Food cravings are often defined as “the intense desire to eat a specific food” (Klimesova, Elfmark, & Stelzer, 2020).
For every dieter, food cravings are a barrier often encountered that can impede weight loss attempts and, subsequently, reduce motivation over time.
The reason why is that they can be challenging to ignore, commonly promoting an intense and urgent wish for high portion, high calorically dense foods.
Although, they don’t just happen randomly.
They actually have deep mental and physical contributors, with some of these factors being modifiable, which presents us with a strategic advantage to limit them before they occur!
As a weight-loss expert who has helped hundreds of dieters overcome this hurdle in pursuing their desired body weight, I have picked up a trick or two to help curb these cravings.
In this article, i’ll be shedding light on:
- Sugar and food cravings
- Hormonal imbalance and food cravings
- Stress and food cravings
- Gut flora and food cravings
- Syndromes and food cravings
- Exercise and food cravings
- Nutritional deficiencies and food cravings
- Hydration and food cravings
- Food cue cravings
- Personality traits and food cravings
- Mood and food cravings
- Research of cravings impact on weight loss and weight gain
- How to control cravings
So let’s break down the 11 causes Of Food Cravings starting with the physical causes!
1)Sugar and food cravings
Sugar cravings, for instance, happen as a result of blood sugar imbalance.
The more sugar we consume in one sitting, the higher our blood sugar will surge. When this happens, our body releases insulin to lower the excess blood sugar to a more manageable level.
Although what often occurs as a result of this is that the insulin brings our blood sugar too low and triggers a craving for more food to regain our initial blood sugar level.
This is why we often hear that energy drinks or candy will make us feel hungry later in the day because of the associated sugar-packed within them.
2)Hormonal imbalance and food cravings
Secondly, an imbalance of appetite regulatory hormones can also be a cause of cravings.
We can break down these hormones into two types: Anorexigenic, the appetite-suppressing type like leptin and Orexigenic, the appetite-stimulating type such as ghrelin.
Leptin is a hormone that is released from fat cells. It actually does not affect food intake over the short-term, but rather, the long-term.
Its main target is a place in the brain called the hypothalamus, where it informs our brains when we don’t need to eat and when we should expend calories at a regular rate.
The leptin system has evolved throughout history to prevent us from starving or overeating, both of which made survival less likely.
This aspect of leptin may sound advantageous, but this physiological response can make weight loss troubling when it comes to dieting.
This is because when we lose weight over several weeks or months, levels of leptin fall in reaction, which, in turn, enhances appetite and overall food consumption. This is a significant contributor to why so many people fail in sustaining weight loss once they reach their desired body weights.
Now, you may be thinking, “well, if leptin should stop us from overeating, then why do so many people become obese? Shouldn’t the high levels of leptin from the excess body fat naturally limit their food intake?”
Well, the issue is that in many people who are obese, leptin signalling doesn’t work.
Even though there are high levels of leptin in the body from the excess fat stores, the brain doesn’t register them. And since the brain doesn’t register these high levels of leptin, it consequently thinks that the body is starving, leading those who are obese to consume more food (Jung & Kim, 2013).
This condition is known as leptin resistance and is believed to be one of the main biological contributors to obesity!
On the other hand, ghrelin is a hormone produced and released predominantly by the stomach, with limited quantities also released by the small intestine, pancreas and brain.
It is called the “hunger hormone” because it enhances appetite, increases the absorption of food, and encourages fat accumulation. Ghrelin has been shown to raise food consumption by up to 30% when given to humans.
Like leptin, ghrelin also acts on the hypothalamus, a crucial brain region for appetite regulation. It has also been shown that ghrelin works on brain areas, such as the amygdala, involved in reward processing.
The intake of food mainly controls the levels of ghrelin.
Blood levels of ghrelin increase just before eating and while fasting, with our regular meal routine impacting the timing of these increases. In other words, eating lowers levels of ghrelin which is pretty self-explanatory!
Therefore, in opposition to leptin levels that fall from dieting, ghrelin levels rise, which may be an additional explanation of why diet-induced weight loss can be challenging to sustain.
3)Stress and food cravings
Thirdly, stress can also influence eating behaviour and food choices.
Although the effects of stress on cravings differ based on whether the type is acute or chronic, acute stress is the stress that typically lasts a short time, and here appetite is generally suppressed.
In contrast, chronic stress is the stress that develops slowly, which worsens over an extended period, like from months to years.
