The Reasons Behind Your Food Cravings

Do you wake up in the middle of the night and sneak to the kitchen to steal a slice of chocolate cake? What about longing for a familiar comfort food when you're away from home?

Although we often associate food cravings with pregnant women wanting pickles or ice cream, we all experience such feelings at some point. Food cravings are urges – often sudden – for a specific type of food.

So, why do we get food cravings?

The short answer is that it's complicated. But cravings for specific foods typically come from a blend of psychological and physical factors.

Let's say you're craving a banana. You might think that means your body wants more potassium. A tasty and naturally sweet banana is a great source of potassium.

But that doesn't really work out. If you have abnormally low levels of potassium (or hypokalemia), why isn't your body yelling at you to eat, say, a cup of cooked Swiss chard with double the amount of potassium in a banana?

Instead, we typically have a hankering for specific foods because they have previously set off the reward and expectation centers of our brains – mainly the hypothalamus.

Unfortunately, these foods are typically on the fatty and/or sweet side and tend to be processed – not many folks are bemoaning their urge to eat more fresh vegetables.

Eating chocolate, for instance, can trigger the release of brain chemicals, or dopamine, which makes us feel happy. That association between eating the chocolate and the pleasurable feeling gets stored in our memory. And that means you're more likely to eat more and repeat the behavior.

A lot of other environmental factors can strengthen those cravings, too. For instance, lots of stress means high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies... which can stimulate ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite. And ghrelin can amplify how dopamine works in our brains.

Not getting enough sleep can also cause our ghrelin levels to spike – while reducing our levels of leptin (the hormone that regulates appetite). Also, when the menstrual cycle causes hormone levels of progesterone (a ghrelin stimulator) to go up and estrogen (a ghrelin regulator) levels to go down, that can lead to increased cravings, too.

Our diets can also influence our cravings. Fiber-rich foods are more filling, and by increasing your leptin and decreasing your ghrelin, they keep your appetite in check. The best way to add fiber to your diet is to start including natural sources in your meals. But there are good and bad sources of fiber. Good sources include split peas, black beans, green peas, and raspberries. Bad sources include any processed foods and baked goods that also contain loads of starches and sugars.

Other cravings actually can stem from certain deficiencies. Folks who have Addison's disease typically crave salty foods because this rare illness can cause their bodies to lose sodium. Pica, an eating disorder where someone eats non-food items, could stem from iron, calcium, and/or zinc deficiencies.

To sum up, here's how to keep your cravings from popping up...

  • Make sure you get enough good-quality sleep.
  • Manage your stress levels.
  • Eat foods rich in fiber that fill you up.

If you do feel a craving coming on, especially for something sugary, try drinking some water or getting up and moving your body for a couple minutes. Research has shown dehydration can make us crave sugar. And exercising can help kill those cravings.

You can also try smelling the snack you want for about two minutes to help decrease the craving, which a 2021 study suggested.

If you're close to giving in, try finding a healthy substitution – like fresh fruit when you want something sweet, or perhaps a handful of lightly salted nuts or raw veggies dipped in hummus if you want something fatty and salty.

Finally, if you do indulge in something less healthy, it's not going to kill you... Just keep the portion size small and don't eat it every day.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 1, 2023