What causes food cravings?

Ximena Jimenez
Nutrition & Dietetics

Hunger is more physiological driven; while craving are more intricate. Cravings usually happen when we are under stress, feel gloomy, or are premenstrual. These are some tips to deal with food cravings:

  • Do not skip meals; doing so will make it hard to control your food cravings
  • Move more; people who exercise are less prone to bingeing and craving
  • Water, water, water; you might be thirsty and think that you have a desire to eat something
  • Out of sight, out of mouth; by steering clear of desserts is easier to lower your cravings
Alexandra Jamieson
Nutrition & Dietetics

You can stop hating your body for its cravings - consider it to be good information! 

Cravings are your body's way of saying "something is off balance here - and I like balance!" There are three main causes to cravings, so take a look to see what is true for you:

  • Physical: maybe you're tired from a long day or your muscles ache from tension
  • Bio-chemical: your body is low in certain minerals or your blood sugar is low
  • Emotional: you're stressed out or lonely

If you're tired at the end of the evening, instead of turning on the TV and reaching for your favorite snack food, take a hot bath to relax your muscles and ease into a calm night of rest.

If your cravings are persistent, have your blood tested for mineral and vitamin deficiencies. 

Learn to tune in to your body when you feel mental or emotional stress. Where does stress show up in your body? In your stomach? Chest? Neck? 

Your body just wants to feel good, and it knows that certain foods like sugary treats will make it feel good - at least in the short term. 

Use stretching, meditation, or walking outside during a break at work to calm your energy and relax your body. 

You'll find that your cravings will go away or reduce greatly.

Keri Gans
Nutrition & Dietetics
Often, cravings stem from a purely physical reason: hunger. Maybe it’s been more than four hours since your last meal. For example, midafternoon cravings, which are quite common, are the body’s way of saying, “Hey, it’s been a while since lunch.” Hunger might turn to craving if you didn’t eat enough at a certain meal, or that meal didn’t contain enough fat and protein, which promote a feeling of fullness that lasts longer than a meal composed primarily of carbohydrates. Most of the time, however, cravings begin in your head. Emotions can play a big part in cravings.

Negative feelings like stress, boredom, or loneliness can trigger them. So can childhood memories of how good certain foods made us feel—the chocolate cake Mom used to bake, the pasta dished up by your grandmother. Sensory triggers, such as smells and visual cues, can also set off cravings. As you pass the cinnamon-bun stand or pizza place in the mall, chances are your mouth will water. Or we crave foods we “shouldn’t” eat—those dark, evil, “forbidden” foods like doughnuts, chocolate, or pizza.
The Small Change Diet: 10 Steps to a Thinner, Healthier You

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Margaret Floyd
Nutrition & Dietetics
Our bodies are very, very wise. They know what they need, and they will do what they need to do to get it. Cravings, excessive appetite, and overeating are all ways our bodies communicate with us, asking for something that they're not getting but need.

When we eat foods that aren't naked -- foods that have been overprocessed, that have lots of additives and little nutritional value -- we aren't giving our bodies the nutritional building blocks they need to thrive. As a result, we need more food to fill that void. Typically, non-naked foods fill us, but they don't feed and nourish us.

Consider this: If you eat an apple, do you want to eat another, and another, and another? Do you have an unstoppable urge to keep eating that same food to the point of completely overstuffing yourself? No, most likely you don't. Your body takes what it needs from the apple, and then you're satisfied and don't need another apple.

Now, in comparison, consider this: If you open a bag of potato chips, do you want to eat another, and another, and another? Do you have an unstoppable urge to keep eating that same food to the point of overstuffing yourself? For many people, the answer is a resounding yes! Just as the ads proudly state, it's impossible to eat just one.

Is this unstoppable urge the evidence of a potato chip deficiency? No, quite the opposite. Potato chips are nutritionally void and aren't giving your body what it needs. So, your body has to ask for more and more in an effort to get what it needs to be truly satisfied. In fact, the overly refined vegetable oils in potato chips block your body's ability to digest and absorb essential fatty acids, leaving your body deficient and craving more fat. As I said earlier, your body is wise -- it needs fat, so it asks for fat. How we respond to what it's asking for is what makes all the difference.
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Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

To avoid craving for food:

  • Use meditation to help you cope with chronic stress, which can lead you to crave feel-good carbs.
  • Get your Zzzzzs. Sleep deprivation alters levels of hormones in the body that regulate hunger, causing an increase in appetite.
  • Cravings can sneak up on you when you're tired. Try taking a nap if you feel yourself wanting some junk food.
  • Identify the emotional triggers that lead you to seek unhealthy comfort food. Picture your goal weight the next time a trigger strikes to help you resist temptation.
  • If food was your only source of pleasure, make sure to reconnect with other things you enjoy -- music, sports, volunteer work or movies, for example.


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Kate Geagan
Nutrition & Dietetics
For decades, cravings were thought to be tied to nutritional deficiencies. For example, a chocolate craving could be from a deficiency in magnesium, or someone craving potato chips may be deficient in sodium. But a new wave of research suggests another cause.

Functional MRI scans have found that certain foods (especially those loaded with fat, sugar, and salt) stimulate the same regions of the brain and exert as powerful a pull on us as drugs and alcohol. When we repeatedly eat those foods, over time they hijack the brain’s natural hunger and fullness systems with these much more potent pleasure-and-reward responses.

For example, you may crave carbohydrates or sweets because your brain anticipates the rush of “good mood” chemicals -- the hormones serotonin and dopamine -- that are released in response, as well as the calming effect that serotonin provides. The next day, maybe when you are feeling stressed or down, the brain fires another cascade of anticipation for sweets that tells our brain, “That was great! Let’s go back and do it again!”

While that may sound harmless, emerging research (including functional MRI scans) suggests that, over time, the brain actually undergoes organic changes that blunt our pleasure response (that is, we don’t create the same burst of dopamine), causing us to need more and more of that sweet food to experience that same release of hormones and the rush of pleasure and reward it provides.

In other words, the addicted brain and the craving brain look shockingly similar.

This new research has dramatic implications for how health experts think about food, especially processed and refined foods that deliver concentrated doses of sugar, salt, and fat. No longer is it just about “willpower” or “listening to your body”; these foods may be fundamentally changing our brain chemistry in ways that make it harder to find our best health.
While the exact cause of food cravings is still unknown, there are multiple theories as to why people have these intense feelings for a food.   Some studies suggest that restricting your food intake, AKA dieting, can trigger these cravings.  In a study of almost 130 women, those who were dieting to lose weight had significantly more intense craving for chocolate than non-dieters.  This is the Adam and Eve syndrome.  If you make a food “forbidden,” you are going to want it more. Hunger can also feed into food cravings.  In a study at Tufts University, the food cravings of 32 healthy women were accessed prior to restricting their typical calorie intake by 10 to 30 percent daily.    After 6 months of a restricted calorie intake, hunger was shown to significantly increase the frequency and intensity of their food cravings compared to when their calorie intake was not restricted.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.