Where Your Cravings Come From and What They Mean
Ask any random person about the origins of cravings and you’ll hear a different answer every time. Some might say cravings indicate the body’s “need” for a certain type of food, others might think of them as stemming from simple conditioning to eat certain foods in response to certain triggers, while others may have a different explanation altogether. While not all of these theories have been thoroughly studied, some have–and have some convincing evidence behind them. Here are some of those theories and interesting research to support a variety of influences on cravings.
According to Dr. Adam Drewnowski, PhD, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at University of Washington who researches taste function and food preferences, cravings are driven at least in part by certain brain structures linked to memory and feelings of pleasure. Those fatty and sugary foods you might crave, like chocolate and french fries, trigger the production of pleasure-inducing opioids. But according to Drewnowski’s research, blocking the pleasure-sensing opiate receptors (through opiate blockers) blunts feelings of desire for those foods, halting cravings in their tracks.
Drewnowski’s theory rests on the assumption that pleasurable foods are used as a reward: eat something high in sugar and fat and you’ll experience pleasure. This practice starts from an early age and is only reinforced as you get older, especially as you experience more stress in your life.
How to deal: It’s easier said than done, but to cut cravings, managing stress is key. There are plenty of stress management techniques that don’t involve eating: chatting on the phone with a friend, reading your favorite magazine, taking an intense exercise class, or meditating. Turn to one of these options the next time a craving hits; you might find that, 15 minutes into your activity, you forget about your craving altogether.
You walk by the mall food court and inexplicably crave a Cinnabon. You walk into the conference room and head for the plate of donuts. According to several researchers, including Brian Wansink, PhD, professor and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and Marcia Pelchat, PhD, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, cravings are triggered by environmental stimuli like time of day, certain smells, or a specific place. We tend to rely on external stimuli instead of internal hunger cues to decide when and what to eat; as a result, when we do satisfy that craving in that particular environmental context, the pathway is strengthened–so the next time you pass the mall food court, you’ll be just as tempted once again. These responses are even stronger when we’re stressed or tired.
How to deal: If possible, remove the trigger that stimulates the craving. Take a different route through the mall so that you don’t walk past the intoxicating smells of cinnamon rolls and pizza. At home, keep the less healthy snacks out of sight; you’ll be less likely to reach for them after a long day (instead, place a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter or keep cut up vegetables at eye level in the fridge). Start being more mindful about when and why you’re driven to eat–if you really want a particular food, like chips, cookies, or chocolate, that’s likely a craving. But if you’d just as happily eat an apple or vegetables and hummus, it’s likely that you’re actually hungry. Likewise, if you’re reaching for lunch just because it’s noon, check in with yourself–are you actually hungry, or do you feel like you should eat just because the clock says so? If you’re not hungry, squeeze in another half hour of work, then check back in.
It’s also possible that, in addition to biological, neurological, and psychological factors, cravings also arise from socio-cultural norms. According to researchers Dr. Peter Pressman of Cedars Sinai Medical Center and Dr. Roger Clemens of the USC School of Pharmacy, we may crave foods simply because the suggestion of cravings, and for specific foods, is so deeply rooted in our culture. In the US, chocolate cravings before and during a woman’s period are portrayed abundantly in the media; bizarre pregnancy cravings are almost celebrated.
But perhaps, according to some researchers, the mere suggestion that these cravings are “normal,” and that they should occur, is the cause of the cravings themselves. In recent years, our cultural norms have taught us that it’s acceptable to enjoy “guilty pleasures” like chocolate when it’s that time of the month; or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s when we experience a romantic breakup.
Often, cravings are dictated by what foods we related to pleasure or comfort as a child–which is why foods like mac and cheese, grilled cheese, and pumpkin pie–foods that are associated with companionship, family, celebration, and comfort–are common cravings for Americans. These foods soothed us as children or made us feel taken care of, and, through a positive feedback loop, they have been reinforced as soothing, comforting foods that give us pleasure, which we crave.
