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This Is Why You Have Food Cravings (Part 1)

Reading Time: 14 minutes

This is the first part of a two-part article about food cravings. Click here to read Part 2.

We’ve all been there. Opening up the fridge, pushing the celery sticks and baby carrots to the side, and reaching for the cookies instead. You’ve heard if you’re truly hungry, you’ll eat those raw veggies – or an apple – but the pull the cookies have on you? It’s difficult to resist that craving. You’re not alone if food cravings are impacting your life.

Before we explore everything you need to know about food cravings, the big questions are: Is it possible to conquer food cravings? And if so, how?

Perhaps what you’re really asking yourself is: Should I feel guilty about eating all of those cookies because I wanted them so much? (Hint: No!)

Once we understand where food cravings come from, we can answer these questions and learn to be more gentle with ourselves. Let’s explore how we can overcome our irresistible food cravings.

Hunger Vs. Food Cravings

If you really (really!) want to eat a specific food, that’s called a craving. Food cravings can be defined as “frequent, intense, and irresistible desires to consume a particular type of food.” [1] The craving starts as soon as you begin to think about that food.

Sometimes you may not be able to stop thinking about it. The longing for that food may consume your thoughts and compel you to find and eat it, even if that means stopping what you’re doing and heading straight for the fridge, cupboard, or store right away.

Hunger differs from cravings. With hunger, we desire food, but it often feels less intense, and we can be happy with just about any food. Hunger satisfies our basic need for nourishment. So when you’re truly hungry, just about any food will satisfy you . . . at least momentarily (until the next hunger pang occurs).

On the other hand, cravings are when you could really go for that slice of cheesecake and coffee, and nothing else will do.[1,2] You know what I mean?

I know for me that when I get a craving for dark chocolate, there’s nothing else that can really substitute for it.

craveable-foods

How Food Cravings Affect You

It will not come as a surprise that food cravings can significantly impact you on physical, mental, and emotional levels. For example, cravings can hijack the reward system in your brain by providing so much pleasure when you act on them. This creates a positive feedback loop that may lead to overeating, and over time may contribute to excess weight and obesity.

Food cravings can be powerful. Studies indicate that some people experience them more strongly than others. For instance, people who naturally tend to have stronger cravings are also likely to:

● Overeat
● Have a higher body-mass index
● Try to lose weight unsuccessfully.
● Be more prone to eating disorders.[3]

These responses are strongly genetic.[3] Genes can impact food cravings, appetite, satiety (how full or satisfied you feel after eating), metabolism, body-fat distribution, and your ability to cope with stress.[4]

And it can even go one step further. Those who experience excess weight or obesity are often at an even more significant disadvantage when it comes to food cravings. Research shows that people with a higher body-mass index tend to experience stronger cravings for more energy-dense foods (food that is high in calories and low in nutrients).[1]

What triggers our food cravings in the first place is our natural physiology.

The Physiology Of Food Cravings (it all begins with a cue)

According to one popular research tool, the Food Craving Inventory (FCI), we typically crave five different types of foods:

● Sweet
● Starchy
● High-fat
● Fast food
● Fruits and vegetables.[2]

When we crave these foods, it can feel intense and powerful. That’s because, on a biological level, they’re linked with physical, emotional, and even neurocognitive (brain) responses.

This is what I mean.

Have you ever observed when you see an advertisement for a food or notice the smell of something cooking that you want that particular food right then and there? These moments of sensory stimulation are called “food cues,” and they are what kickstarts a craving.

craving-pizza

I know that every time my husband and I go shopping at Whole Foods, the smell,  and sight of the slices of pizza can make me wish I could eat some. And if a gluten and dairy-free diet hadn’t been so important in my recovery from chronic Lyme disease it would be extremely difficult to overcome that temptation.

Whenever you are exposed to a food cue, it ramps up your cravings and desire to eat on all different levels: physical, emotional, and neurocognitive (brain). On a physical level, exposure to food cues increases the production of saliva and insulin. Your body is literally preparing to digest the food it expects you to begin to eat soon. I’m sure you know the drooling I’m talking about, right?

On an emotional level, specific sights and smells may remind you of times when you experienced comfort and joy while enjoying those foods. On a neurocognitive level, food cravings also activate certain “reward areas” of your brain.[5] These are displayed in “brain imaging” studies as areas that “light up” when we think about certain foods. (More on this later.)

Food Cues Develop Into Cravings Like This

● Step 1: You see, smell, or think about a food and want to eat it even though you may not be hungry (remember, cravings are different than hunger). At this time, you experience a strong desire for and preoccupation with a specific food or type of food. You are focused on that food, and it’s so difficult to stop thinking about it.

