Food cravings are not your fault and not a character flaw. So don't feel bad for craving a food.
Cravings for sweet, fatty or salty food is something we can all share.
It was Christmas and I found the perfect excuse to finish off a whole large dark chocolate bar. Then I found myself the other day finishing off a whole bag of chili lime chips while binge watching "The Crown."
“How did that happen?!”, I laughed! Am I that stressed? Or just bored!
Sometimes these cravings are emotional eating and not associated with stress or fatigue. Sometimes they are a combination of stress and emotion leading to food cravings like I experienced this past week.
We’ve all been there. Standing in front of the fridge, shoving the baby carrots aside, and reaching for the cheesecake instead. You’ve heard if you’re really hungry you’ll eat those carrots—or an apple—but the pull that cheesecake has on you . . .? It’s hard to resist that craving. So hard. If food cravings are affecting your life, you’re not alone.
Presently as I write this, we are in the middle of a worldwide virus spread so we are staying home and maybe you find yourself craving food out of just plain boredom.
Before we dive into everything you need to know about food cravings, the big questions are:
Can you overcome food cravings? And if so, how?
Maybe what you’re really asking yourself is: Should I feel guilty about eating that cheesecake because I wanted it so badly? (Hint: No!)
When you know where food cravings come from, you can answer these questions and be more gentle with yourself.
Let’s dive into how we can conquer your irresistible food cravings.
Food cravings vs. hunger
When we really (really!) want to eat one specific food, that’s a craving. Food cravings are “frequent, intense, and irresistible desires to consume a particular type of food.”
Cravings start as soon as we think about that food. Sometimes we can’t stop thinking about it. The longing for that food can consume our thoughts and compel us to find and eat it, even if that means stopping what we’re doing and heading straight to the fridge, cupboard, or store right now.
I know for me, a strong food craving can be for chocolate, anything with chocolate. This can result from a stressful situation or maybe my body needs something in the chocolate. What is a food you crave? You can share it in the comments below.
Hunger is different from cravings. With hunger, we want food, but it’s often a less intense feeling and just about any food will do.
Hunger satisfies our basic need for sustenance. When we’re truly hungry, just about any food will satisfy us . . . at least temporarily (until the next hunger pang comes along).
Cravings, on the other hand, are when you could really go for that cheesecake or potato chips (depending if you crave salty or sweet foods) and nothing else will do.[1,2] You can relate right!?
What food cravings can do to you
It’s no surprise that food cravings can significantly impact you on a physical, mental, emotional and energetic level.
For example, your food cravings can hijack your brain’s reward systems, giving us so much pleasure when we act on them.
This feeling can lead to overeating and, over time, this may contribute to affect your digestive system if not immediately with such symptoms as bloating, stomach discomfort, weight gain, low energy from unbalanced blood sugar, brain fog and disrupted sleep. [1,2]
What symptoms have you had after overindulging from a food craving? Let me know in the comments.
Food cravings are powerful. Research suggests that some people experience them more strongly than others. For example, people who naturally tend to have a stronger cravings also tend to:
- Have a higher body-mass index
- Try to lose weight unsuccessfully
- Experience digestive discomfort
- Suffer from low energy and stress
This reaction is strongly genetic. Genes can affect food cravings, appetite, satiety (how full or satisfied you feel after eating), metabolism, body-fat distribution, and how we cope with stress.
Studies show that people with a higher body-mass index tend to experience stronger cravings for foods that are more energy dense (food that are high in calories and low in nutrients).
So having low energy and excess and unwanted weight gain can go together because of the foods people crave.
What triggers your food cravings in the first place is your natural physiology. Do you feel better about it now?
The physiology of a food craving (it all starts with a cue)
According to one commonly used research tool, the Food Craving Inventory (FCI), there are five types of foods that we typically crave:
- Fast food
- Fruits and vegetables.
Cravings for these foods can feel intense and powerful. That’s because, on a biological level, they’re associated with physical, emotional [psychological/mental], and even neurocognitive (brain) responses.
Here’s what I mean.
Have you ever noticed that seeing a food advertisement or smelling something cooking can make you want that particular food right then and there? These sights and smells are called “food cues” and they are what kickstarts cravings.
Take for instance the going into the bakery shop of your local mall or grocery store and smelling the fresh cinnamon rolls. That aroma gets me every time and immediately I start to crave a piece. Mmmm I can smell a fresh one right now if I picture it. Not as powerful as being right there though when my mouth starts to water.
Being exposed to food cues ramps up our cravings and desire to eat on different levels: physical, emotional [psychological/mental], and neurocognitive (brain).
On a physical level, food cues increase our production of saliva and insulin. Our bodies are literally preparing to digest the food it expects us to be eating soon (you know the drooling I’m talking about, right?)
