings often aren’t about willpower, they’re about physiology.

We’ll start with the top four causes, according to the Cleveland Clinic: food euphoria, feeling stressed, lack of sleep, and day-to-day habits (3).

 Food euphoria is when the food we eat taps into the “feel good” centers that are hard-wired in the neurons of the brain (2,3). In addition to the “feel good” [biochemical/biomolecule/neurotransmitter] called dopamine, crave-able foods also stimulate the release of hormones that impact metabolism, stress levels, and appetite (2). This euphoria feels like a pleasurable reward and can naturally make us want to continue to eat that particular food, generating even more cravings for it (2).

Feeling stressed can make our food cravings even more powerful, especially when that stress is over the long term (2,3). Increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol start up our “fight or flight” instincts that get us to look for food so we can get the energy we need to fight or flee (4). Eating the craved food provides us with some relief from that stress and helps us to cope with, or even distract from, stressful feelings—even if the coping and distraction are temporary (4).

Lack of sleep can strengthen cravings due to its impact on our hormones (3). For example, not getting enough sleep places additional stress on our bodies and that further increases our desires for certain foods. Lack of sleep can also induce hunger by increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreasing the fullness hormone leptin (5).

Day-to-day habits may also play a part in cravings (3). Sometimes, if we’re used to enjoying snacks when we feel a certain way (e.g., stressed or tired) or are doing certain activities (e.g., driving, scrolling social media, or watching TV), then this habit can perpetuate our cravings and have us almost automatically reaching for craved foods before we can think about it.

In addition to these four causes of food cravings, other factors can contribute. For example, seeing or smelling a crave-able food can spark cravings[I], as can hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle (2). Some medications are known to increase appetite (2). And new research is looking into possible connections between food cravings and our genes and gut microbiota.

Myth Buster: Research shows that nutrient or energy deficiencies are not powerful or common causes of food cravings (1).

How to curb cravings 

We don’t want to prevent ourselves from eating if we’re truly hungry. It’s important to honor our hunger by nourishing our bodies well. However, there may be times when we’re craving something when we’re not actually hungry and we know it is not going to serve our health. In these cases, there are a few strategies you can try to help curb those cravings.

Try drinking water

It’s possible that sometimes what feels like hunger (or even a craving) is simply thirst (3,6,7). By staying hydrated throughout the day we can reduce the number of times we think we need to eat something.

Be more mindful

If we can stop for a second to catch ourselves craving foods or eating when we’re not hungry, mindfulness may help (3). Consider asking yourself if your food craving could be due to stress, boredom, anger, fatigue, or if you are in fact hungry (2,4,6). Maybe try breathing deeply for a few minutes, putting on a short meditation podcast, or going for a quick walk to reconnect with your inner self before taking another bite. 

As you eat, continue your mindfulness practice by enjoying your food mindfully and without judgment. Harvard Health (9) defines mindful eating as, “using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make.” By mindfully paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that may fuel a craving, we can slow down and truly appreciate food. We can take smaller amounts, smell and appreciate the flavors, chew the food thoroughly, and relax between bites. 

Balance meals

By eating meals that are highly nutritious and contain protein and fiber, you can feel fuller quicker and stay full longer (2,6). Also consider eating regularly throughout the day, as longer stretches between meals can intensify feelings of hunger and lead to eating too much, too fast, or eating foods that are too convenient, e.g., crave-able (and not as nutritious) (2,6,7).

Make nutritious snacks more convenient

Many of us end up craving and snacking on convenience foods because . . . they’re convenient. It’s quick and easy to open a package of potato chips, cookies, or chocolate and start enjoying it. These foods are extra crave-able with the fat, sugar, and salt they contain and cause our bodies to release dopamine, the feel-good hormone, which makes it very easy to inadvertantly overeat them. But we can make more nutritious foods just as convenient by washing, chopping, and packaging fruits and vegetables, and having some grab-and-go dips and spreads available like nut butter, hummus, plain yogurt, salsa, or guacamole. You can even make your trail mix with dried fruits and nuts (7). By choosing better-for-you options that will actually nourish your body instead of giving you empty calories and causing a rush of dopamine instead your system, it helps you stay in the driver’s seat and truly solve the problem of your hunger instead launching you down a path of cravings and never being able to quite fully satisfy them. 

Another option is to look for more nutritious versions of your favorite crave foods made with more fiber and protein, and less sugar.

Limit environmental cues

Sometimes cravings are brought on by the sight of a tasty snack on social media or the candy bowl in the break room (2,9). By knowing where these environmental cues are, you can try to avoid them whenever possible. Also, making sure you never let yourself become ravenously hungry will help you feel less temptation when you encounter environmental cues.

Try non-food-related rewards

Sometimes we eat to escape a negative feeling or to celebrate an accomplishment, and there are non-food-related ways to enjoy ourselves (3). Instead of cake, consider doing something you love, like turning on your favorite band or taking a bath. Maybe you would want to treat yourself to a nap, hobby, or craft, or even enjoy a favorite book.

Manage stress

Life is stressful and we can’t entirely escape stress. What we can try to do is improve the way we handle and manage stress. This can help to lower our stress hormones and reduce the power of food cravings (3).

Get enough quality sleep

Inadequate sleep causes us to feel hungrier and have more cravings. Some studies show that this may be because it can push our appetite hormones out of balance (2,5). Plus, lack of sleep can increase stress which further amplifies those feelings. This is why getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night can help to ease those cravings (3,5,7).

If none of these truly satisfy or eliminate your cravings, simply enjoy your crave-able food, but maybe consider having a more nutrient dense snack like Greek yogurt or whole grain toast with almond butter first, so that you’re less likely to overeat your treat.

Final Thoughts

When our stomachs are empty, we all feel hunger and our appetite hormones have us looking for something to eat. This is different from food cravings when we feel an intense urge to eat something specific—even if our stomachs are full. All of these feelings and urges are normal and common. And it’s also common to eat to try to satisfy them.

Physiologically, our cravings are impacted by stress and sleep. They are also regulated by hormones, biochemicals, and research is looking into a whole host of other causes (e.g., the effects of advertising, our genes, and even our gut microbiota). Hunger, appetite, and food cravings are a complex phenomenon and they are not simply due to a lack of control. 

The good news is that as we understand more about their causes, we can begin to implement smart strategies to help guide them toward our health goals, so we don’t feel like we’re at their mercy.

Are you stuck in the cycle of hunger, appetite, and cravings? As a Registered Dietitian, I’d love to help you understand what’s going on inside your body so you can feel like you’re in the driver’s seat and empowered to find wellness from the inside out and learn what you can do to prevent your cravings before they even happen.


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References

  1. Meule A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current nutrition reports, 9(3), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399671/
  2. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2021, April). Cravings. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/
  3. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, December 14). Here’s the deal with your junk food cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/heres-the-deal-with-your-junk-food-cravings/
  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2023, January 26). Why you stress eat and how to stop. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-stop-stress-eating/
  5. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Sleep. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/
  6. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, March 25). Three reasons you crave sweet or salty food. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-reasons-you-crave-sweet-or-salty-foods/
  7. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 12). Quick snacks to help kick your sugar cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/kick-your-sugar-addiction-with-these-5-snacks/
  8. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020, November). Mindful eating. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/
  9. Harris, N. M., Lindeman, R. W., Bah, C. S. F., Gerhard, D., & Hoermann, S. (2023). Eliciting real cravings with virtual food: Using immersive technologies to explore the effects of food stimuli in virtual reality. Frontiers in psychology, 14, 956585. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.956585 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10149689/