How to deal: Karen Ansel, MS, RD, who also believes there is a strong sociocultural basis in cravings, advises anyone struggling with a craving to think about why they want that particular food: is it stress, sadness, boredom, anger, or another emotion? If so, you might be looking for comfort through food–in which case finding a non-food alternative to dealing with these emotions is recommended. Distract yourself with other activities to boost your mood or fight your boredom, like calling a friend or reading a fun website.
Food cravings are complex, but dealing with them doesn’t have to be. Whatever their actual causes, incorporating some of the aforementioned short-term strategies, like going for a walk or reading a fun magazine when a craving hits, and long-term strategies, like cultivating an awareness of your emotional state and removing triggers for common cravings, can help you reach your health and wellness goals.
Another reason cravings can occur is increased mental work. Researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham have found that during heavy bouts of thinking, the brain desires an increase in caloric intake versus when the brain is at rest. The brain, which has limited fuel storage capacities, can stimulate bodily hunger to gain those additional calories it senses it needs to keep working. Once we sense the feeling of hunger, we often eat. It is easy post-studying, or after focusing on a work project, to reach for some quick calories, often not the best choices, to feed that craving we feel. This cycle can easily lead to weight gain, as little physical movement is occurring and there is no real increase in calorie output.
How to Deal: Exercise may be one way to combat this cycle. Gary Hunter, an exercise physiologist at U.A.B., ran experiments to study how exercise impacted post-study cravings. The researchers hypothesis was that exercise would flow more fuel rich blood to the brain to feed it, and that this would reduce the risk to overeat.
In the study, two sets of students participated in mentally fatiguing activities, and then half of them were given a break, while the other half exercised on a treadmill. After a period of time, all students were given pizza. The students who exercised in general did not overeat, and actually ate fewer calories than the students who didn’t exercise. Exercising after a long period of mental work, could reduce those cravings brought on by mental fatigue and also has the added benefit of stress relief. The study found that short interval training, as little as 15 minutes of running and walking, was enough to get the blood flowing and reduce the cravings.
We need sugar for energy. That’s the main point of sugar: to provide our bodies with fuel. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate–easy to digest, and gives us a quick pick up of energy. When sleep deprived or in need of food, sugar can fix our immediate “hangry” feelings. But, sugar can be a slippery slope that moves quickly from normal consumption to addictive habits. As mentioned earlier, sugar can produce pleasure through the release of dopamine and opioids.
Sugar bingeing also heightens activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center, which is linked to addictive behavior. A study by the University of Pennsylvania shows that stimulation of the nucleus accumbens in rats can lead to both sugar and cocaine addictions. As Nicole Avena, research neuroscientist and author of “Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar)”, explains: sugar can hijack the brain. Once a sugar binge is over, you crash, but your tolerance is increased. It will then take a higher level of sugar to get the same reward.
In the United States, we also fight the issue that almost all processed foods have added sugar. This only helps to fuel our addiction to it. It can be very hard to avoid when it is added to everything from pasta sauce to salad dressing. That, plus a cultural acceptance to reach for the sweets when stressed, makes us well positioned to crave sugars.
How to Deal: When craving sugar, first take a moment to evaluate your current state. Are you feeling hungry? If blood sugar is low, it is natural to crave sugar. The best way to defeat this is to keep your body well fueled. Eating a healthy well balanced diet, including sweet snacks like apples and oranges (you do need some sugar and fruit is a great way to get it since you’re also getting an array of vitamins and fiber to fill you up!) will keep your body better fueled and lead to fewer sugar binges. Proper sleep, regular exercise, and hydration are all ways to help fight off cravings and improve your overall health.
If your sugar cravings are more emotionally driven, the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience shows that mindfulness practices like meditation can help to increase dopamine levels. Increased dopamine will help reduce cravings and improve your overall mood. Work on managing stress through other outlets instead of reaching for the chocolate.
Finally, work to reduce the amount of sugar in your overall diet. Look for the areas you consume the most sugar and focus on eliminating those first. Pass up sugar-filled sodas, cookies and other sweet treats. When you begin to eat less sugar, you’ll also notice the natural sweetness of other foods more.