● Step 2: Your craving causes you to get up and start seeking out that food.[6]

What does this mean? That our brains can be triggered, and they play a significant role in our food cravings.

Food Cues Kickstart Your Cravings – and they are everywhere

How many times in a day do you experience food cravings? Once? Twice? More often than that?

Why do we seem to experience intense food cravings so often?

Because food cues are everywhere!

Whether we’re looking at a screen, listening to a podcast, reading a magazine, driving past a billboard, or even going out in our neighborhood to get some fresh air and exercise, we are surrounded by food cues. We’re bombarded with advertisements, logos, banners, sights, smells, and memories. Convenience store windows have images of craveable snacks. As we pass by restaurants, bakeries, and cafes, they let off the aromas of their mouth-watering freshly baked and cooked meals.

You might go out to pick up a bunch of kale, a new notepad, or an herbal remedy, and what is always at the counter? Chocolate, potato chips, and craveable snacks of all different kinds.

I know that whenever we go to the farmer’s market to restock on veggies and microgreens we’re surrounded by the smells of the baked fresh bread, tacos, and hot tamales. Sometimes we even end up with gluten-free cookies or bagels in our shopping bag, even though that’s not what we planned for.

FUN FACT: Studies demonstrate that people who live in environments with plenty of food make around 200 choices related to food every day! That’s a lot of thoughts about food and decisions about what, where, when, and how to eat.[7]

As you can see, your food environment can give you a never-ending supply of food cues that trigger your natural cravings.

what-causes-food-cravings

The Next Step: Seeking And Finding Those Craveable Foods

When you’ve acknowledged a food cue that kickstarted a craving, why then is it still so challenging to resist?

That’s because our environment is practically designed to allow us to effortlessly give in to our cravings. If we have the overwhelming desire to devour a chocolate bar, it’s usually not very hard to find one.

Most of us are surrounded by a vast selection of inexpensive and easily accessible foods and drinks that are available 24/7. How simple is it to grab a tasty snack within minutes?

When we buy them—if we don’t finish them right away—these craved foods make it home and are available to quickly grab from our purses, pantries, and fridges just in time for the next craving.

And that’s not all! Remember that most processed foods have been specifically devised to be “hyper-palatable.” to satisfy our cravings. [8] They’ve been tested and designed to have the optimal flavor, color, texture, mouthfeel, etc. The idea is to really stimulate the brain’s neurological reward system.

It’s really no surprise that convenient access to a variety of craved foods isn’t helping us manage our cravings.

Why Do We Experience Food Cravings?

Despite the food environment described above being a relatively recent phenomenon, science tells us that cravings are deeply biological. So, why do we have them? The answer is: for survival.

Throughout humankind’s vast history, our survival depended upon our motivation to find food and sustenance to satisfy our hunger. However, our cravings go much deeper than that. Food cravings direct us to specific types of foods: sweet, high-fat, starchy, or fast foods. These foods can provide a quick burst of energy (sweet, starchy) and foods that can sustain us for a more extended period (high-fat).

Having immediate sources of energy to fight or flee can help us survive critical threats, while foods with energy that we can easily store for the long term can help us survive droughts and famines. Most of us don’t really crave low-sugar, low-starch, low-fat foods (like kale) that much, do we?

Of course, vegetables are full of fiber and nutrients, and I highly recommend getting as many as you can into your diet every day. It’s just that our natural tendency isn’t to go out of our way to seek those out. For the most part, we just don’t crave them.

food-craving-emotions

The Impact of Stress On Food Cravings

Stress relief is another reason we experience food cravings. Whether it’s work or study deadlines, ongoing symptoms of chronic illness, family concerns, or past trauma, it all has the potential to impact the way we relate to food.

Research shows that physical or emotional distress can increase the intake of highly craved foods. Stress hormones, hunger hormones, and insulin may all play a role.[9] That’s why if you’ve got a busy week with impending deadlines, you often desire the candy and potato chips even more than you would usually. Then, when you eat the food that you crave, the parts of the brain that process stress seem to calm down a bit.

During the early years of my illness, there were times when my life was dominated by intense cravings for cake and coffee. My body was so out of balance, I was sleeping a few hours a night if I was lucky and I had no idea what was causing my severe symptoms. Those coffee break moments gave me temporary relief from that distress and while the feeling didn’t last long, I was compelled to repeat that behavior again and again.

This cycles back to the physical aspect of food cravings versus the emotional and neurocognitive aspects.

Physical and Emotional Aspects Of Food Cravings

There are two leading schools of thought regarding why we have food cravings: the deficiency hypothesis and the conditioning hypothesis. You’ve probably heard of and experienced both.

