Food Intolerance, Food

Food Cravings - What, Why, and How to Control Them

WRITTEN BY
Dr. Sony S | Aug 18, 2022

Food Cravings what, why, and how to control them-01-min

What are food cravings?

A food craving, also called selective hunger, is an intense desire for a particular food. The desire to eat the said food is uncontrollable; until the person with the cravings gets that particular food, the hunger cannot be satisfied.

Cravings are very common, and they are difficult to control or ignore. While the desired food can vary from person to person, more than 90% of people experience food cravings.

Food cravings are transient and usually involve foods high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and sweets. It can lead to ill effects on the health and can disrupt a healthy diet.

People who frequently experience food cravings have a higher calorie intake than those who rarely experience it. The long-term impact of food cravings is greater weight gain over time and higher Body Mass Index (BMI).

There are two types of food cravings: selective and non-selective

Selective cravings are for a particular food, like a specific pizza from your favorite place or certain ice cream.

In non-selective food cravings, there is a desire to eat anything because of hunger, hunger pangs, or dehydration.

Let’s now look at why we have these food cravings, their causes, and the tell-tale signs. We will also give you tips on how to control these cravings and what you can eat instead of unhealthy food.

Why do food cravings occur?

Food cravings may pop up seemingly out of nowhere or be brought on by the smell and sight of food or simply hearing about it. The regions in our brain responsible for reward, pleasure, and memory also play a role in food cravings.

Many factors can cause food cravings; lets a look at some of them:

Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes

Hormonal fluctuation across the menstrual cycle and pregnancy can lead to food cravings. It may cause a drop in blood sugar levels or the feel-good chemicals in the brain leading to emotional eating.

Nutrient deficiencies

Craving may be a reflection of an insufficient intake of certain nutrients.

One such example is pica, a condition in which a person eats things that are not usually considered food. Dirt, soil, ice, cornstarch, laundry, and grass are some of the non-nutritive substances that a person may crave.

Pica is thought to be linked to nutrient deficiency and is most common in women and children. It is also seen in people who have severe deficiency of iron. Those with these symptoms may even have low levels of calcium or zinc, and supplementing the body with the lacking nutrients may stop the behavior.

High-stress levels

People who have stressed out often experience cravings more than non-stressed individuals. This could be linked to elevated levels of the stress hormone called cortisol which play a role in the mechanism affecting hunger.

People with higher cortisol have been found to consume more calories on a stressful day and eat significantly more sweet foods.

Insufficient sleep

If you are not getting enough sleep, this may disrupt your hormone levels.

Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that control our urge to eat. Leptin contributes to weight loss by suppressing our appetite, and ghrelin increases hunger leading to weight gain.

Studies have shown that even a single night of deprived sleep can change the levels of these hormones.  Ghrelin levels spike, and leptin takes a nosedive, leading to increased hunger and cravings.

Dehydration

Drinking too little water or any liquids can promote hunger and cravings.

Organs like the liver use water to release glycogen, the stored glucose. When you are dehydrated, it makes it difficult for the liver to do so. Your body will have a hard time breaking down glycogen and releasing glucose into the bloodstream. Without enough fuel, your body will crave sugar for an energy boost.

Insufficient fiber or proteins

Fibers and proteins are slowly digested in the body, making you feel full for a long time. An increased fiber intake has been associated with a reduced-calorie intake.

Unhappy gut flora

Unhappy gut flora

Having an unhealthy gut flora can lead to sugar cravings.

Our gut contains billions of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and yeast. These play a role in how you feel daily. The status of gut bacteria has been linked to energy levels, mood, and food cravings, especially for carbohydrates and sugar.

For instance, if there is an overgrowth of candida, a yeast that feeds on sugar, your body starts craving it. Unfortunately, when you give in to your cravings, you will feed more bad microbes. Candida overgrowth can cause more persistent and stronger cravings leading to a vicious cycle.

Cultural influences

Cultural restrictions on certain foods like milk and meat may also induce food cravings. Studies have found that people who have food restrictions often experience intense and more frequent food cravings than those who are unrestrained. 

Are food cravings in men and women different?

Pop culture has often portrayed women craving sweet foods like chocolates, pastries, and ice cream around that time of their menstruation cycle. It has also sometimes been depicted that men crave savory foods like burgers, meats, fish, and eggs.

While it may not always be the case, research suggests gender-related differences in food cravings. Some studies suggest women are 15.6% more likely to have food cravings than men, and women may have a harder time regulating food cravings than men.

The exact mechanism behind the disparity in food cravings is not well understood. However, it is speculated that sex hormones like estrogens, progesterone, and testosterone play a key role.

Sex hormones are important regulators of food consumption. They interact with the chemicals in the brain and the digestive system to change how much energy we consume and spend.

Men and women have different levels of sex hormones which may play a role in differing food cravings. It may also be attributed to the monthly and cyclical variations in the ovarian hormone levels in women.

What do food cravings mean?

What do food cravings mean

Sugar and sweets

Sugar cravings likely mean that your blood sugar is low. Because carbohydrates (or sugar) are the most efficient source of fuel for the body, you may crave refined sugars and fast carbs (like a mid-morning donut) when you are low in energy.

Chocolate cravings are often linked to low magnesium levels, although little evidence supports these claims. A sugar high from eating a bar of chocolate is also believed to provide a temporary elevation in mood. It could also be out of habit, pop culture (craving chocolates during periods), or associating them as comfort food during anxiety, stress, and uncomfortable situations.

However, research suggests that the combination of sugar and fat in chocolates makes it addictive, making you return and want more. Reaching for a sweet snack will spike your glucose, which will soon come crashing down, triggering another craving.