Reducing sugar in your diet can be a challenge as the cravings won’t disappear overnight. Have ready some tools you can use to distract yourself when a craving kicks in. Taking a walk, sipping on a cup of tea, or keeping your mouth busy with a MealEnder or sugarless gum are some examples.
Increased awareness and better self care are the keys to reduce sugar cravings and avoid a sugar addiction.
Ever been walking through a park, the smell of hot dogs wafts by and you can nearly taste one in your mouth? Or you hear the ice cream truck song and soon desire something sweet? These cravings are often brought on by nostalgia; when we create positive memories around food, we are much more likely to crave those foods when we are exposed to them. It makes total sense that we would correlate positive experiences with particular foods, and then desire to consume those foods to again feel that happy, contented feeling – much like our memory brings us.
Psychologist Jordan Troisi, assistant professor of psychology at The University of the South has found in her research that we often crave comfort foods when we are feeling socially isolated. The reminders of those foods and moments can create a sense of belonging. So it makes sense that in the midst of those feelings, it can be hard to resist those cravings. Who doesn’t want to be taken back to a happy moment, to recreate a feeling of comfort and belonging, especially when feeling lonely? These are some of those tough moments to fight cravings as we also have to fight off nostalgia.
How to Deal: These sorts of cravings can lead us to be impulsive to seek out the hot dog cart, reach for the ice cream in the freezer, or order those french fries. To fight these cravings, first, pause and consider what memories you associate with this food. Also, take a moment to pop in a piece of gum or candy, or sip on a cup of tea– anything that will keep your mouth busy long enough to let the craving pass (as long as it’s not something that will stimulate your appetite further!).
Instead of consuming the food, consume the memory. Remember those happy times with loved ones and family. Remember those backyard barbeques, family get togethers or holiday meals. Take the moment to remember how enjoyable those times were in your life and focus on the fact that it was the people that made them enjoyable – not the food. Take time to reach out to others. Text or call a friend or family member you associate with these food memories. Reaching out to another person will both distract you from the craving and reduce any feelings of loneliness or isolation you may be having. Connections to other humans is a highly important part of life that often gets neglected in our busy lives. Being more connected to those you love will improve your emotional health and increase your overall well being, which in turn will help reduce the likelihood you’ll overeat.
Do you have a boss who is making your work life miserable? Is a loved one sick and going through ongoing treatment? Going through a long, challenging divorce? These types of life events can create chronic stress in our lives and chronic stress can definitely leave us reaching for our favorite cookies or chips, on a more than regular basis. Researchs has found that chronic stress may lead to high food cravings. contributing to stress-related weight gain. When we are under higher, constant levels of stress, hormone levels are impacted and cravings can increase. Ghrelin, often referred to as the “hunger hormone”, has a huge impact on cravings. Studies have shown that people with higher levels of ghrelin typically have increased food cravings. Ghrelin is one of the hormones that is impacted by increased stress levels. So, stress goes up, ghrelin levels go up, food cravings go up. And then we are reaching for snacks.
How to Deal: When under chronic stress, it is important to recognize that the stress you feel is not going away quickly and find coping methods to help you destress. Exercise is obviously a top choice here. Regular exercise will help to decrease stress level and improve your mood. Cardiovascular exercise that increases your endorphins leaves you feeling happier and more relaxed. Yoga can help to clear the mind, improve energy, and relax your system. Meditation also helps to get you outside of your stress, and can lead to emotional and mental relaxation. These are all great tools for beating the chronic stress in your life.
Reach out to your support system–people who understand you and can relate to your situation, or people who can help you distance yourself from your stressors. It is important to not hold in our stresses or bear the weight of them alone. Feeling alone in difficult circumstances can often lead to overeating for comfort. Make time for yourself. Take part in your favorite activities and hobbies. Take the time to eat well. When stressed, it can be easy to reach for convenient foods. But during stressful periods in life, it is highly important to keep your body well fueled with wholesome foods. Vegetables, lean protein, fruits and healthy carbs will keep your energy levels up, your blood sugar levels stable, and balance your mood. Skipping meals during stressful times is a bad idea as it is likely to lead you to overeat later, so make sure you eat regularly and have healthy snacks at hand.