Cravings have affected all of us at some point. It might be the smell of fresh baked bread or a salty bag of potato chips, most everyone has at least one guilty pleasure. Food cravings are extremely common, with an estimate of nearly 90% of people experiencing them.1
Every person experiences cravings in a different way, some have a sweet tooth, while others may love a savory bite – but all of these find a common thread in processed foods. It can be difficult to understand how food cravings can disrupt a healthy diet, without knowing what causes them in the first place.
What is a Craving?
A craving can be defined as a series of chemical reactions in the body that can cause an intense desire for a specific food. Certain parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, pleasure and reward can play a role. Often times, this craving can seem so uncontrollable that the person may not feel satisfied until they get a particular type of food.
Our brain (specifically the hypothalamus) has a million functions, one of them being regulating the appetite. It receives information from various different signals that can be influenced by both your environment (messages around you, how you read the world) and diet.
To be clear, hunger and cravings are not the same thing, cravings are experienced solely in the brain. Hunger signals that it’s time to eat, whereas cravings can be thought of as a little voice in your head that says, “Have your daily afternoon cookie!” A craving can be considered what’s called a “biochemical feedback loop”. You crave something whenever there is a certain behavior – such as eating when you’re stressed, eating late at night, having a glass of wine after work, etc.
Let’s highlight a few factors that can cause cravings:
Our bodies are always working to maintain a form of homeostasis. Foods that contain a lot of added sugars can actually stimulate our appetite. When the diet lacks in protein, fat, B vitamins, magnesium and other minerals and nutrients, our bodies continually tell us that we need more food because it’s still craving the proper nutrients it needs to thrive. You might be wondering, if that’s the case – why don’t I crave vegetables or a salad instead? Well, the body doesn’t know when the next fuel supply may come, so it often signals a craving for sugar-laden foods because it’s a quick energy source. In fact, food manufacturers craft their foods to not only grab your attention but also target the reward centers in the brain to ensure you keep coming back for more. Several foods contain chemicals known as exorphins – which bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system. This means that overtime, eating these highly processed foods can actually become very addictive to the body.
Hunger and thirst can also produce very similar sensations, leading many to reach for more food instead of a glass of water. Some people find their food cravings are reduced when they stay properly hydrated during the day. Elevating the quality of the diet with nutrient-rich ingredients and choosing a good quality multivitamin supplement can help manage out of control cravings.
Hormones can play a role in cravings and the overall balance of our bodies. Irritability, mood swings and depression can all be common with hormonal imbalance. Have you ever finished a large meal, but still made room for dessert? You definitely weren’t hungry anymore, but you still had an appetite for more. There are two well-known neurotransmitters that can play a role in cravings, dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is a reward-based neurotransmitter released by the brain that plays a number of roles in movement, memory, pleasure/reward, sleep, mood and more. Low dopamine levels can result in increased food cravings and addictive behavior.
The second is serotonin, a neurotransmitter which affects mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire. When these levels are low, it’s common to experience irritability, low mood or depression, which typically leads to foods cravings. Eating sugar or simple carbohydrates helps release serotonin, so you feel good for a little while after consuming them. But soon after, you “crash” and this level falls, starting the cycle over again. 80-90% of serotonin is actually produced in the gut, another reason why incorporating exercise, stress management, and a healthy diet can balance hormones and help manage food cravings. In those who menstruate, hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle can also have an effect on food cravings.
Lack of Sleep:
Sleep is the time for our bodies to restore and renew energy. Improving sleep quality provides another great way to keep cravings in check. When your body is sleep deprived, it can cause your hormones to get out of whack, specifically the two major ones that help regulate appetite. Leptin is a hormone made by fat cells that decreases your appetite. Ghrelin, you guessed it – increases the appetite and plays a role in body weight. Lack of sleep can prevent the body from producing enough leptin, which causes you to feel hungry all the time in order to gain additional energy from food. One study of over 1000 people showed that too little sleep reduced leptin and increased ghrelin levels (the ‘hunger’ hormone) which resulted in overeating and additional weight gain. 2 Research has shown that missing just a single night of sleep can disrupt the body and cause it to crave a quick source of energy that it knows it can get from processed, high-carb foods.
How many of us can relate to emotional eating? Emotions can become so linked to eating habits that we automatically reach for a sugary treat when angry or stressed. After giving in to cravings, you may start to feel guilt and remorse about falling off track, which adds an additional emotional burden. As we know, when you eat highly processed foods, serotonin (the ‘feel good’ hormone) is released, which has a calming effect. So naturally, when you’re stressed it’s easy to reach for those foods to help you feel better. You can help combat this by using a variety of techniques including:
Stress Management: mindful breathing, meditation, working out/yoga and journaling can be used in order to improve your body’s response to stress.
Get Support: Lean on your network of family and friends to support you when needed.
Avoid Boredom Eating: If you know you just ate a few hours ago and your body probably isn’t hungry, distract yourself with a healthier behavior such as reading, listening to music, calling a friend, etc.
Keep hard to resist comfort foods out of the home, you’ll thank yourself later.
Try opting for healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, veggies with low-fat dip, and
Learn the Lesson: We all fall off the wagon and succumb to emotional eating sometimes. Try your best to learn from the experience and plan how you can better prepare yourself in the future. Give yourself credit for recognizing what changes you need to make for improved health.
Finding ways to nurture our physical, emotional and mental health day to day can help reduce the intense desires associated with food cravings. Integrating a nutrient rich diet, exercising, staying hydrated and taking up new hobbies are just a few of the ways we can provide our bodies with the healthy dose of dopamine it might be craving.
- Warwick, K. Food cravings: Causes and how to reduce and replace cravings. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318441.
- Beasley, J. (2019, June 27). Science Of Cravings. https://www.invictusboston.com/scienceofcravings/.
- Magee, E. The Facts About Food Cravings. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-facts-about-food-cravings.