What Are Your Food Cravings Trying to Tell You?

Itching for that afternoon caffeine jolt? How about something sweet after dinner? Many people experience food cravings, and often they’re for something unhealthy. But sometimes a craving can be an important message from your body.

Find out some common reasons behind food cravings — as well as how to handle them.

1. Hunger

The hunger that corresponds with a craving is more than just the rumbles in your stomach when it’s almost lunchtime. For some, a craving might mean they’re starving their bodies. For instance, when you skip breakfast and eat a small lunch in an effort to “diet,” your body will urgently crave simple sugars and refined grains, according to Cleveland Clinic. Furthermore, if you cut out certain foods completely, that might backfire, resulting in your body specifically craving them because they’re “forbidden.” To avoid such cravings, eat a healthy, varied diet and don’t restrict food when you’re truly hungry.

2. Thirst

water poured into a glass

Research has shown thirst can be mistaken for hunger. And though food is somewhat hydrating, it can’t beat plain old calorie-free water. So before you indulge a food craving, consider drinking a glass of water first to see whether that quells the desire to eat. Some studies even connect increased water consumption with weight loss or maintenance, suggesting that swapping calories for water is what some bodies really need.

3. Fatigue

People tend to eat more when they’re tired, and often they reach for junk food. And a study by UC Berkeley researchers might explain why we make unhealthy food choices when we’re sleep-deprived. “They found impaired activity in the sleep-deprived brain’s frontal lobe, which governs complex decision-making, but increased activity in deeper brain centers that respond to rewards,” according to Berkeley News. So the participants were more likely to choose the “rewarding” high-calorie junk foods when they were tired. Thus, it’s probably best to drop that midnight snack, and feed your body with quality sleep instead.

4. Emotions

Stress, anger, sadness, boredom — many emotions can trigger the desire to eat. And quite often, the cravings have nothing to do with actual hunger. “Given the rewarding properties of food, it is hypothesized that hyperpalatable foods may serve as ‘comfort food’ that acts as a form of self-medication to dispel unwanted distress,” according to a study on stress and eating. The study explains how a meal would help to relieve stress in our ancestors in a time when finding enough food was their stressor. But now, even if we’re not specifically anxious about having enough food, we still get the same stress-busting response in our brains when we eat.

5. Deficiency

Our bodies are a lot smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. For instance, if you’re deficient in a certain nutrient, your brain might make you crave specific foods to deliver what your body needs. According to Healthline, deficiencies aren’t typically the sole cause of a food craving, but they could play a part. For example, one study put participants on a low-sodium diet, causing the people to find salty foods a lot more desirable. But on the flip side, many other factors, such as stress, can cause a person with no deficiency to crave a salty snack. So a deficiency is a possibility, but consider other factors, as well.

6. Medical conditions

Pregnant woman eating pickles

Certain medical conditions may trigger food cravings. For instance, people with diabetes might experience extreme hunger. “If your body is insulin resistant or if your body doesn’t produce enough insulin, the sugar from the food may be unable to enter your tissues to provide energy,” according to Healthline. “This can cause your muscles and other tissues to raise the ‘hunger flag’ in an attempt to get you to eat more food.” Other medical conditions that can trigger food cravings include hypoglycemia, mental illness, migraines, hyperthyroidism and, of course, pregnancy.

7. Associations

Sometimes, all it takes for you to start craving a certain food is putting yourself in a specific scenario. For example, you might associate watching a movie with eating popcorn. And if you try to watch a movie without any food, you might start to think how nice a bowl of popcorn sounds. Likewise, you might not be able to get through your birthday without a slice of cake or Taco Tuesday without a taco. Once that association triggers the craving, it’s often difficult to get out of your head.

8. Addiction

Scientists still debate whether something like sugar can be classified as an addiction. But what we do know is sugar releases the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain, motivating us to eat more to perpetuate that feeling. And for some people, a sort of tolerance builds up, requiring them to take in even more to enjoy those happy chemicals, according to Cleveland Clinic. So if you’re always craving the same type of food, some addictive factors might be at play.

Satisfying a food craving

a woman eats pizza at an outdoor restaurant

So you know what generally can cause food cravings. But it isn’t always easy to determine what’s going on in your own body. Mayo Clinic has some advice that might help: “When you want to nibble, first H.A.L.T.: Ask yourself if you’re Hungry, or if you’re really Angry, Lonely or Tired.”

Before you reach for something to satisfy your craving, stop and rate your hunger on a scale from 1 (starving) to 10 (stuffed). “Aim to eat when you’re at a ‘3’ (somewhat hungry, but not yet starving), and stop when you’re at a ‘6’ or a ‘7’ (slightly full or satisfied, but not Thanksgiving stuffed),” according to Mayo Clinic.

If you’re not genuinely hungry, try occupying yourself with an activity, such as taking a walk, to get your mind off the craving. Stay hydrated, and always have healthy snacks at the ready to ward off those junk food cravings. And if you keep craving something specific, ask your doctor whether there could be a medical reason for it.

Finally, don’t forget to enjoy your food. Look at what’s on your plate — not your phone or the TV. Taste every bite. And don’t rush the meal. Make eating a truly satiating experience for your body, so you’re not left craving something more.

Main image credit: hedgehog94/Thinkstock

54 comments

Christine S

thanks

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Martin H
Martin H27 days ago

important info here.

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Ruth S
Ruth S27 days ago

Thanks.

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Janet B
Janet B27 days ago

Thanks

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Rauni H
Rauni H28 days ago

Thanks

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Janis K
Janis K28 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Leo C
Leo C28 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell28 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell28 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell28 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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