The Complete Guide to Food Cravings

Woman's cravings

Cookie Monster

“Me want cookie!”Cookie Monster

For many, cravings appear in the form of a food craving, an impulsive desire to eat a specific food.  A survey revealed that 97% of women and 68% of men experience significant food cravings; chocolate and sweets are the most common food cravings (1,2).

To be clear, this is much different than just being hungry, cravings often occur throughout the day when you are “full”.  They are also usually intensified if you are hungry as well. (3)

craving infographic

Common cravings infographic

The thing about cravings is that they can drive you nuts, seemingly forcing you to go eat whatever food you’re craving.  This often results in bingeing and overall just unwanted calorie consumption, and most food cravings aren’t exactly the healthiest.

If you’ve ever struggled with losing weight or eating healthy because of your cravings know that you are not alone.  While the science behind cravings still isn’t 100% known, there’s a lot we do know that should be able to help you understand and deal with these cravings.

What Causes a Food Craving

There are multiple possible causes for cravings, so we’ll go through them one by one.  It is possible that one or more resonates with you, and that’s fine.  Follow along as I go through them and make note of any that affect you so that we can deal with them later in the article.

1) MYTH!: Nutrient Deficiency

It is a common theory that people crave foods that have nutrients (mainly vitamins and minerals) that they are lacking.

While that would be a really amazing feature of the body, it doesn’t hold up under any serious scrutiny.  Think about it for a second, if you were lacking nutrients, why do people crave chocolate and sweets instead of spinach and other denser sources of that nutrient? (4)

There is one particular case where humans crave a missing nutrient: iron.  This is a disorder called Pica, and quite a strange one at that.

Instead of craving iron from typical food sources, instead people are driven to crave any of the following:

  • Ice

  • Clay

  • Chalk

  • Dirt

  • Sand

Obviously these aren’t particularly good things to be eating, and if you have significant cravings for any of these you should probably go see your doctor.

2) Diet Habits

habit loop

Remember the habit cycle?

As I wrote about in my previous article on Making and Breaking habits, the more habits are reinforced, the stronger their neural pathways become.

Just about every person has had at the very least one bad eating habit that had been reinforced for months or years.  A common example is having dessert after eating dinner.  These are strong habits, you’ll still often want to eat dessert even if you are already full.

Like I wrote about before, the habit cycle begins with a cue.  It can be something like finishing dinner, but for other habits it could be a smell, something you see, or even something you hear.  In an established habit this cue automatically makes you crave the associated behaviour.

The Cause of Many a Diet Change Failures

Now think about what happens when you change your diet.  Often you’ll be trying to break 2 or more bad eating habits at once.

If you do this you will be opening the floodgates to cravings.  That being said, when you are trying to break a habit cravings are inevitable, however, trying to make a huge change at once is a recipe for disaster.

There is another element to diet changes that will add to the cravings, which is that people crave what they cannot have.  So on top of these established habits you are trying to break or replace, you will also experience cravings for foods that aren’t part of your habits, but you still can’t have on your diet.

“Cravings tend to occur when your diet is restricted or boring, or when you know that you can’t have something, If it’s forbidden, you usually want it more.”Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D.

If you suddenly take out a lot of carbohydrates from your diet, you will crave carbohydrates for at least a little while.  If you were to remove fat from your diet you would crave fatty foods instead.  Over time however, these cravings will taper off when you get adjusted to your new diet. (5)

3) Emotions

emotions cravingThe human relationship with food is a very complicated one.  Food is not only thought of as sustenance, but also as therapeutic as time.

In a study conducted at the University of Alabama, the relationship between mood and cravings was looked at.  What they found was that carbohydrate cravings were more likely when someone is in a bad mood (most were anxious, tired, or depressed) (6).  Overall, most of the participants experienced a better mood after satisfying their craving as well.

So case closed right? If you’re in a better mood no more cravings, right?.  Unfortunately it’s not that simple.  From the same study a small portion of people experienced cravings when happy, or just bored.  While in general we can say that being in a better mood helps, this isn’t necessarily feasible, nor helpful to those who crave in other situations.

