We all know how it’s like to have an intense desire for one or more specific food(s), especially when we’re under stress or when things seem to be out of your control. As a result, our appetite and eating behaviour can also get out of control and may not stop until satisfied.
However, not all food cravings are the same. That being said, foods high in salt and fat are often craved as much as the sugary ones meaning they could potentially be an occasional drawback for people trying to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
What happens when I have food cravings?
Frequent desire for something sweet, like constant hunger, derives from a decrease in blood glucose. In brief, here’s what happens: Think of our cells as small chambers and the hormone insulin as the doorknob. When we consume a meal, our blood glucose increases and insulin is secreted from our pancreas just in few minutes, which allows blood glucose to enter the bloodstream through cells. During this transfer, we are “full” and normal blood glucose levels return to a stable level. Over time, the more glucose penetrates the cells, the lower the insulin and thus the hunger increases. Consequently, the larger our meal, the higher the amount of glucose produced (high blood glucose aka hyperglycemia) the higher the secretion and insulin activity resulting in a quicker hunger in a short period of time (low blood sugar/ glucose aka hypoglycemia)!
As research suggests, when we crave food we have vivid images in our imagination – food cravings can be quite destructive as a recent study suggests that those having a chocolate craving took longer to solve math problems when compared to a group who were not craving chocolate. The interesting fact here is that it can work vice versa as well: cognitive tasks might reduce food cravings and potentially in drug and alcohol cravings as well – however, further investigation is needed.
So, what are the exact causes really?
It always depends. It might be single or multiple things happening in your body that are causing you a particular craving such as hormones or emotional factors. Below, you can read a list of the most frequently described in the bibliography.
- Deficiency of certain nutrients
If the body in not well-nourished, you can tell by the signs it sends you most of the time. For instance, if your body craves sugar or fat it might mean that its needs are not sufficiently covered by the kind of nutrients you feed it and thus it seeks convenient, energy-dense snacks or meals to suppress this feeling. In this case, it is better to consider nourishing it with a healthy, well-balanced, nutritious meal full of fibre, protein and complex carbohydrates and one source of good fats.
- Hormone imbalances
In women, during the days of menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation are only a few periods of time when hormones in the body change their levels dramatically. Along with those, hormones involving in the metabolism such as insulin, leptin, grelin are also affected and thus our appetite can increase and make us crave for either savory or sweet snacks, or both!
- Overconsumption of food
Consumption of excess meal portions can instantly increase our blood sugar levels leading to an equally dramatic decrease of it as described earlier. As a result, we’re hungry again shortly after.
- Under-consumption of food
On the other hand, eating less, calorie as well as nutrient-wise, than normally required for our body’s needs can also exhaust it and lower our energy and hence blood glucose to decreased levels.
- Meals rich in simple carbohydrates
When we consume any meal our body breaks it down to its three most simple forms: glucose, amino acids and fatty acids as these are – in most cases – the form the nutrients are finally absorbed. This procedure takes quite a few time and when at its peak, blood sugar increases in the bloodstream. However, when we feed our body readily available simple carbohydrates such as fruits, honey and sugar in tea or coffee, the glucose in them is almost immediately absorbed leading to instant high blood sugar – glucose – levels.
- Connection of specific foods to certain situations
When we use food as a reward for certain situations or events, such as popcorn or sweet snacks when watching a movie, it is more likely that our subconscious craves for them even though we could have essentially made it without it!
- Poor sleep
Low quality of sleep can cause a hormonal imbalance in our body affecting not only our appetite and eating behaviour but also our mood and overall well-being!
- Emotional factors.
Or otherwise, the so-called ‘emotional hunger’ is essentially a coping mechanism people develop and utilise to avoid any emotional disturbance and unsatisfaction such as stress or hormonal imbalance.
Here are some healthy, lower-calorie snack alternatives for these occasions:
- Dark chocolate and/or almonds. They’re both high in Mg which may be craved because needed from the body.
- Low-fat cheese and breadsticks combined with seasonal fruit.
- Greek-style yoghurt and dried fruits
- Fruit-salad with drizzled honey on top of it plus 2 tbsp yoghurt
- Homemade oat bars with cranberries and nuts
“The Psychology of Food Cravings”, Aps, Association for Psychological Science, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/the-psychology-of-food-cravings.html
“Controlling cravings”, Nutritionist Resource, https://www.nutritionist-resource.org.uk/memberarticles/controlling-cravings
Myers CA, Martin CK, Apolzan JW. (2018) “Food cravings and body weight: a conditioning response.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30048258