Cravings are something we all experience. But what causes food cravings? And why are they so difficult to resist?
Cravings are a very strong desire for something. They are an urge so strong we often feel powerless to control them.
Cravings and habits are inextricably linked. Cravings work alongside a trigger, and often cause us to eat even when we know we aren’t actually hungry. Since cravings are controlled by the brain, whereas hunger is controlled by the stomach.
So hunger versus cravings often comes down to needs versus want.
Hunger is a survival mechanism; it is our body’s natural reaction to needing nourishment. The onset of hunger can cause stomach rumbling, nausea, feelings of weakness and mild headaches; when we are truly hungry we will eat anything. Whereas cravings are often triggered by our external environment or emotions, and are far more specific; so cravings are often tied to certain kinds of food.
Cravings are powerful cues from our body that tell us something may be missing, and can help us to achieve balance.
Most common reasons we have cravings:
- We are dehydrated
Our bodies are almost 70% water, which means water is part of almost every cell in the body. We become dehydrated when more water passes out of individual cells and then out of the body than we are taking in through drinking. Medically, that means a person has lost enough fluid that the body begins to lose its ability to function normally. Our cognitive abilities can start to be impaired at just 1-2% mild dehydration, while 5-8% dehydration can lead to fatigue, dizziness, nausea and headaches. However, our bodies are unable to differentiate between thirst and hunger, so we often mistake thirst for hunger. So, when you first feel a craving, drink a glass of water and gauge how you feel afterwards.
- We have a nutritional deficiency
When we are missing a micro or macronutrient, the body can trigger a craving for a particular kind of food that contains that ingredient. For instance, inadequate mineral levels may produce cravings for salt. However, poor diets that leave us deficient in macronutrients, can lead to cravings for quick-fixes of energy like sugar or caffeine.
Here’s a table of common food and flavour cravings, and eating habits, the deficiency that may be causing them and other foods that should fix or satisfy those cravings:
- We are hormonal
During menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, women experience fluctuations in testosterone and estrogen levels, which can lead to a variety of cravings.
- We are emotional
Lots of us become reliant on food to fulfil or satisfy emotional needs. Food becomes something we turn to when we feel stressed; some people eat when they are depressed or lonely, restless or unhappy with a certain aspect of their lives. These emotional connections we create with certain foods can be very difficult to break, especially when they become ingrained habits.
But how do we tell what is causing our cravings for certain foods? How do we know if we are really deficient in magnesium, so crave something sweet like chocolate – since raw cocoa is one of the highest natural sources of magnesium, or if its just part of a negative habit loop we have created over time?
The difference between hunger and cravings can often come down to three things:
- Specificity – hunger is a need for general nourishment, in order to keep our bodies fuelled, whereas cravings are often for a particular food or taste, such as sweet or salty things.
- Intensity – we can recognise the slow onset of hunger pangs, which do not go away with time, in comparison to the sudden strike of cravings that are powerful desires with a specific trigger.
- Environment – hunger is an internal response, whereas cravings are more often triggered by our external environment.
Because cravings are typically psychological and not physiological, like hunger, they tend to be satisfied by a feeling or sensation gained from eating certain foods, which can elicit a euphoric feeling, often with the release of dopamine.
Over time we teach our bodies that eating certain foods, such as fast food or things high in fat and sugar, make us feel better. Cravings then arise in response to those triggers, such as stress, and we feel compelled to repeat those habits, as our brains associate those sugary foods with the reward of feeling de-stressed.
Our emotional connections with food are often part of our habit loops, and arise from our reactions to our environment. Both positive and negative emotions can lead to cravings to over eat and indulge. But negative and stressful emotions such as anger, depression, or boredom are by far the biggest triggers for food cravings, possibly as a form of self-medicating to increase brain serotonin levels.
But what makes us crave junk foods rather than the chicken and broccoli we know is far more healthy for us?
- Restriction – A restrictive diet can lead to us instantly craving the things we’ve told ourselves we can’t have. …. like that tub of Ben and Jerry’s we know is at the back of the freezer.
- Stress – Stress can trigger the release of stress hormones, through the activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA) axis, which is a complex set of interactions between three glands: the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. When this system is activated, cortisol levels increase, and this, in turn, increases the desire to eat.