The biggest problem is that everyone experiences bad moods from time to time, and turning to food to make you feel better is a very dangerous habit to establish.

You’ll notice that a lot of these causes can tie into each other.  My personal view is that emotions are often used as the ‘cue’ in the habit cycle. Which is akin to the theoretical model of Reward Based Stress Eating (7).

4) Addiction

Addiction is essentially a habit, but taken to a whole different level.

If you have a food addiction, it could be considered an eating disorder of sorts, sometimes referred to as compulsive overeating.  Again, there are links between the different causes, and you really need to take some time to think about your cravings to determine the root of the problem.

The biggest difference between an addict and someone with regular cravings emotionally has to do with the feelings you have after you indulge your craving.  In addicts the most common response is an increase in guilt, rather than the improvement in mood we saw in the section above. (8)

There are 3 stages of addiction according to the American Psychiatric Association: bingeing, withdrawal and craving. (9)

When you are addicted to something, like food for some people, it isn’t something that you are able to have in moderation.  Instead it is something that is deeply ingrained and you feel is tied to your happiness, which leads you to essentially live in a state of bingeing.

Eventually you may realize this isn’t a sustainable way to live and try to quit, or family and friends may intervene.  When you are cut-off you move into the withdrawal stage, which is where cravings start to become an issue along with impulse control.(10)

The craving stage is dominated by, well…cravings.  If anyone has had to deal with a serious addiction first hand and could describe it I’d love to hear your view in a comment or email.

5) Disorder

I’m not really going to go into this in too much detail, as it really is an issue that is beyond the scope of normal cravings.

Sufficed to say, people with eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia both experience intense food cravings and often binge-eat as a result.

While there is a hunger component, there is also evidence to suggest that most episodes of binge-eating are based on emotions rather than hunger (11).  One of the most common reasons for binge eating problems is perfectionism.

6) Cravings and the Menstrual Cycle

This is something I obviously can’t speak to experience of, but there are a ton of hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, which appear to be connected with cravings (12).

To begin with, cravings intensify in the premenstrual phase (10 days leading up to menstruation onset), and rapidly dissipate in the postmenstrual phase (10 days after).  As an aside, mood is typically elevated in the post phase relative to the days leading up to onset, but there is no link between mood and cravings. (13)

A Quick Recap of Food Cravings So Far

We have seen that there are not only multiple causes of food cravings, but that cravings can differ significantly from person to person.

One of the hardest things to do is have a consistent definition of a craving across many different studies.  Since most relevant studies involve self-perception, it is hard to control for different severities of cravings.

A majority of cravings are caused either through strong established habits or by using food as a stress release mechanism.  As we will see, you have more options to fix these in comparison to cravings caused by hormones, which are out of your control.

At this point it’s time to look at how you can try to deal with food cravings in the most effective manner.

Strategies to Deal with Food Cravings

Depending on the specific craving and intensity/frequency of the craving, there are different options you have to address it.  In each method below I’ll outline when it would be best to try out the method.

1) Habit Breaking/Hijacking

If you suspect your cravings are a result of the habit loop, you should stop now and go read this article on making and breaking habits with science if you haven’t already.

If you can identify a cue that causes you to crave whatever food it is you’re thinking about, you have to options to get rid of it.

time for changeFirst of all you could attempt to break the habit, but the fact that you’re spending this effort reading this right now probably means that you have tried before and had a hard time doing it, and that’s okay, it’s pretty common/normal.

The easier option is to replace the bad behaviour with a good one, otherwise known as hijacking the habit.  This is much easier to do because all you’re doing is replacing the behaviour step in the habit cycle, instead of cutting it off mid-cycle.  I went into exactly how to pick a suitable (and positive) substitution behavior in that article.

2) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

For the extreme food cravings or addictions that are having significant negative effects on your life, you may have to take it one step further than all the other options and get professional help.

Find someone in your area who offers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the goal of helping you understand your thoughts and identify/correct any improper reasoning.

There is strong scientific support in favor of cognitive defusion (CD) to deal with food cravings (14).  The goal with CD is generally to reduce cravings to manageable levels instead of completely trying to eliminate it (15).