1 – Deficiency hypothesis (based on physical needs)
The idea behind the deficiency hypothesis is that when we have a physical need for a specific nutrient or food, our brain tells us to get it. It’s as though our body senses that we’re deficient and needs to replenish, so we crave the foods to get more of that missing nutrient.

2 – Conditioning hypothesis (based on habits or emotional needs)
The idea behind this hypothesis is that we are psychologically and behaviorally conditioned to want certain foods when we feel certain emotions or are in a specific environment. That it’s our feelings and habits that drive us to crave a food.[2]

For example, if you’re used to snacking when watching TV or a movie, you may crave popcorn during those times simply because you’re in front of a screen, not because you’re low in sodium.

craving-popcorn-food

Another example is “comfort foods” that we may crave when we’re feeling out of sorts and want to relive a previous time in our lives where we felt comforted and happy.

So, which one is it? Do we crave foods to fill a nutritional (physical) need or an emotional one?

We can find out by first thinking about what would end our craving, based on each hypothesis.

● In the deficiency hypothesis, the craving should end when we get enough of the food or nutrient that we’re presumably low in. When we have enough nutrition, our cravings should naturally go away because our bodies don’t physically need any more of that nutrient.

● In the conditioning hypothesis, our cravings should subside if we stop satisfying them. So by refraining from enjoying delicious foods when we’re not hungry (because it’s a habit or to help us feel better) can reduce the pull of those food cravings.[2,3]

Which Hypothesis Has The Most Significant Influence?

As we know, the human body, with its complex physiology and emotions, is rarely well-understood using simple either/or explanations.

Recent studies show that both play a role (there is evidence for both), but one of them seems to have a more substantial influence than the other. Based on an extensive recent review of eight studies, researchers found more evidence to support the conditioning hypothesis. In this case, people who resisted food cravings for over 12 weeks found that their food cravings got (a bit) smaller.[1,2]

Guess which craving dropped the most? The craving for sweets!

Personally, my cravings for desserts practically vanished once I eliminated processed sugars from my diet, relying mainly on fruits and starchy veggies to satisfy the taste for sweetness.

This was also found in other studies of people who followed a low-sodium diet for several months. They ended up preferring less salt in their food.[10]

FUN FACT: Our taste buds only live for approximately ten days. [15]

So if you upgrade your dietary quality and resist those cravings for a while, your tastebuds will naturally adjust.

Interestingly, cravings for fruits and vegetables did not change, and in fact, they stayed around zero the entire time.[1,2] That’s right—most people don’t crave highly nutritious fruits and vegetables very much.

It now appears that food cravings seem to help feed our emotional needs (at least a little bit) more than our physical needs.

So, What About Nutrient Deficiencies?

Even though this review of eight studies found that food cravings may be reinforced mostly by our psychological needs and behaviors, this doesn’t mean that our physical needs don’t play any role. They do—and other research shows this. For example, reducing certain macronutrients (e.g., fat and/or carbs) may not reduce cravings for high-fat or high-carb foods—they were still craved.

Altogether, this means that there is still some element of the deficiency hypothesis that plays a role.[1,2] It’s just that the role that nutrient deficiencies play in our food cravings is probably smaller than the role that our emotions and behaviors play.

The bottom line is that food cravings are a complex bio-psycho-social phenomenon that cannot be fully explained using a simple psychological model alone. [1]

Parasites & The Microbiome

Furthermore, there are other factors that come into play, including parasites, candida, or the overgrowth of unfriendly bacterial populations. These pathogens can cause us to crave the foods that enhance their growth, essentially overtaking our natural inclinations. They exert control over our eating behaviors by influencing our reward and satiety pathways, releasing toxins that alter mood, producing changes in our taste receptors, and hijacking the vagus nerve – the neural connection between the gut and brain.[16]

Interestingly, practices that enhance the parasympathetic function of the vagus nerve – such as yoga and meditation – are thought to enhance discipline and self-control as well as the intake of the appropriate caloric intake relative to physiological needs.

Additionally, parasites can result in nutritional deficiencies, further exacerbating the potential for food cravings. In such cases, undertaking a comprehensive herbal and nutritional protocol to address the imbalance of these microbes can dramatically reduce food cravings – especially for sugar and combinations of starch and fat (like pizza or ice cream).

The Neuroscience Behind Food Cravings

Cravings also seem to “hijack” our brain’s reward center. When you take a bite of that cookie, it feels good! This feeling drives us to continue trying to satisfy the craving over and over again so we can feel good over and over again.[2] We can thank our neurotransmitters for that!

This is where some of the recent neuroimaging studies come in. Researchers measure which areas of the brain have more activity and “light up” when people are presented with food cues.