- …. boom, back to the freezer and that satisfying Ben and Jerry’s.
- Lack of Sleep and tiredness in turn increase cravings and appetite.
- Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, and since alcohol is “empty” calories, our bodies respond with hunger. …. leading us to, you guessed it, digging away at another tub of Cookie dough!
In general, the strongest cravings are for low-satiety, or unfilling, foods high in calories but low in protein and fibre. They’re also usually higher in fat and carbohydrates than average foods. These junk foods evoke powerful positive feelings for several reasons:
- The combination of fats and carbs causes the greatest sensation of reward – stimulating the release of the feel-good chemical serotonin, proving a soothing, natural “high.”
- We evolved to crave sweetness, since in nature sweetness is correlated with energy density. Thus we evolved to prefer sweet-tasting foods and avoid bitter-tasting foods.
- Calorie-dense foods are frequently eaten at times of extreme hunger, which associates them with the satisfaction of hunger relief.
- Low-fibre foods are easily digested and lead to a faster spike in blood sugar and energy.
Basically, junk foods provide us with instant gratification.
How do we create cravings for junk food?
We are all familiar with the cycle of yo-yo dieting. And it’s no surprise that it mimics the Trigger> action > reward cycle of habit loops.
As we become more practised at a behaviour, as a habit grows stronger, we begin to anticipate the reward. This anticipation means we experience and expect the reward as soon as we see the trigger or cue. This anticipation them becomes the craving – a reward response.
Cue >ANTICIPATION >CRAVING> Response/Action >Reward
We create cravings, as over time, our bodies learn to respond to emotional triggers such as a stressful day at work, feelings of anger or sadness, and environmental triggers – such as seeing a doughnut, walking past a cake shop, smelling pizza, or just being around friends – with the rewards of instant gratification – “mmm, isn’t pizza tasty,” “who doesn’t feel relaxed drinking a cool beer.” When we form the association that these foods fulfil the feelings or emotions we lack, we will continually turn to them, even when we don’t realise they are fulfilling that emotional need.
Cravings then can often be the biggest reasons to stray from diets – since they are part of a negative habit loop, a vicious cycle whereby feelings of restriction lead to stress, which lead to overeating to cure that stress, then guilt for overeating, followed by restriction and another build-up of stress.
Once we develop a habit – once our brains anticipate the reward, we are hooked – damn you Cookie dough!
Habits are powerful mechanisms because they create neurological cravings, which emerge so gradually we are unaware of their influence. Often we can’t even recognise our triggers. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, subconscious cravings emerge that drive the habit loop – often leaving us seemingly powerless to resist the now ingrained mechanism.
Maybe a stressful day at work, or sitting down in front of the TV with your partner triggers the action of going to the freezer for ice cream. Once our brains learn that ice cream is tasty, and makes us feel relaxed, it will start anticipating the sugar high, and those relaxed feelings. Our brains will push us toward the freezer, then, if we don’t eat the ice cream, we’ll feel disappointed, maybe even more stressed.
That’s why we often feel at the mercy of our cravings.
But just like we create cravings, we can create new rewards and new habits too.
So how do we solve or combat these cravings and their causes?
- Try flexible dieting rather than strict rules you don’t want to stick to
- Adopt better eating habits that won’t leave you feeling restricted
- Eat in moderation, reduce rather than complexly cutting out all the “bad” foods you enjoy
- Understand your habits and triggers, so you know what emotions or needs you are really craving
- Replace bad habits, or rewards with more healthy options
- Manage stress through hobbies and exercise
- Practice mindfulness
Mindset can often be one of the biggest factors when it comes to conquering our cravings. When we have clear and concise goals, it’s easy to visualise our ideal body or the body composition goals we have, and direct our actions towards them. When we understand that cravings are part of habits we have formed – we can decide whether they progress us towards our goals or keep us from them, and can better decide how we want to act.
We crave things because of the reward we have come to expect as the end result
– often this takes the form of instant gratification
– a quick fix.
All too often cravings = guilt
But negative feelings are things we experience, they are not us. We don’t need to let feelings of restriction overwhelm us.
Contact us for further advice on nutrition and training, or visit our website to try one of our packages, and see how we can help you towards your goals.