While I am no expert in CD, the approach teaches you to acknowledge your thoughts (cravings), and instead of resisting them and trying to think about something else (which often has the opposite effect), you let them exist and choose not to act on them.  I believe this can be extremely effective, but may take some time and practice to get proficient at it.

3) Indulge to Your Cravings

Before you call me an idiot hear me out!

A study in 2007, published in the International Journal of Obesity found that the typical portion size of craved foods was a strong predictor of long-term BMI (16).  This inherently makes sense, as long as most of your diet is healthy, a small portion of something a little less healthy won’t have significant effects.

A square or two now and then? Not so bad

A square or two now and then? Not so bad

This strategy depends on other factors though.  First, are you able to stop after a small portion.  Some people find that once they start it leads to a binge, usually a result of emotional eating.  If you think you will have difficulty controlling your portions don’t attempt this.  You are more likely to be able to control your portion size if you fulfill the craving sooner rather than later (after tension/stress has built up as a result of resisting).

Secondly, it depends on how often you have the specific craving.  If it’s once a week, not a big deal.  On the other hand, if you’re getting cravings multiple times per day, even small servings would add up really fast and defeat the purpose of this strategy.  On top of that you could end up reinforcing a bad habit.

After reading that if you still think this method might be appropriate to try here’s a few tips:

  • Pick the healthiest version of your craving (ex. dark chocolate instead of milk)

  • Take your portion out of the package, and put the package away before eating it

  • Don’t eat while distracted, instead you should eat mindfully

Finally, be honest with yourself.  If you try this and find that it is not working for you then you need to stop and re-evaluate.

4) Distract Your Mind

In a fairly recent study, researchers looked at the cognitive effects of cravings.

cognitive distraction graphWhat they found is that people with a craving are slower and less effective at solving math problems.  Why does this matter? It shows that cravings occupy cognitive space, as you have a limit to how many things you can think about at once.  This led to the second part of the study, which was to see if they could reduce cravings using a similar method.

The subjects were asked to either watch a static TV screen/monitor or to imagine a pleasant smell (ex. smell of eucalyptus) while experiencing a craving.  As you can see from the picture on the right, there was approximately a 20% decrease in craving intensity in the visual (static) and olfactory (smell) groups (17).  This is nowhere near conclusive as a treatment method, but is something that will be explored more in the future, and may be worth a self-experiment for you.

If you are having a craving that seems to be consuming all your thoughts, try to find other things to think of.  You can use the same things as in the study, or find something you enjoy instead that you feel you may be able to get engrossed with.  If there is something you really love doing, there’s a good chance you can shift your train of thought over to that instead of your craving.

5) Prevent Cravings With Exercise

exercise for cravingsA 2012 study found that in individuals who had completed 60 minutes of exercise had a lower neuronal response to food cues. (18)

What this means is that after you exercise, even if you experience a potential craving trigger, your brain will have less of a food reward response, making it less likely that you will experience a craving.

This is something that has significant implications and will hopefully be studied in much more depth.

For now however exercise as often as you can, it doesn’t necessarily have to be 60 minutes, but get in a good workout.

Concluding Remarks

This is one of the harder puzzles to put together when it comes to eating habits and nutrition, but could be very important for your long-term health and fitness levels.

If you’re still with me at this point, let me finish this article by telling you how to triple your chances of success of managing your cravings.

You are approximately 3 times as likely to stick with a change in your life if you write down your plan.  So to do that, scroll down a bit to the comments section and leave me a comment with one of the two things:

  • Questions or confusions about your craving or related topics that you don’t quite understand fully

OR

  • An outline of your craving, what you believe is causing it, and how you plan to take action in order to prevent it from influencing you in a negative way in the future

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2 comments

  1. Lisa P.   •  

    I find that everytime I get bored I get cravings for something sweet, often chocolate. Based on your advice here is my plan:

    -exercise everyday in the morning to keep cravings down
    -when I have my ‘cue’ of boredom, I’m going to do something I enjoy instead
    -I’m also going to have strong scented candles ready to be lit

    Wish me luck!

    • Dale   •     Author

      Sounds like a good plan Lisa, let us know how it goes!

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