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Understanding food cravings and how to tackle them

We’re all partial to food cravings from time to time. 90% Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source of the general population experiences food cravings. However, giving in to frequent food cravings can result in unhealthy eating habits. It can potentially also be a sign of an underlying health problem.

Keep reading to learn more about food cravings, what causes them and how you can tackle them.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by Silvia Fonda Last reviewed 27-11-2023

What are food cravings?

A food craving is an intense desire to eat a specific food. Cravings are usually for comforting or satisfying foods.

Food cravings can occur at any time regardless of when you last ate. However, most people are likelier to experience cravings in the late afternoon or early evening.

Food cravings in men and women

There is evidence Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source that women experience cravings more than men. This is because appetite regulation is closely related to certain female hormones (oestrogen and progesterone).

Young woman eating a doughnut

There is also evidence that different genders crave different foods. Men are more likely to crave savoury foods and women are more likely to choose sweet foods.

What causes food cravings?

Food cravings are linked to your brain and your hormones.

Food cravings are often for what experts refer to as hyperpalatable foods. These sweet, salty or enjoyable foods trigger the release of certain appetite hormones which play a role in cravings.

These types of foods also trigger your brain’s reward system. When you eat these foods, it triggers the release of hormones that make you feel good. Your brain will perceive this pleasurable feeling as a “reward”, and will therefore cause you to seek and crave those foods more often.

There are other factors linked to food cravings.

Sleep

Your sleep plays a role in regulating your metabolism. A lack of sleep can affect your appetite hormones which can cause cravings.

Emotions

Chronic, long-lasting stress and mental illness have been associated with cravings for hyperpalatable foods and changes in appetite.

Hormonal changes

Hormone fluctuations, especially for women during the menstrual cycle, can affect appetite. Pregnant women also get intense and bizarre cravings due to their hormones changing.

Medications

Certain medications can increase cravings. Antidepressants and certain steroids can affect your appetite and cravings.

Dehydration

When you’re dehydrated, your liver struggles to release sugars for energy. This can make you crave sweet foods.

Environment

TV advertising and going to the supermarket can expose you and trigger you to crave hyperpalatable foods.

Eating habits

Restricting or frequently eating a certain food can make you crave it more.

Sensory

The sight, smell or texture of food can trigger you to crave it.

What is the difference between cravings and hunger?

It can be difficult to distinguish a craving from a genuine hunger. The key difference is that hunger is a physiological feeling, meaning it is caused by your body.

Hunger is your body’s way of telling you it needs food for energy. This feeling will usually unfold slowly and can be accompanied by stomach growling noises, feeling tired, dizzy or unable to concentrate.

Hungry man looking at burger on a plate.

A craving, on the other hand, is an intense and sudden feeling to eat even if your body doesn’t need fuel. You’ll usually crave a specific food, taste or texture and the need to eat will feel stronger.

What is the difference between food cravings and food addiction?

Food addiction is very different from the occasional craving. Certain foods are hyperpalatable which can make them feel addictive and is why we crave them.

However, food addiction goes much further than this. It is driven by a loss of control and frequent consumption of food in excess.

If not controlled, food addiction can become a symptom of an eating disorder (like binge eating disorder) and cause serious health complications.

What are the types of food cravings?

There are many types of cravings for different foods. Each can mean different things and can be dealt with differently. Giving into an occasional craving is okay now and again.

However, most cravings are for unhealthy foods. If you eat these foods too often, it can affect your health goals.

Sweet cravings

Cravings for sweet foods like chocolate, sugary cereals and sweets are common. The cause of sweet cravings be as simple as you don’t have enough energy.

It may also indicate a lack of certain nutrients such as carbon, chromium, phosphorus, sulphur or tryptophan.

“Sugar” spelt out in a pile of sugar surrounded by sweet foods.