This is the type we need to be concerned about when it comes to appetite, as chronic stress promotes the wanting, seeking and intake of calorically dense foods. The reason physiologically for this is that chronic stress releases the hormone cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, into your bloodstream, which stimulates appetite.
To read our blog about cravings and the best way to reduce them, please follow the link here.
4)Gut flora and food cravings
Another physical contributor to cravings is your gut flora.
The gut flora, or gut microbiota, refers to the bacteria found in the digestive tract, with between 300 and 500 estimated types. Some of these are indeed beneficial for our health, like improving our immune system function, for example.
However, they can also manipulate us.
Different kinds of these bacteria prefer different types of food. For instance, Bifidobacteria like fibre, Prevotella like carbs, Yeasts like sugar, while Bacteroidetes like fat. They can manipulate us by influencing the way our bodies feel by sending signals from our gut to our brain via the vagus nerve in preference of a food selection.
For instance, the microbes can release toxins to make us feel down if we give them foods that they do not want, while, on the other hand, can make us feel good by producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin if we do.
Additionally, they can also manipulate our taste buds to eat more of a certain food to receive the same sweetness level.
5)Syndromes and food cravings
Moreover, several syndromes may also promote cravings for foods packed with calories, such as Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and Premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
PCOS is the most common endocrine condition in women, affecting up to 1 in 5 women (Jeanes et al., 2017).
It is a condition in which women typically have some small cysts around the edge of their ovaries with symptoms including irregular or light periods, issues becoming pregnant, ache, abnormal hair growth and weight gain.
PCOS enhancement of cravings is because most women with PCOS have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells cannot absorb blood sugar as efficiently as normal. As your cells become inadequately supplied due to this, they start to think that there is not as much sugar as there should be in your bloodstream, hence causing cravings for more sugary foods to replenish the sugar in your blood.
This insulin resistance is also problematic for women with PCOS as it further enhances the likelihood of type 2 diabetes which is also a driving factor for weight gain.
Additionally, PMS is a combination of symptoms that women usually get a week or so before their periods, such as moodiness, bloating and headaches. This causes cravings because PMS also decreases the hormone estrogen in preparation for menstruation while causing fluctuations in serotonin, both of which causes a drop in blood sugar levels.
6)Exercise and food cravings
Further, exercise has also been shown to increase the desire for high caloric foods through a reward mechanism.
A study by King et al. (2012) suggests that there are several ways in which calories could increase in response to exercise, such as increased frequency of eating (e.g., snacking), selection of larger portions, alongside increased calorically dense food.
This is not to say we shouldn’t exercise by any means guys, it is just a cautionary note to be aware of this so we can have healthy alternatives for snacking post-exercise, which we will expand on later.
7)Nutritional deficiencies and food cravings
I think its also noteworthy that although some believe that cravings are caused by nutrient deficiencies and view them as the bodies way to replenish the nutrients which are lacking, the evidence behind this is relatively low (Meule, 2020).
For example, let’s take chocolate and the notion that craving it may be a sign of magnesium deficiency as chocolate has a lot of magnesium.
Well, if that were the case, it would make much more sense for our bodies to crave whole, magnesium-rich, healthy foods such as spinach, nuts, or beans instead of food that is thoroughly enjoyable. Yet we seldom do.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Although there may be some exceptions to this.
For instance, some researchers suggest that craving is triggered when a deficiency in one or more nutrients arises in pregnant women to protect the fetus (Demissie, Muroki, & Kogi-Makau, 1998).
Additionally, cravings from Pica have been found to result from nutrient deficiency. Pica is a compulsive eating disorder in which people eat non-food items. Dirt, clay, and flaking paint are the most common items eaten.
Iron deficiency anaemia and malnutrition are two of Pica’s most common causes, followed by pregnancy. For some, Pica is a sign that the body is trying to correct a significant nutrient deficiency. Treating this deficiency with medication or vitamins often resolves the problems.
To read our blog about what to intake Pre and Post gym while dieting, please follow the link here.
8)Poor hydration and food cravings
Interestingly, inadequate hydration may be misinterpreted for hunger and result in food cravings too.
One study by Jeong (2018) took 15 non-obese individuals aged between 20 and 30 years old and gave them a test meal on three different occasions.
For the first meal, the participants were given water before the meal, for the second meal, they were not given any water and for the last, they were given water after the meal. What was found was that participants ate 123.3 grams of food when they had water before their meal compared to 161.7 grams when they had no water before their meal. This shows that drinking water can help you reduce cravings before meals. However, water consumption after a meal was not shown to affect food consumption.