On an emotional level, certain sights and smells can remind us of times when we felt comfort and joy while enjoying those foods. On a neuro-cognitive level, food cravings also activate certain “reward areas” of our brains. These are shown in “brain imaging” studies as areas that “light up” when we think about certain foods.
Food cues turn into cravings like this:
- Step 1: You see or smell or think about a food and want to eat it even if you’re not hungry (remember, cravings are different from hunger). This is when the brain has a high desire for and preoccupation with a specific food or type of food. You think about the food and it’s so hard to stop thinking about it.
- Step 2: Your craving leads you to get up and start seeking out that food.
What does this mean? That our brains can be triggered and which plays a big role in our food cravings.
Food cues are everywhere and they kickstart your cravings
How many times every day or so do you experience food cravings? Once? Twice? More often than that?
Why do you seem to experience intense food cravings so often?
Because food cues are everywhere!
Whether you’re looking at a screen, listening to a show, reading a magazine or newspaper, passing a billboard, or even getting some fresh air and exercise around our neighbourhood, we are surrounded by food cues.
We’re inundated with ads, logos, banners, and other sights, smells, and memories. Convenience store windows have posters of craveable snacks.
As we go by restaurants, bakeries, and cafes, they let off aromas of their mouth-watering freshly baked and cooked goods.
You can be out to pick up a head of broccoli, a new pack of pens, or an herbal tea and what’s there waiting for you at the counter? Chocolate, gummies, potato chips, and craveable snacks of all kinds,
FUN FACT: Research shows that people who live in environments with an abundance of food make about 200 food-related decisions every day! That’s a lot of thinking about food and deciding what, where, when, and how to eat.
As you can see, our food environment gives us a never-ending supply of food cues that trigger our natural cravings.
Next step: Seeking and finding those craveable foods
Once you’ve registered a food cue that has kickstarted a craving, why is it so hard to resist?
Because our environment is practically designed to allow us to effortlessly give in to our cravings. When we have the overwhelming desire to devour a chocolate bar, it’s usually not that difficult to find one.
Many of us are surrounded by a huge selection of inexpensive and convenient foods and drinks available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. How easy is it to grab a craveable snack within minutes?
And if this food is in the house, you know you will eat it eventually. Can you think of a food right now?
And that’s not all! Don’t forget that many processed foods have been specifically designed to satisfy our cravings and be “hyper-palatable.” They’ve been tested and manufactured to have the optimal flavour, colour, texture, mouthfeel, etc. The idea is to really get the brain’s (neurological) reward system going.
It’s really no wonder that convenient access to a variety of craved foods isn’t helping us manage our cravings.
Why do we have food cravings?
Why do we have food cravings? Even though the food environment described above is a human-made, fairly recent phenomenon, science tells us that cravings are deeply biological.
Throughout history our motivation to find food was to satisfy our hunger. But, our cravings go deeper than that.
Food cravings point to specific types of foods:
- starchy, or
- fast foods
These are foods that can give us a lot of energy right away (sweet, starchy) and foods that can sustain us for a longer time (high-fat). Are you thinking of chips or ice cream?
Having quick sources of energy to fight or flee can help us survive immediate threats. While foods with the energy we can easily store for the long run can help us survive droughts and famines.
We don’t really crave low-sugar, low-starch, low-fat foods (like kale) that much, do we?
Of course, we don't naturally crave vegetables which are full of fiber and nutrients. So no wonder you may find it difficult to get enough vegetables into your diet.
Stress relief is another reason you experience food cravings. You probably have a lot on your plate and maybe you are saying yes to too many things. Also demands at home for your time can cause stress on top of your daily work demands and to-do list.
Studies show that physical or emotional distress can increase intake of highly craved foods. These hormones include, stress hormones, hunger hormones, and insulin, 
That’s why when you’ve got a busy week with multiple deadlines, you often desire the cheesecake even more than usual.
Then, when the craved food is consumed, the parts of the brain that process stress seem to calm down a bit. And the high fat in a cheesecake can sustain your energy for little bit but it is not so friendly on your waistline.
- This brings us back to the physical aspect of food cravings versus the emotional [psychological/mental] and neurocognitive aspect.
Now you know that food cravings are a normal part of your life. They’re part of your natural physiology and that makes them very difficult to change.
Some people experience stronger cravings than others due to genetics and other factors.
Don’t beat yourself up. Knowledge is power and you, my friend, are now empowered to act on that knowledge.
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7 - Fisher, N, Lattimore, P., & Malinowski, P. (2015). Attention with a mindful attitude attenuates subjective appetitive reactions and food intake following food-cue exposure. Appetite, 99, 10-16. ISSN 0195-6663.
8 - Monteiro, C., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J., Levy, R., Louzada, M., & Jaime, P. (2018). The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 5-17. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000234
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