Food cravings are intense desires for certain foods. They can hit you suddenly out of the blue, seemingly uncontrollable until you satisfy your craving with a trip to the fridge, ice cream stand, fast food joint, or 24-hour convenience store.
They usually are not connected to hunger. Indeed, many people experience intense cravings for a particular food right after dinner.
If food cravings sometimes torture you, you’re not the only one. Research suggests that more than 90% of people experience them. (1)
Common Food Cravings
Though people vary in the foods they desire, the most common cravings contain sugar, salt, and unhealthy fat, which describes heavily processed foods. It’s not an accident that the food processing market “was valued at USD 143.51 Billion in 2020 and is expected to reach USD 235.67 Billion by 2028.” (2)
Typical food cravings include:
- Potato chips
- French fries
- Ice cream
- Sugary foods
- Savory foods like grilled hamburger
What Causes Food Cravings?
Answering this question is complex, as there may be several reasons why you’re craving specific foods. But most of them fall into one or more categories: physical, mental, and emotional.
Below are a few physical factors that may trigger a food craving.
- Nutrient deficiency. Food cravings are often an SOS signal that your body lacks an essential nutrient. For example, if you have an intense desire for chocolate, you may be experiencing a magnesium deficiency. (Dark chocolate is a rich source of magnesium.)
- Gut bacteria. There is some scientific evidence that gut microbiota composition may trigger food cravings. After all, gut microbes need to eat to survive, so it makes sense that they might manipulate the host (us) to give them the foods they require for their existence. These sneaky bugs may even get us to eat foods that destroy their competitors. (3)
- Blood sugar dips. Eating sweet or starchy foods causes your blood sugar to spike. This is because the pancreas secretes insulin to clear excess glucose from your bloodstream, which causes a significant dip in blood sugar levels. This can cause many food cravings.
- Sleep issues. Numerous research studies suggest that inadequate sleep may be a significant cause of food cravings. For example, recent research on adolescents “found that poor sleep efficiency was related to unhealthy food cravings, and shorter sleep duration was related to lower dietary quality and higher body weight.” (4)
Why does it have this effect? Well, sleep disturbances can affect crucial hormones in charge of regulating hunger (ghrelin), fullness (leptin), stress (cortisol), and sleep-wake cycles (melatonin), and more. (5, 6)
Emotional eating is unfortunately widespread. Here are a few mental/emotional factors that may spur your chocolate craving, your desire for salty foods, your extreme need for sweet foods — and just about any other food craving you might have.
Stress. Let’s face it, most of us are under constant stress, burning the candle at both ends with no time to relax. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most common mental/emotional causes of food cravings. You see, stress triggers a release of insulin that can lead to intense cravings, unhealthy eating behaviors, cravings for “comfort foods,” and weight gain. (7)
Habit. Your brain is excellent at associating one action with another. So, if you routinely order pizza on movie nights, your brain will link the two together, and before you know it, you may start craving pizza on those evenings. It will do the same with any activity where you eat a particular food.
Mood. Science suggests that mood can have a significant impact on food cravings. For example, there is a link between low serotonin levels in the brain and depression. And guess what? Studies suggest that low serotonin levels may trigger cravings for sugary foods. (8)
Dangers of Food Cravings
The primary danger of having food cravings is that they may spur unhealthy eating patterns that lead to significant blood sugar fluctuations, weight gain, and obesity.
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of numerous medical conditions, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Fatty liver disease
- Certain cancers
- Gallbladder disease
- Sleep apnea
- High cholesterol
Please keep in mind, though, that food cravings may be a sign of a medical condition. For example, anemia may trigger a craving for salty foods, while having an unquenchable thirst may be an early sign of diabetes. Or, feeling compelled to devour a lot of food may be a sign of bulimia. Therefore, see your doctor if you’re bothered by intense food cravings.
What Should I do About Food Cravings?
If you’re troubled by food cravings, please don’t despair. Here are a few things you can do to ease these cravings that may work better than anything you’ve tried in the past.
Relax Your Brain and Body
As mentioned earlier in this article, chronic stress can trigger intense cravings that lead to poor food choices. The answer? Take time to de-stress daily.
Here are a few relaxing activities that can help reduce the stress response. If you are unfamiliar with them, you can find numerous instructional books and videos.
Meditation. Try to practice a formal meditation for 10-15 minutes twice a day. Though meditation is an ancient practice, it is incredibly easy to do. You can find books and videos online to teach you how to do it. The simplest way is to sit in a straight-backed chair, close your eyes, and concentrate on breathing. When a thought arises — and they will, many of them — do not engage them. Instead, let the thought alone and continue focusing on your breaths.
Relax your muscles. In progressive muscle relaxation, you simply tense and then relax various muscle groups throughout your body.
Do Yoga. This is a mind/body/spirit practice that incorporates asanas (postures), breathing exercises, and meditation, though you can focus on just one aspect of it.
Exercise. That’s right, physical activity can relax your brain and body, and it can support your overall health.
Delay Your Reaction
Cravings can go away if you allow time between the craving and its fulfillment. So, the next time you feel an intense urge for junk food, wait a few minutes and concentrate on something else. You may be surprised to find that your craving was a mere phantom!
Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep is a great way to turn off your cravings. Here are some tips on how to improve your sleep habits.
- Follow a set bedtime schedule. For example, if you go to bed at the same time every night and awake at the same time every morning, you’ll train your body to sleep during that specific period.
- Avoid caffeine later in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant that can prevent sleep if ingested too close to bedtime.
- Try not to watch TV or use your computer or tablet an hour before bedtime. The light from these screens disrupts your brain’s melatonin production.
- Practice mind and body relaxation techniques before bedtime.
- Avoid napping during the day.
Eat Frequent Meals
Eating something every three or four hours will help keep your blood sugar from dropping, as long as you’re eating healthy food, of course.
The key is not to increase your food intake. Instead, you should ideally get the same general number of calories while eating more often.
An excellent way to do this is to eat three main meals a day with healthy snacks in between or eat six small meals throughout the day.
Eat Balanced Meals
Healthy eating is crucial to curbing your food cravings. You’ll need to eat a SANE diet that includes at least ten servings of nonstarchy vegetables, a moderate amount of nutrient-dense protein, and an adequate amount of healthy fats each day.
Why? SANE foods are satiating and nutritious. They can help balance your blood glucose levels, reduce cravings, and boost your protein intake.
In addition, try to reduce or eliminate heavily processed foods, sugars, fast foods, etc.
Here are some foods that you’ll want to make a regular part of your diet:
- Chia seeds
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