The exact reason for reduced hunger from hydrating has not been clearly identified as of yet. Still, the suspected cause is water slowing down gastric emptying, which contributes to feeling full and reducing hunger (Jeong, 2018).
So, the next time you experience cravings, it is worth drinking a glass of water and waiting for a short time to see if the food cravings gradually reduce.
Now that we have spoken about some of the physical causes of cravings let’s explore some mental reasons.
One of the main mental contributors to cravings are food cues.
To understand this, we need to talk about a Russain, Nobel prize-winning physiologist- Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.
In the 1890s, Pavlov was studying salivation in dogs in reaction to being fed. As Pavlov fed the dogs, he inserted a small test tube into each dog’s cheek to measure saliva. In response to food put in front of them, Pavlov initially expected the dogs would salivate, but what he found was that his dogs would start salivating whenever they heard his assistant’s footsteps who brought them the food.
When Pavlov discovered that the same response would be caused by any object or event that the dogs learned to associate with food (such as the laboratory assistant), he realized that he had made a significant scientific discovery -Classical Conditioning.
Classical conditioning is an unconscious learning method and is the most straightforward way in which we as humans learn (Rehman, Mahabadi, Sanvictores & Rehman, 2020).
In relation to food, these cues not only cause bodily responses such as salvation, but also behavioural responses, like food seeking, and subjective responses such as a strong craving to consume the food (Havermans, 2013).
In classical conditioning terms, food entering the digestive system is an unconditioned stimulus, while a food cue (smell, sight, memory, auditory) is a conditioned stimulus (van den Akker, Schyns, & Jansen, 2018).
When a conditioned stimulus becomes repeatedly exposed to an unconditioned stimulus over time, it can stimulate appetitive responses that promote food intake.
For example, if you always have popcorn when you go to the cinema, the conditioned stimulus (going to the cinema) will become associated with the unconditioned stimulus (having popcorn).
Therefore, even the thought of going to the cinema will elicit a craving for popcorn and promote its future intake. Food cues can come in many forms, such as, concerning this example, the sight of others eating popcorn, memories you have of the taste of popcorn from previous cinematic experiences and the smell of the popcorn as you walk into the movie theatre.
A combination of all of these elements strongly influence your craving for popcorn when you go to the cinema rather than it just happening randomly.
The point I am getting at here is that any cue can become associated with food cravings and consequently contribute greatly towards them.
We experience numerous food cues subconsciously every day, ranging from seeing advertisements on TV, smells when we walk past bakeries or fast-food restaurants, and even the sound of the ice cream van.
10)Personality traits and food cravings
Furthermore, personality traits may influence cravings. Impulsivity is a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without considering the bad consequences of these reactions.
Meule, Lutz, Vögele and Kübler (2014) state that impulsivity has been associated with food craving after food exposure in some studies, but the research conducted in this area is limited.
11)Moods and food cravings
Also, both positive (happy, humorous) and negative (angry, sad) moods have been associated with an increase in cravings (Fahrenkamp, Darling, Ruzicka, & Sato, 2019; Udo et al., 2013).
So now that we’ve covered both the physical and mental causes of cravings, what does the literature say about its impact on weight gain and weight loss?
Research of cravings impact on weight loss and weight gain
The literature behind cravings impact on weight gain indicates that food cravings account for up to 11% of the difference between eating habits and weight gain. Also, the more you weigh, the more likely you are to experience cravings (Boswell & Kober, 2015).
Moreover, It has been found that the less often you consume foods that you crave, the less likely you are to crave them foods (Myers, Martin, & Apolzan, 2018).
This means that limiting the foods that we regularly crave and reducing our weight can significantly reduce the cravings we experience daily.
Further, an example to show the effectiveness of controlling cravings for weight loss may be seen from a study by Dalton et al. (2017). The study found that those who had better control over their cravings at week 8 of a week loss trial showed significant improvements in long-term weight loss at week 56, with 3-4% greater weight loss!
So great, but how do we control our cravings?
How to control our cravings
Well, the first way you can limit craving is to eat less but eat often. Dividing the calories we eat over the course of a day into several smaller meals instead of three main meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner, can help us to prevent an imbalance in our blood sugar levels which, as we spoke about earlier, is one of the major physical causes of cravings. Likewise, we can avoid simple carbohydrates such as baked products and sweets for the same purpose.
