Do you ever get that uncontrollable urge to crush a bag of chips or M&M's?
And then you wonder why?
Cravings happen to everyone, however, studies indicate that women are more prone to experiencing cravings than men. This may be due to hormone fluctuations that occur throughout the female cycle and during different stages of life as well as the prevalence of dieting among women compared to men.
But just because cravings are common doesn't mean that you should ignore them. Cravings can be a good indicator of what is missing in your diet or life.
Why do we get food cravings?
While cravings may indicate certain nutritional deficiencies they can also be triggered by emotions. In fact, the majority of cravings are said to be related to psychology, and to a lesser extent biology.
So it's important to assess if your cravings are coming from feelings like stress, anger, or sadness or if you are really missing something in your diet.
The brain and cravings
Contrary to popular belief, you don't give in to cravings because of lack of willpower. There is more to it.
What a relief right?
You may wonder why it's so difficult to put down the bag of cookies and this is because certain foods can actually impact brain chemicals and make you want more on a psychological level. (1)
Experiments using MRIs, during episodes of cravings, showed that certain parts of the brain involved in food cravings, such as the hippocampus, and caudate, were the same as those involved in drug addiction. (2)(3)
By regularly consuming certain foods that are highly addictive, we also constantly trigger hormone receptors that may become less responsive over time, such as dopamine, meaning you need more of the food to feel satisfied. We told you it had nothing to do with willpower...
Types of cravings and what they could mean
Sodium is a required mineral and electrolyte however in today's society we are eating too much of it.
If you catch yourself constantly reaching for the salty foods, I'm looking at you chip eaters, you may be experiencing stress hormone fluctuations, mineral deficiency, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, or adrenal dysfunction. This can also be due to a diet high in processed foods.
Avoid processed and packaged foods which contain high amounts of sodium and opt for whole foods instead. Get rid of the table salt and opt for sea salt or Himalayan salt which contains important electrolytes and minerals which can also help support the adrenal glands under stress.
Carbohydrate cravings are usually tied to stress hormones because the body is looking for quick energy in the form of glucose under stressful situations.
Other reasons for carb cravings may be chromium deficiency, blood sugar imbalances, and eating a diet high in processed foods.
When it comes to carbs it's usually the refined and processed types that we go for like pizza, pasta, pastries, and bread. This refining process strips down the fiber and nutrients from the food which creates a big impact on your blood sugar levels and can result in hypoglycemia, making you reach for more when that energy crash hits (and we all know it's coming!) Instead of the white flour products reach for fiber-rich foods instead like brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, and squash.
Sugar has been shown to inhibit the effects of leptin (the satiety hormone) , which makes you feel hungrier and less satisfied by food. It also increases serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) which is why it feels so good to eat sugar in the moment and explains why you want more of it.
Cravings for sugar could mean hypoglycemia or deficiencies such as tryptophan, magnesium or chromium. Make sure you include a healthy fat and protein at every meal to help stabilize your blood sugar. Magnesium and chromium-rich foods like almonds, buckwheat, broccoli, seeds, and oats may be a good addition to your diet, especially when you experience sugar cravings.
You may feel an increased desire for chocolate around your menstrual cycle because cacao is a natural source of magnesium, which helps relax the body and alleviates hormonal symptoms like anxiety, moodiness, fatigue, and cravings.
However, this doesn't mean all chocolate is created equal! Most chocolate bars are filled with sugars which just worsens cravings and PMS. So instead, opt for 70-85% dark chocolate or use pure raw cacao for things like baking and smoothies. Cravings for chocolate have also been associated with feelings of lack of love, so go give some hugs and you may feel better instantly without the need for the chocolate bar.
Other causes of cravings
Hormones play a big part in how you feel, whether you experience cravings or not. PMS is a prime example of hormones driving cravings and unpleasant symptoms. The two hormones that are usually associated with symptoms like PMS are progesterone and estrogen. The most common scenario is low progesterone and higher estrogen which can result in moodiness, anxiety, poor sleep, and cravings.
