What Do Food Cravings Really Mean?
You know the feeling: it’s after lunch and you suddenly want a piece of chocolate. You can’t stop thinking about the chocolate until you eat it. So, why does this happen? This article examines what your food cravings really mean and 3 common cravings explained. Let’s dig in!
3 Causes of Cravings
Cravings are complex. They may be caused by a combination of environmental, social, emotional, and habitual cues. To decode your cravings, consider the following potential causes of cravings.
1- What you restrict, persists.
The number one cause of cravings that I observe among my clients is food restriction. This can be explained by the “Forbidden Fruit Effect”: anything which seems to be unavailable is, as a result, more desirable (1).
Think about this in your own life. When you tell yourself that you can’t have chocolate or keep it in the house, what happens when you’re eventually exposed to it? Chances are that you’re more likely to binge eat the chocolate.
Another classic example is among people who do Whole 30. The Whole 30 diet heavily restricts carbohydrate intake. I’ve heard numerous accounts of people craving bagels, pasta, bread (all carb foods) after the challenge is over. What you restrict, persists.
Restriction does not solve your food craving — it fuels it.
2- Sleep and stress cycles.
The body is more likely to produce the stress-response hormone, cortisol, in response to chronic stress and sleep deprivation. Cortisol is correlated with increased appetite, specifically for high-fat and sugary foods (2).
In other words, you’re not crazy for craving a donut the morning after getting little to no sleep. It’s your body’s physiological response to high cortisol levels.
In regards to sleep, the recommendation is for adults to get 6-9 hours of sleep per night.
3 – Inadequate nutrient intake.
Adequate food intake is key to meeting nutrient needs. This means eating a variety of foods from the various food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy (or dairy alternatives).
When nutrient needs are met, you should feel energized and satisfied. When nutrient needs go unmet, you might feel sluggish and it’s not uncommon to experience cravings in response.
Some of my clients tell me that they find themselves grazing after a meal. To this, I ask: what did you have for your meal? Did your meal include a combination of carbs, protein, and fat? Did it include a variety of textures and flavors that you actually wanted? Your cravings could be telling you that you didn’t get enough to eat or your meal was lacking variety.
Common Cravings Explained
When You Crave Chocolate.
The chocolate craving is most common among women, and it may have to do with your menstrual cycle. Chocolate is high in magnesium, which is a mineral lost during menstruation. Other magnesium-rich foods include avocados, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
Chocolate may also help balance low levels of neurotransmitters including serotonin (the happy chemical) and dopamine (the feel-good hormone), which are involved in the regulation of mood (3).
Between its nutrient profile and sensory characteristics, you see why chocolate cravings are real.
When You Crave Crunchy Foods.
Craving crunchy food could be related to emotions. There’s something satisfying about cracking food in your mouth when you feel frustrated. Right? The act of chewing and crunching can release anger.
One of the emotional eating lessons that I teach my clients is to come up with multiple ways of coping with emotions. In addition to snacking on crunchy food for anger, you could: 1) take a boxing class 2) get some exercise 3) enjoy a comedy to release some humor.
When You Crave Salty Foods.
What if you’re craving salty foods like chips, popcorn, or pickles? This could indicate an electrolyte imbalance, which might happen after a workout. Additionally, cravings for salty food could be related to high cortisol levels as mentioned earlier in relation to high stress or sleep deprivation.
Don’t try to “control” your cravings. Instead, get curious about the following:
- Release unnecessary food rules. Can you practice giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want when you want it?
- Get quality zzz’s and relax. How can you prioritize better sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques?
- Practice gentle nutrition. Can you focus on getting a variety of foods from the main food groups for adequate energy intake?