Salty foods

Mostly craving salty food means you want something savory. On occasion, it could be your body’s way of saying it is dehydrated.

Craving cheese and meat has been associated with a sign of low calcium or iron levels.

Coffee

One of the main reasons we crave coffee is caffeine dependency. You experience withdrawal symptoms (like headaches), and your body becomes physically dependent on it. It is a widespread problem that can affect adults and teenagers who start consuming coffee at an early age.

Coffee could also be a way of coping with stress. It contains amino acids that are our brains' building blocks of feel-good chemicals. In distressing times, we often use caffeine as a chemical booster, helping us feel awake and energized.

If coffee is a vital part of your morning routine or a basis of social interaction, you will likely find yourself reaching out for that Americano. Because you have been psychologically dependent on the ritual of coffee drinking, over time, you will crave coffee out of habit.

How do I know if I have food cravings?

Hunger can sometimes be mistaken for a food craving. So how do you know if you are hungry or actually craving certain foods?

If you are hungry within an hour or two of eating a good meal, you are most likely to be experiencing cravings. It is more directed towards a specific texture, flavor, or food.

Food cravings are usually for comfort foods, and eating them may feel good initially, but guilt overtakes afterward. It may also come on suddenly and is hard to satisfy. 

Hunger comes with physical symptoms like dizziness and stomach growling. These disappear after eating food and do not return for several hours.

How to curb your food cravings?

Giving in to your cravings can be satisfying, but it can also be unhealthy and lead to some serious consequences in the long run.

When you fight the urge to eat food and restrict yourself, the food cravings usually end shortly after that.

So how do you kick your food cravings to the curb? We will let you in on the 10 ways to manage them:

1.      Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Hydrate

Sometimes the body misinterprets thirst as a sign of food cravings. If the cravings go away, your body may just have been thirsty. So, drink water as soon as cravings hit.

2.      Avoid hunger

Calorie restriction, like when you are on a diet, can lead to more frequent feelings of hunger and cravings.

Eat frequently between meals, and keep a healthy snack on hand.

3.      Reduce stress

Simple measures to reduce stress are taking deep breaths or short breaks during work. You may even resort to yoga, breathing exercises, and guided meditations. 

4.      Play mental games

Ask yourself if you are just hungry or craving a particular food and if eating any random food would comfort you or not.

For instance, if you feel like you are having sugar cravings but are willing to eat fruit, that's more likely to be hunger.

Visualizing the long-term consequences of cravings can also be a good way to control them.

5.      Exercise

A quick exercise session, like a brisk 15-minute walk, may be effective at reducing your cravings.  

6.      Indulge occasionally

If you completely ignore a craving, it can build up and lead to negative consequences. Plan a cheat day or treat to eat restricted food, albeit in moderation.

7.      Eat more proteins

Proteins help the body to feel satisfied for longer. Studies have found that people who ate protein-rich breakfast had fewer food cravings.

8.      Try chewing gum

Try chewing gum

Chewing gum may reduce cravings and appetite because they are linked with the process of chewing. Next time your cravings strike, reach out for a pack of sugar-free gum.

9.      Change the scenario

Long-term habits may lead to food cravings. Distract yourself by forming new habits or taking a shower till the cravings subside.

10.  Sleep adequately

Get adequate sleep to prevent cravings. When you get more sleep, you feel less hungry during the day and reduce cravings for salty and sweet foods.

Set up a sleep schedule so that you go to bed consistently at the same time every day. Avoid too much caffeine, especially as the day wears on.

What’s the alternative to food cravings?

When you have a craving, it may help to eat healthy alternatives.

For instance, if you are craving chocolates or candies, eat a sweet fruit like melon, cherries, or peaches. Alternatively, you could opt for dark chocolate, instead of milk, as you feel satisfied with a smaller portion.

You can replace full-fat cheese with low-fat and sodium versions. Potato chips can be switched with peanuts, air-popped popcorn, or baked foods. If you crave a soda, try sparkling water with lemons or oranges.

The bottom line

Food cravings can be intense and irresistible. They may be brought on by a multitude of reasons: hormones, stress, dehydration, inadequate sleep, or nutrition. While women crave sweet food, men tend to want savory food.

Cravings are frequently confused with hunger, and knowing the signs can help you avoid cravings. Try curbing your craving or resort to alternatives to ensure you do not let it get the best of you.

Resources

  1.       Hallam, Jessica et al. “Gender-related Differences in Food Craving and Obesity.” The Yale journal of biology and medicine vol. 89,2 161-73. 27 Jun. 2016
  2.       Yanovski, Susan. “Sugar and fat: cravings and aversions.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 133,3 (2003): 835S-837S. doi:10.1093/jn/133.3.835S
  3.       Young, Sera L. “Pica in pregnancy: new ideas about an old condition.” Annual review of nutrition vol. 30 (2010): 403-22. doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.012809.104713
  4.       Epel, E et al. “Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior.” Psychoneuroendocrinology vol. 26,1 (2001): 37-49. doi:10.1016/s0306-4530(00)00035-4
  5.       Kracht, Chelsea L et al. “Associations of Sleep with Food Cravings, Diet, and Obesity in Adolescence.” Nutrients vol. 11,12 2899. 30 Nov. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11122899
  6.       Motivala, Sarosh J et al. “Nocturnal levels of ghrelin and leptin and sleep in chronic insomnia.” Psychoneuroendocrinology vol. 34,4 (2009): 540-5. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.10.016
  7.       Meule, Adrian. “The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation.” Current nutrition reports vol. 9,3 (2020): 251-257. doi:10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0

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