Other hormones that are implicated in cravings include leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol. Testing is a good way of assessing which hormones are causing you issues in particular.
Poor gut health
The state of your gut and microbiome can have a big say on what foods you tend to crave. For instance, pathogenic bacteria and yeast may trigger certain cravings for foods like sugar because this is what they feed off of, so your cravings may not even be yours to begin with!
In addition, certain microbes strive off specific foods and have different preferences which could influence the type of diet you are more inclined towards.
Your gut is also directly linked to the brain which means if there is an imbalance you may experience anxiety, depression, and a higher risk for emotional eating.
Focus on fiber-rich and probiotic foods to feed your good bacteria and avoid the processed and refined junk foods.
During stressful times, our bodies release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. When cortisol is high you may experience a higher appetite, especially for sugar and higher caloric foods. This happens because in times of "emergency" our body senses the need for a quick burst of energy. At the same time, the types of foods we crave during stressful situations are comforting and help us cope with the stressor in the moment.
Make sure you have a daily stress management routine which may include activities like exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature or with loved ones.
Lack of sleep
Sleep deprivation alters the hormones ghrelin (hunger hormone) and leptin (satiety hormone), which means if you don't sleep enough you may well experience increased cravings for junk food and extra calories. Lack of sleep can also increase cortisol and stress hormones, which means, you guessed it, more cravings for the wrong foods.
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night and avoid alcohol and caffeine which can impact sleep quality.
Unsteady blood sugar
Your body works hard to maintain a balanced level of sugar in the blood but when this becomes imbalanced, you may find yourself craving sweets and carbohydrates uncontrollably.
When you eat foods that spike your blood sugar your pancreas then pumps out the hormone to help bring levels back down. But this can result in a crash that triggers more irritability, fatigue, and more cravings to eat sugar in order to bring levels back up. And the cycle starts all over again.
If this continues over a certain period of time you may develop what is known as prediabetes, which occurs when your cells become desensitized, meaning you can't get the glucose where you need it inside of the cell. This can make you feel like you are always hungry and never satisfied.
Thus, the type of food you eat is crucial in order to manage your blood sugar. Stay away from refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and opt for fiber-rich foods instead like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Stick to regular mealtimes with a balanced plate in order to avoid feeling "hangry" and overeating which also triggers excess blood sugar.
Food does play a big role in cravings, however, most cravings seem to derive from emotions. Think about it, when do you usually crave sugary or salty foods; when you are happy and relaxed or irritable and stressed?
As humans when we feel any type of pain or discomfort we tend to reach for coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs, or food. Why? Because they work. They make us feel good in the moment but can also result in a corresponding crash thereafter...
How can you know if you are experiencing emotional or physical hunger?
Emotional hunger is usually sudden and triggered from a specific experience and for a specific food item. It is usually not satisfied after eating which means you may feel the urge to overeat. After eating you may also feel guilt and shame.
Physical hunger is gradual and may come with signs like a growling stomach and a desire for a variety of food groups. With physical hunger, you should be able to respond to satiety signals that tell you when to stop.
If you do experience emotional hunger it's important to address why you are using food as a way to cope and address the root cause. This may mean reaching out for help in order to understand how to process your emotions without suppressing them with food.
Tips to overcome cravings
- Adopt a whole food diet and rotate your foods weekly. Diets that lack variety have been shown to promote cravings.
- Decrease your meat consumption and go more plant-based.
- Stay hydrated and aim for 2-3L of water every day (more if you are exercising or during summer months).
- Do an emotional check-in. What do you really need or crave at this moment? What is triggering this craving?
- Manage your stress by including exercise and play into your day.
- Include protein and fat at every meal to keep blood sugar stable.
- Break your habits. Do something different every day and change up your routine, such as drinking lemon water with breakfast or going for a walk when you feel the energy cash around 4PM.
- Supplement with a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral to address any deficiencies.
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.