Cravings and Why We Get Them

Some cravings can make it difficult to eat healthy, so let’s learn all about cravings and how to curb them.

Assortment of sugary foods like candies, gummy candies, donuts, soda, chocolate, lollipop, wafers and cupcakes.

A food craving is a strong desire for a specific type of food, usually to the extent that we would go out of our way to get it. Cravings can be caused by stress, sugar, or even associations we have with certain foods. Some cravings can make it difficult to eat healthy, so let’s learn all about cravings and how to curb them.

What is a craving?

There are many reasons why we eat, including fond memories, hunger, stress, and a need for nutrients. A craving is a strong desire to eat a specific food. It can feel as if you can’t get a certain food out of your head. As if the desire won’t go away until the food is eaten. Like that time you saw a commercial for candy and couldn’t help but swing by the store to grab it.

Causes of cravings

Everyone experiences cravings differently. Some people may get it during certain times of the month, while others may get it during stressful times. The type of food craving can also be individual, even depending on your gender. Studies suggest that women tend to crave more fatty and sweet foods, such as chocolate and ice cream, whereas men crave more savory foods, such as chips. Regardless of the type of cravings you get, they are very common - 90 percent of the population experiences them on a regular basis (1).

Environmental triggers

Our environment influences our cravings because of what we see, smell, or associated memory. A tonic craving is defined as experiencing a craving in a certain moment, without a trigger from the environment. For instance, if you’re minding your own business and start to think about pizza. A cue-induced craving is when something in our environment sets off a craving. Such as smelling a good bakery and going for a sweet treat (1).

Stress hormones

It’s not just you! Stress hormones make us crave high-fat, sugary foods. When we have acute stress, we may not have an appetite. But when stress is more long-lasting, our bodies produce cortisol. This is a hormone that is helpful for getting us out of a dangerous situation but overtime it can cause inflammation and weight gain. When we’re stressed, we can also have elevated insulin. Both cortisol and insulin can make us crave more sweets (2). 

Brain chemicals 

Your brain is wired to crave certain foods. In fact, food manufacturers create foods that make you come back for more. The bliss point is a measurement of how rewarding a food tastes. When we eat something that’s highly processed and has a lot of sugar and fat, this bliss point can produce a similar response to taking drugs! This is because it can increase brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, giving us a “food high” that keeps us coming back for more (3).  

Emotional association 

Food is a pleasure of living. It may remind us of some special events and fond memories. But sometimes food can be used to avoid unpleasant things as well. We may crave certain foods to help cope with emotions. We may eat to distract or when we feel bored. We may also use food as a tool to avoid tough emotions such as being bummed out or generally blah. To help emotional eating, it's good to pause and think before you snack. This can also help us be more mindful of what we’re eating and what types of foods make us feel good.

How to curb cravings

There are many ways we can take taming cravings into our own hands. But if you struggle with emotional eating or if you have a complicated relation to food or eating, it's important to seek extra help from a health professional such as your doctor, dietitian, and psychologist. 

Be mindful of macros  

Macronutrients are nutrients we need in larger quantities. They include protein, carbohydrates, and fat. When we eat a balance of them, we’re less likely to have cravings. Everybody requires different amounts, and this can depend on your activity level and goals, but a balance is important for overall health and satisfaction after eating. 

Protein foods (eggs, fish, meat, tofu, beans) take longer to digest and lower appetite more, when compared to simple carb foods (white bread, white rice, sugar) (4). Healthy fats (plant oils, fish, nuts, seeds) can also slow the amount of time it takes for food to be digested and helps increase appetite hormones, keeping us feeling fuller for longer (5). 

Eat wholesome foods 

When we eat wholesome foods, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, they provide our bodies with nutrients that keep our body functioning at its best. They also provide fiber, which increases the amount we chew and makes us feel more full. 

Stress management 

Since stress can up our cravings, it can be beneficial to practice stress management techniques. What makes you feel relaxed is personal. But science shows that deep breathing, getting good quality sleep, eating wholesome foods, and exercising can help. Not sure where to start? Check this out: How Often Should You Exercise?

Behavior changes

Start by assessing when you get cravings. For instance, say you skip breakfast then crave a sweet in the early morning. Maybe since you’re not eating enough in the morning, your body is needing some quick energy. Or say that whenever you snag your morning coffee, you add on an impulsive muffin. This is of course fine to enjoy on occasion, but if it's becoming a craving habit, perhaps you should make coffee at home instead. 

Want to learn how to build healthy habits around food? Download a nifty nutrition app such as Lifesum!

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

5 references (hide)

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.

Read this next

Screenshot from the Lifesum app
  • Apple AppStore:
    4.6 average rating
    Google Play:
    4.4 average rating
  • Editors’ Choice, App Store 2018
  • Best of Google Play 2017 & 2018

Gain control of your nutrition intake and boost your health.

Learn more