In one study, people who successfully lost weight were presented with food cues. Interestingly, instead of the expected “reward” areas of the brain lighting up, areas of self-control lit up.[2] This suggests that if we can overcome the very difficult natural reactions to food cravings more often (e.g., to lose weight—which is very hard!), this may help to “train our brain” to increase self-control and decrease the reward we feel when we indulge in our craved foods.[2]

Another neuroimaging study let people know which foods they could eat during and after the study. Then, they were shown pictures of foods—some were available, and others weren’t. The participants had higher neural activation when they were shown pictures of foods they knew were available to them. The strongest neural reactions were to food that was both available and highly craveable. From this, it seems that merely knowing that the desired food is available makes the thought of it very rewarding.[5]

This brings us back to our food environment. If we know that foods we love are easy to get, our brains “light up” more when we think about them, rather than foods that are not as easily accessible.[5]

More research is needed in these areas, but they do lend some weight to the conditioning hypothesis that, according to the brain, food cravings serve an emotional [psychological/mental] need.[2]

Conclusion

Now you know food cravings are a normal part of being a human. They’re part of our natural physiology, and that makes them very difficult to change. Some people experience stronger cravings than others due to genetics and other factors.

We live in a food environment that promotes multiple food cues every day and gives us easy access to craveable foods. Together, these take advantage of our natural tendencies to crave certain foods.

Cravings come partly from our body’s physical requirements for nutrients, but recent research shows that they’re even more influenced by our emotional and psychological needs and habits.

And remember, if you believe you may have any nutrient deficiencies or any health conditions, speak with your healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment strategy.

Read Part 2 where we will explore practical methods and tips to help more effectively manage your food cravings

References:

1 – Kahathuduwa, C. N., Binks, M., Martin, C. K., & Dawson, J. A. (2017). Extended calorie restriction suppresses overall and specific food cravings: a systematic review and a meta-analysis. Obesity reviews: an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 18(10), 1122–1135. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12566

2 – Examine’s Nutrition Examination Research Digest. (2017, October). Can dieting actually suppress food craving? Issue 36. Retrieved from https://examine.com/nerd/article/can-dieting-actually-suppress-food-craving/

3 – van den Akker, K., Schyns, G., & Jansen, A. (2018). Learned Overeating: Applying Principles of Pavlovian Conditioning to Explain and Treat Overeating. Current addiction reports, 5(2), 223–231. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-018-0207-x

4 – Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, June 24). Why people become overweight. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-people-become-overweight

5 – Blechert, J., Klackl, J., Miedl, S. F., & Wilhelm, F. H. (2016). To eat or not to eat: Effects of food availability on reward system activity during food picture viewing. Appetite, 99, 254-261. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.01.006

6 – Lee, Y. H., Kim, M., Lee, M., Shin, D., Ha, D. S., Park, J. S., Kim, Y. B., & Choi, H. J. (2019). Food Craving, Seeking, and Consumption Behaviors: Conceptual Phases and Assessment Methods Used in Animal and Human Studies. Journal of obesity & metabolic syndrome, 28(3), 148–157. https://doi.org/10.7570/jomes.2019.28.3.148

7 – Fisher, N, Lattimore, P., & Malinowski, P. (2015). Attention with a mindful attitude attenuates subjective appetitive reactions and food intake following food-cue exposure. Appetite, 99, 10-16. ISSN 0195-6663.

8 – Monteiro, C., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J., Levy, R., Louzada, M., & Jaime, P. (2018). The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 5-17. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000234

9 – Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). How stress can make us overeat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/how-stress-can-make-us-overeat

10 – Harvard Health Publishing. (2017, June 5). Controlling what — and how much — we eat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/controlling-what–and-how-much–we-eat

11 – Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). 5 ways to outwit your appetite. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/5-ways-to-outwit-your-appetite

12 – Reader, S. W., Lopez, R. B., & Denny, B. T. (2018). Cognitive reappraisal of low-calorie food predicts real-world craving and consumption of high- and low-calorie foods in daily life. Appetite131, 44-52.

13 – Giuliani, N. R., Calcott, R. D., & Berkman, E. T. (2013). Piece of cake. Cognitive reappraisal of food craving. Appetite, 64, 56-61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.12.020

14 – Siep, N., Roefs, A., Roebroeck, A., Havermans, R., Bonte, M., & Jansen, A. (2012). Fighting food temptations: the modulating effects of short-term cognitive reappraisal, suppression and up-regulation on mesocorticolimbic activity related to appetitive motivation. Neuroimage, 60(1), 213-20. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.12.067

15 – Hamamichi, R, et al. “Taste Bud Contains Both Short-Lived and Long-Lived Cell Populations.” Neuroscience., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Sept. 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16843606.

16 – Alcock, J, et al. “Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms.” Willey Online Library, 08 Aug, 2014,  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/bies.201400071

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