Food cravings are a bittersweet experience. The extreme desire for the craving in question — chocolate, cheesecake, potato chips or even pickles — will make it taste like a tiny slice of heaven. On the other hand, if you aren’t careful, cravings can be a pretty big setback when it comes to achieving your health goals. That’s because most of us don’t crave carrots. Rather, calorie-rich foods high in sugar and fat are popular triggers for our food fantasies. The most-craved food in North America is, unsurprisingly, chocolate.
If you experience food cravings, you should know you’re not alone: 97% of women and 68% of men do, too. Cravings are normal because food is more than just fuel — it affects us on both an emotional and physiological level. This is why we’re in awe of human beings who haven’t eaten candy since 1989 (we’re looking at you, Mr. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!).
But seriously, before you go scratch your food-craving itch, check out these 6 science-backed reasons for why you crave. Having a good grasp on why you desire a food so intensely can help you figure out a more satisfying fix.
1. You don’t prioritize hydration.
Drinking enough fluids is a daily challenge, and most of us don’t think to drink until we feel thirsty. By then, we’re already dehydrated. Research shows thirst can be a poor indicator for how much fluid we actually need. Sometimes, it can be mistaken for hunger and manifests itself as a desire to snack mindlessly without an identifiable trigger — you may not even know what you want to snack on.
The Fix: It’s easy to rule out thirst as a potential cause of your food cravings. Pour yourself a glass of water and drink up! Then, give yourself 10–20 minutes before you reassess your craving. Carrying a water bottle is a convenient way to remind yourself to drink water throughout the day.
2. Your emotions get the best of you.
We all respond to stress differently. It’s estimated that stress will cause 40% of us to eat less and 40% to eat more, while the remaining 20% won’t change our eating behavior. If you’re part of the group that uses food as a coping strategy, you likely seek out “comfort foods” high in fat, carbs or both. While it sounds like common sense, science has two reasons for why this may happen. First, the highly palatable combination of fat and sugar trips the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps with mood control. Second, positive moods make you think about the future and what you stand to gain by making healthier food choices. Negative moods make you focus on the here and now so you seek out quick, rewarding solutions that can stand in contrast to your goals.
The Fix: Before you dig into a slice of cake or grab a sugary donut, look for nonfood strategies to deal with stress. This can be going for a brief stroll or jog, meditating for 20 minutes, burying your nose in aromatherapy or venting to a close friend.
3. Your hormones are out of whack.
Premenstrual syndrome is a real, recurring monthly challenge for many women. During this time, changes in hormone levels can work against weight loss. A spike in progesterone encourages your body to retain more water and sodium, leading to a puffy appearance. A dip in estrogen can affect your appetite, causing you to crave sweet and salty foods.
The Fix: Use a combination of strategies to deal with PMS. Regular exercise and even meditation have been shown to be effective in improving PMS symptoms. To squash food cravings, reach for nutrient-rich snacks like yogurt, granola, unsalted nuts, dark chocolate, and cheese and crackers. Keep in mind that PMS-related food cravings will come to pass.
4. Your blood sugar is low.
If you’re healthy, your body normally does a good job of keeping blood sugar levels in check. This is because the sugar glucose is the brain’s preferred source of fuel, so your body likes to keep blood sugar from dipping too low. However, you can throw this off-course by overloading on simple sugars like soda or candy, which can cause your blood sugar to skyrocket and plummet, leaving you feeling worse off than before. Additionally, a particularly long and/or intense workout can lower your blood sugar if you don’t refuel during the process. Feeling hungry and craving something sweet are common signs your blood sugar just took a nosedive.
The Fix: If your goal is to lose weight, look for healthier sweets to satisfy your cravings. Pair fresh or dried fruit with a protein like cottage cheese or yogurt, or a healthy fat like mixed nuts to balance out your desire for carbs. If you still feel like tackling that cake, then carve yourself a moderate slice.
5. You practice rigid food rules and eat a boring diet.
If you set overly restrictive calorie and food rules to achieve your weight goals, you are more likely to experience intense food cravings. It is believed that practicing rigid rules depletes the cognitive resources also used to manage life’s unexpected stressors. So, when a stressful event such as an important deadline, divorce or death happens, it negatively affects your ability to control overeating.
The Fix: Understand that your willpower is a reservoir with limits. Giving yourself permission to eat all foods can help reduce cravings because food loses its power over you. Allow more flexibility in your diet to enjoy the foods you love to eat without guilt.
6. You didn’t get enough sleep.
There is a very real sleep-weight connection, and a growing body of evidence says that a short sleep duration (less than 7 hours per night) is detrimental to your health goals. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 found that sleep-deprived participants ate an average of 300 calories more per day. Why might this be? Inadequate sleep throws your appetite hormones off-kilter. Ghrelin (aka the hunger hormone) increases, and leptin (the satiety hormone) drops when you’re sleep-deprived.
The Fix: The fix here is simply to prioritize sleep. A few good strategies include turning down your lights an hour before bed, reducing screen time (e.g., TV, laptop, phone) at night, sneaking in exercise and laying off the caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime.