Food cravings /food krayvINGs/ (noun): Nasty little thoughts that come on quickly, take your brain hostage, and sabotage your healthy eating efforts.
Most of us get cravings at least every now and again. Knowing what’s causing your cravings can make it easier to fight them off, or even avoid them altogether.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of food cravings, shall we?
Common Causes of Food Cravings
Food cravings can stem from a number of biological, psychosocial, and environmental factors. Here are a few of the most common triggers.
Have you had more cravings than normal in the past six months? It’s no wonder, with the stresses of COVID!
Chronic stress increases your level of a hormone called cortisol, which increases insulin activity, fat metabolism, and carbohydrate metabolism. These changes in the body make you more hungry for foods that are high in fats and carbs.
Ongoing stress also increases levels of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates the appetite.
To make matters worse, fatty and sugary foods have a soothing effect on the brain (hey, there’s a reason they’re called comfort foods!). This can make it all too easy to give in to stress cravings the next time they strike.
This is one of the reasons why your 26 coaches pester you about stress relief–because it’s really difficult to eat well when you’re a walking stress ball.
Whether you stay up late binging Netflix or just aren’t a great sleeper, inadequate sleep causes some serious food cravings. In fact, just one poor night of sleep increases the likelihood of food cravings.
Like stress, insomnia alters levels of cortisol and ghrelin (as well as the satiety-boosting hormone leptin). These hormonal changes increase your appetite for fats and carbs and make you less likely to feel satisfied after eating.
What’s more, studies have linked poor sleep with increased lower brain function and decreased upper brain function. These changes increase the primal urge to eat while blunting complex decisionmaking skills. In other words, you’re more likely to experience strong cravings and less likely to make healthy food choices.
The take-home message on insomnia and cravings? You need to implement some sleep-promoting practices, with a goal of at least 7 good hours of sleep per night.
Nutrient Deficiencies and Imbalances
Eating a good balance of protein, fat, and carbs at each meal is one of your best weapons against food cravings.
We most often see this in people who eat a lot of simple carbohydrates (think candy, chips, soda, juice, noodles, etc.), over time, or even at one meal.
Our bodies produce a hormone called insulin, which controls blood sugar by pulling sugars out of the blood and into the cells for energy and storage.
In a perfect world, this process is gradual and gentle, leading to fairly steady blood sugar levels throughout the day.
However, eating large amounts of simple carbs in one sitting triggers the pancreas to release more insulin, and quickly. This can cause blood sugar levels to dip and increase carb and sugar cravings.
Fortunately, this can be prevented by adding some balance to the diet. Fats, proteins, and fibers all slow down the digestion and absorption of sugar, leading to more gradual changes in blood sugar.
To fend off blood sugar-related food cravings:
- Choose whole grains whenever possible.
- Limit candies, sodas, juices, sweets, and simple carbs.
- Have a palm-sized serving of protein and a thumb-sized serving of fat with your carbs.
In addition to nutrient imbalances, nutrient deficiencies can also cause food cravings. These cravings are usually highly specific and persistent (and can be a bit odd). For example, craving ice or dirt can signal an iron deficiency.
Speak with a doctor if you’re craving dirt, ice, or other non-food items.
But what about those reports that chocolate cravings signal magnesium deficiency? It’s best to be careful here.
It’s common for food bloggers to chalk cravings up to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, but the evidence doesn’t support these claims in most cases.
Chocolate is rich in magnesium. So is spinach. How often do you crave spinach?
Sometimes a craving just is what it is. And sometimes, it might be best to honor it. Which leads me to my next point…
Do you ever feel like you’ve “been good” all day, only to be hit with insatiable food cravings?
This is one of the most common complaints I hear with my clients. And friend, if this applies to you, you may be doing yourself a dietary disservice.
It’s possible that you’re not eating enough and, therefore, missing out on nutrients (see above).
However, if you never partake in your favorite fun foods, you’re also creating a bit of a forbidden fruit situation. If I tell you not to think about chocolate, what are you going to think about? Yup, chocolate.
Similarly, if you are always telling yourself that the foods you love are off-limits, you’re likely to crave them even more.
That’s not to say you should go all willy nilly on the foods you love all the time. However, making room for portion-controlled servings of more indulgent foods (and balancing them out nutritionally, with a mix of protein, fats and carbs at each meal) can be a great strategy for fending off cravings.
I typically tell my clients to allot up to 20% of their daily calories toward foods that they might normally consider to be “off-plan.” This might be a glass of red wine and a square of dark chocolate at the end of each night, or a single-serving bag of chips if that’s more your thing.
(Hint: Buying single-serving portions or measuring out a serving is helpful for foods you tend to overeat.)
Tracking your intake for a few days might also be helpful, if there’s a chance you’re not eating enough.
We’ve already talked about how stress and appetite hormones can cause some pretty wicked cravings. But, as any women of reproductive age knows, so can sex hormones.
According to a 2017 study, up to 50% of American women crave chocolate just before their periods (1).
There’s some debate among researchers as to why this is the case. Some chalk it up to fluctuations in a happiness hormone called serotonin (paired with hormone-driven changes in blood sugar).
Others argue that cravings are more a social construct, pointing out that only 17% of foreign-born women report chocolate cravings before their periods.
If only that social construct theory made PMS cravings easier to deal with, right?
Your best bet for dealing with hormonal cravings is to eat a balanced diet, and to be sure you’re practicing good self-care. Making a point to meditate, exercise, call a friend, take a bath, cuddle a pet, or just have a good long cry can help fend off cravings in some cases.
Hormones can also rear their ugly heads during pregnancy, and in transgender women and transfeminine people undergoing hormone replacement therapy.
Pregnancy cravings are often a combination of the factors listed above.
There’s some evidence that transgender women in transition may be more prone to pickle cravings, particularly if they’re taking an anti-androgen called Spironolactone. In addition to suppressing male hormones, Spironolactone also decreases the absorption of dietary sodium (hence the pickles).
(Here‘s a super interesting article on that).
A Final Note on Food Cravings
As you can see, many diet and lifestyle factors can make you more susceptible to food cravings.
It’s easy to lock in on one cause, but a combination of factors is often to blame for food cravings.
If you struggle with cravings, a registered dietitian (like me!) can help you build a holistic plan to crush your cravings.
Speaking of crushing your cravings, would you like to know more about your specific triggers (and what to do about them)? Take our online cravings quiz here, then enter your email to download our free Crush Your Cravings ebook!