Secondly, to limit cravings, we could stick a 200-calorie ration on the foods we crave daily. However, this may actually make limiting cravings harder for some individuals than to avoid them altogether, so it really comes down to you.
Thirdly, when it comes to avoiding external cues that promote cravings, it may be hard to avoid seeing advertisements when watching tv or riding the bus, for instance. However, one effective way to reduce external cues is by opting out of food delivery email marketing. You would be surprised at the amount of time we see the emails coming through, thinking how anyone would actually fall into that trap of ordering food by them, only to order an extra-large McDonalds that very same evening!
Moreover, many different causes can impact hormonal balance, but the easiest to control is sleep. Inadequate sleep may disrupt the hormone levels responsible for managing hunger, fullness, and sleep-wake cycles, likely amplifying food cravings, particularly in the evenings (Kracht et al., 2019). Ideally, it is recommended that we have between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.
Reducing weight, exercising regularly, and adopting healthier eating patterns can further lower hormonal imbalances. Still, if you would like to get these hormones assessed, I would recommend contacting your doctor for further information.
Next, we can try mindful eating.
Mindful eating is based on mindfulness, a Buddhist concept that involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around you at the moment.
Mindful eating is about slowing down and limiting distractions at meals to pay attention to the food you consume, eating only when you’re full, learning to handle shame and anxiety about food and noticing the effect food has on your feelings and figure. It also focuses on the sensual perception of food, such as smells, sounds, textures, and flavours. It has little to do with calories, carbohydrates, fat, or protein (Nelson, 2017).
The way this is thought to work is because it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to realise you are full. If you eat too quickly, the feeling of being full can occur after overconsumption of food rather than putting a halt to it when needed. Therefore, slowing down when we eat can help us to reduce cravings for snacks after meals, for example.
One study by Spadaro et al. (2017) randomly allocated 46 overweight adults to either a standard behavioural weight loss program or a standard behavioural weight loss program with mindfulness training over six months. What was found was that those who received the addition of the mindfulness training lost 2.8 kg more on average than those who didn’t.
This evidence may indicate that mindful eating is effective on food cravings by way of the weight loss exhibited.
Concerning the impact of moods on our food cravings, which we have discussed earlier, Wehling and Lusher (2019) suggest that positive self-talk may help limit cravings that occur due to negative moods.
Another idea to limit cravings is to deviate your focus onto something else when the thought of fatty foods emerges. Try to do a brief activity to take your mind off, such as going to the water cooler at the office, calling a friend or taking your dog for a walk.
Moreover, in contrast to our point about stress being a causative factor of cravings, relieving stress, on the other hand, can be an effective method for reducing cravings. Relaxation, tai chi, yoga, and exercise are all great ways to reduce your stress.
Furthermore, one of the most effective ways to curb cravings is through our diets. Unsaturated fats, dietary fibre and protein are all nutrients that have been shown to promote satiety (Chambers, McCrickerd & Yeomans, 2015). Also, various nutrients delay the release of ghrelin to varying degrees; carbohydrates and protein, for example, limit the development and release of ghrelin to a greater extent than fat.
Therefore, being strategic and having meals loaded with these nutrients, like at dinner, for instance, will help us avoid cravings completely in the evening and at night without having to limit them at all.
Chewing gum has also shown to be an effective way to make you feel fuller and have less cravings (Park et al., 2016). Just make sure it is sugar-free gum to not replace one bad habit with another!
Finally, we can replace the foods that we crave with healthier alternatives. For instance, try changing full fat cheese to low fat, fizzy drinks to water with a slice of lemon, candy to sweet fruit such as pineapple, melon and peaches and crisps to unsalted nuts!
To read our blog discussing the differences between aerobic, anaerobic and HIIT training, please follow the link here.
To conclude, food cravings may occur due to various physical and mental contributors including blood sugar imbalance, hormonal imbalance, chronic stress, gut bacteria, external cues, personality traits and moods, to name a few. It is perfectly normal to experience cravings but if they are left unaddressed they can lead to excessive calories consumed each day, leading to weight gain.
Methods in which we can address them is through mindful eating, breaking down big meals into more frequent smaller ones, keeping yourself occupied when you experience cravings, reducing stress, having meals with protein, unsaturated fat and dietary fibre alongside replacing foods that we crave with healthier alternatives!
If you would like further assistance with avoiding cravings and losing weight through our evidence-based and results backed weight management program, be sure to contact us here!