The Science Behind Cravings

Science by Temple Stewart, RD

Conquering Cravings

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes cravings as a “very strong desire.” When the word “craving” is mentioned, immediately visions of our favorite foods come to mind. Most everyone has experienced a craving at least once in their lifetime, but for some, cravings significantly impact daily life. Cravings can throw one off of their health/weight loss plan and cause significant distress when trying to change dietary habits. The holidays are one of the hardest seasons of the year to navigate cravings and stay on track. In this blog post we’ll explore the science behind cravings and take a look at some strategies to combat them when they do arise.

What Causes Cravings

The tricky part about conquering cravings is figuring out exactly what is causing them! Once you do figure this out, though, they become much easier to manage. There are both physical and mental triggers to cravings, and becoming mindful of them is the first step in beating them.

  • Pregnancy & PMS: These seasons can bring very strong cravings in women. When pregnant, hormonal changes can impact both taste and smell receptors and cause intense cravings for certain foods. Pregnant women typically experience the most cravings during the first and second trimester [1]. With PMS, the changes that are occurring with estrogen and progesterone are thought to bring on carbohydrate cravings [2]. To avoid these types of cravings, it can be helpful to make sure your meals throughout the day are balanced with protein, fat and lots of vegetables. It’s also important to make sure you’re getting a variety of foods that provide a variety of nutrients.
  • Stress: Cortisol is the stress hormone and is increased during periods of stress. Studies reveal that these elevated levels could increase cravings and hunger. They’ve also linked cortisol to stress and binge eating behaviors [1].
  • Nutrient Starved Diet: We live in a nation that is overfed, but undernourished. We’re constantly surrounded by food, but not necessarily nutrient dense foods. This could leave us deficient in certain nutrients that can potentially cause cravings. Protein is especially important to incorporate if you’re struggling with cravings [3]. Focusing on protein at meals, and making sure you’re getting enough total protein is very helpful to help stave off cravings brought on by lack of nutrients.
  • Leptin & Ghrelin Dysregulation: These two hormones are responsible for regulating the appetite. They promote hunger and fullness. Research suggests that these hormones can cause increased food cravings [4]. There are several things that can cause these hormones to be dysregulated, but focusing on getting the right balance of protein and fat, making sure you’re getting enough sleep and staying as stress-free as possible are a good start to balancing them.
  • ​​Lack of Sleep: If you’re not sleeping well or not getting enough sleep, it could disrupt the hormones that are responsible for hunger, fullness, and wake cycles. It’s shown that those with poor sleep have cravings, moreso in the evenings [5]. The obvious solution here is to do your best to incorporate good sleep habits, and improve sleep. Turning off electronics and wearing blue light blocking glass can be a helpful solution.
  • Eating Highly Processed Palpable Foods: Foods that are high in sugar and high in fat can cause addictive behaviors [6]. These foods are made to be craved, overeaten and easily consumed. Avoiding these foods is the best prevention in not having cravings for them. Making sure that you’re nourishing your body with good amounts of protein and fat instead of sugar and fat.
  • Habits and Mood: Do you always have popcorn while watching a movie? Do you have a bag of candy in your work drawer? These associations can be powerful in the brain and lead to cravings every time that “situation” comes around.

As you can see from above, there are many reasons someone could experience cravings. Gut microbiome, addictive personalities, and poor hydration are some additional reasons someone may experience cravings.

How to Handle a Craving

The next step in conquering cravings is having a strategy to defeat them. Once you develop a good strategy that works for you, implementing it when cravings come about will get easier and easier. Try these tips below:

  • Take a Brisk 15-20 Minute Walk: Getting outside for a walk has many benefits, but one of those is curbing a craving [7].
  • Distract Yourself for 20 Mins: Though cravings may seem intense, they’re often short-lived. If you can figure out something else to do for 20 minutes you may find that your craving disappears.
  • Think About Your Long-Term Goals: It can be helpful to bring your long-term goals to the front of your mind during a period of temptation.
  • Drink a Glass of Cold Water: Are you misinterpreting your cravings as a cue for thirst? Oftentimes, we think we’re hungry but we’re really just dehydrated.
  • Practice Stress-Relief: This is especially important if you’re dealing with stress related cravings. Try yoga, tai chi, or prayer to help lower stress levels.
  • Prioritize Protein: Again, this is so important in controlling cravings. Protein is extremely satiating and helps us feel full in between meals. If you’re constantly craving food, you’re likely not getting enough protein!

Try these strategies next time you’re experiencing cravings. You may find that one works better than another or you may even find a combination of them that work well for you. Remember, cravings are a normal part of life, figuring out the reason they’re happening and finding a strategy to help overcome them are key to staying on track long-term.

References

  1. Orloff, N. C., & Hormes, J. M. (2014). Pickles and ice cream! Food cravings in pregnancy: hypotheses, preliminary evidence, and directions for future research. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1076. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01076
  2. Hallam, J., Boswell, R. G., DeVito, E. E., & Kober, H. (2016). Gender-related Differences in Food Craving and Obesity. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 89(2), 161–173.
  3. Leidy, H. J., Tang, M., Armstrong, C. L., Martin, C. B., & Campbell, W. W. (2011). The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 19(4), 818–824. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2010.203
  4. Chao, A. M., Jastreboff, A. M., White, M. A., Grilo, C. M., & Sinha, R. (2017). Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 25(4), 713–720. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21790
  5. Markwald, R. R., Melanson, E. L., Smith, M. R., Higgins, J., Perreault, L., Eckel, R. H., & Wright, K. P., Jr (2013). Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(14), 5695–5700. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1216951110
  6. Gordon, E. L., Ariel-Donges, A. H., Bauman, V., & Merlo, L. J. (2018). What Is the Evidence for “Food Addiction?” A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 10(4), 477. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040477
  7. Ledochowski, L., Ruedl, G., Taylor, A. H., & Kopp, M. (2015). Acute effects of brisk walking on sugary snack cravings in overweight people, affect and responses to a manipulated stress situation and to a sugary snack cue: a crossover study. PloS one, 10(3), e0119278. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0119278