Just had lunch but you still feel like snacking? You're constantly thinking about food and what to eat next but don't know why? We'll explain what the causes of food cravings can be and how you can best deal with them!
You’ve just had breakfast or lunch, and only 30 minutes later you’re overwhelmed with a craving for chocolates, chips or other snacks? Are you stressed and constantly snacking, or maybe it's a relaxing Sunday but all you can think about is food? Where do these sudden cravings for intensely sweet or salty foods come from? Is there anything you can do to prevent them?
Contents of this article:
Cravings do not necessarily mean hunger. Cravings are a sudden demand for a very specific, and usually unhealthy, type of food. Caloric chips or fries, cookies or chocolate for example. In contrast, hunger describes a very complex and life-depending process. Hunger announces itself through stomach growls or headaches. These are symptoms that usually don’t occur with cravings. Nevertheless, cravings can still have a deeper meaning, and can in some cases be a warning signal that your body is issuing to highlight a problem. Nutrient deficiencies, hormonal changes (hello menstruation!) or other physical ailments can express themselves through cravings.
1. (Emotional) stress
Stress, sadness or boredom is a common cause for food cravings. Certain situations can cause a lot of emotional upheaval and therefore consume a lot of energy. If a lot of energy is consumed by the body to deal with a situation, then these depleted energy resources need to be restocked in the form of food. Salty, fatty or sweet foods are suitable because they have high amounts of carbohydrates which can be converted into glucose (i.e. energy) which is great brain fuel. In addition, these foods also produce serotonin. So shortly after eating these foods, your brain releases serotonin. The drawback: if we frequently use these foods to cope with stressful situations, then the brain will remember this and demand the same ‘happy experience’ in the next upsetting situation.
2. Sleep deprivation
Short night? But strangely you’re not tired but instead constantly craving food? Makes sense. Not sleeping enough can cause an imbalance in your hormone levels. Have you heard of Leptin or Ghrelin? While you’re asleep, the hormone Leptin is released which suppresses your appetite. As soon as you awake, the hormone Ghrelin (also known as the craving-hormone) takes control of your appetite and feelings of satiety. If our sleep schedule is disrupted, more Ghrelin is released and less Leptin. This signals to your brain that you’re hungry. Furthermore, a tired body needs more energy than usual for optimal functioning, and where to we get quick energy supplies? You guessed it: from fatty, salty or sweet foods. Read about how to get the best sleep in our sleep guide.
3. Poor eating habits
Dessert after lunch? One (or two) cookies to calm the nerves? Anyone who follows the same food routine, day in and day out, conditions their brain to crave those foods regularly. This can lead to a dependency, even addiction, to a sugar rush after a meal or in stressful situation. It’s important to be aware of these things, because what the brain wants it usually gets! Many studies have demonstrated that our brain reacts very similarly to addictive food as it does to addictive drugs.
People who have the tendency to eat poorly (lots of processed foods, carbohydrates and refined sugar) are likelier to suffer from food cravings more frequently. Its unsurprising that your blood sugar levels behave like a rollercoaster: rapid increases and steep plummets. This results in consequential feelings of fatigue, which we solve by giving in to our cravings for sugary foods. Its essential to break this vicious rewards cycle and return to a diet that is high in more nutritious foods.
4. Physical ailments
Anyone who regularly suffers from intense craving attacks, should get checked by a doctor to rule out any serious issues. Recurring cravings could be an indicator of metabolic issues or hormonal imbalances. This includes diabetes, hyperthyroidism, liver disease or obesity.
5. Mental illnesses
Food cravings are a fairly common phenomenon among individuals who suffer from mental diseases like anorexia, bulimia or binge-purge anorexia. All three diseases typically involve intense cravings. This is due to the fact that eating disorders cause dangerous nutrient deficiencies and hormone imbalances.
Did you know that a craving for salty foods can often be an indicator that you’re dehydrated? Your body is sending you a signal to drink more water, because salt commonly causes thirst. Pretty smart, right? A craving for chocolate, bananas or meat can also signal a nutrient deficiency. The following table gives you an overview of what the cause of specific cravings could be:
Oats, Cashews, Figs, Seeds
Sunflower seeds, Sesame, Bananas
Chips & other salty snacks
Sodium, Chloride, Silicon
Olives, Cashews, Seeds
Fries & other fatty snacks
Calcium, Omega-3-fatty acids
Lentils, Leafy greens, Fatty fish
Omega-3 Fatty acids, Protein, Vitamin B
Broccoli, Figs (dried), Almonds
Iron, Zinc, Vitamin B12*
Spinach, Peas, Sunflower seeds, Quinoa
*only found in animal products or via supplements.
Including lots of fruit and vegetables on your plate, and swapping refined carbohydrates for wholegrain and complex carbohydrates, is an excellent way to manage your cravings. A balanced diet ensures that your body is being supplied with all the necessary macro and micro nutrients that it needs for optimal functioning. This helps avoid any deficiencies and can curb cravings. Read more about a balanced diet in this article to discover useful tips and guidelines.
You’re probably asking yourself what you can do to prevent cravings before you start snacking? Firstly, you should be aware of when the cravings kick in. Is it due to hormone changes (e.g. PMS or menstruation?) Do they occur in stressful or emotional situations? Be sure to take note of how you’re feeling when cravings take over so that in 2-3 months you have a mini ‘database’ that can help shed light on the issue. If cravings happen from time to time or after extreme physical or emotional events, then there probably isn’t any cause for concern. Pay attention to the nutrition of your meals and make sure that breakfast, lunch and dinner include a variety of food groups. Try to only include un processed foods, without added sugar or salt and free of chemical additives. Small tip: the shorter the ingredient list, the better.
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Last but not least, make time to get enough sleep. Your body needs periods of rest and relaxation. Find a way to manage stress and boredom, because these are often moments where uncontrolled snacking or incessant thoughts about food take place. Try taking a long walk, do some yoga, meditate or call a friend to distract yourself.
In conclusion, cravings can have many causes but typically signal that there is a deficiency of some kind. A healthy, conscious diet ensures that the body is supplied with all the necessary nutrients which in turn reduces the likelihood for cravings. In addition to diet, your lifestyle also plays an important role. Enough sleep and healthy stress management does your body a lot of good. If you have a healthy diet and lifestyle and are still suffering from inexplicable cravings, you should probably go see a doctor for better clarity.
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