If craving sweets is an issue for you, try incorporating some of these foods into your diet:

  • a combination of nutrient-dense sweet foods with protein, fats and high-fibre foods
  • broccoli to increase chromium levels
  • fresh fruit to give you more energy and increase carbon levels
  • nuts to increase phosphorus levels
  • cranberries and cauliflower to increase sulphur levels
  • sweet potato and spinach to increase tryptophan levels

Salty cravings

Craving salty foods like crisps, chips and processed meats is typically a sign you’re dehydrated. Occasionally, it can be an underlying medical condition.

It may also mean you have a deficiency in silicon or chloride.

Salt shaker spilling out onto table.

If you struggle with salty cravings, try adding the following to your diet:

  • 30ml of water for every 1kg of body weight (e.g. if you weigh 65kg you need to drink 1.95L of water a day)
  • fruits and vegetables with a high water content (e.g. cucumber, celery or melon)
  • seaweed, rye and celery to increase chloride levels
  • nuts and seeds to increase silicon levels

Spicy cravings

Some people crave spicy food from time to time. The usual underlying cause is your temperature is too high. This is because the compound that makes spicy food spicy, called capsaicin, can help regulate body temperature.

Eating spicy foods may also release endorphins, which can cause a pleasure response in your brain. This can also lead you to crave spicy foods.

Arrangement of different chilli peppers.

Spicy foods can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet, but they trigger symptoms in certain digestive conditions like acid reflux and IBS.

One way to help with spicy cravings is to substitute with milder and naturally flavoured foods. Why not try other aromatic, spices to season your foods instead of chillis? You could also choose foods that have chilli infused into them (e.g. chickpeas or hummus).

Savoury cravings

Craving savoury foods is often a sign of stress or emotional distress. Foods like pizza, bread and fast food are common foods to crave.

Tackling the source of the emotional issue is the best long-term solution for these kinds of cravings. However, a good short-term fix is choosing healthier foods that match the textures you’re craving.

Close-up of a burger and chips.

Sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower and courgettes when cooked and seasoned well will help satisfy those types of cravings.

Medical conditions that cause food cravings

Some health conditions affect your hormones which can cause you to have more or specific types of cravings. Below are just a few conditions that may cause food cravings.

  • Addison’s disease is a condition where your adrenal gland doesn’t produce enough hormones. This can cause very low blood pressure and make you crave salt.
  • Diabetes is a condition where your body cannot produce enough insulin. This means your body can’t properly process the sugars you intake, which can make you crave more sugar.
  • Hyperthyroidism is a condition caused by an overactive thyroid gland and can cause an increased appetite.
  • Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition that affects the lungs and digestive system. One symptom is that it causes the body to use too much salt, which can make you crave salt.
  • Zinc or magnesium deficiencies can cause you to crave certain foods.
  • Bartter syndrome is a genetic condition which causes people to lose too much salt in their urine, which can make people crave salt.

Other conditions can make you crave things that are not foods. For example, Pica is a condition that makes people crave inedible substances like paper, soap, paint or chalk.

How do I prevent food cravings?

There are some general strategies and healthy lifestyle tips that can help prevent most types of cravings.

Change your environment or distract yourself Taking a short walk, reading a book or changing your location will help divert your attention away from the craving and onto something else.
Use mindfulness techniques Strategies like self-acceptance can increase self-control, which can reduce cravings.
Manage your stress Breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation and other relaxation methods can reduce comfort cravings.
Keep active Exercise can reduce cravings, especially high-intensity exercise. It can also distract you from potential cravings.
Prioritise sleep Good sleep hygiene and a consistent sleeping schedule can reduce food cravings and it helps regulate your appetite hormones.
Drink more water Drinking fluids will help you feel more full and reduce salt cravings.
Choose nutrient-rich foods Balanced meals that contain fibre, protein and healthy fats will help you feel fuller for longer and reduce food cravings.
Avoid restrictive diets Restrictive diets can make you fixate on and crave the foods you ‘can’t have’. You can still have a healthy, well-balanced diet without cutting out certain foods.
Address a nutrient deficiency If you find that you have recurrent cravings that your lifestyle won’t fix, your doctor may need to run tests for certain deficiencies.

Healthy swaps for unhealthy food cravings

If you need to satisfy a craving, it’s okay but there are options available.

It may not sound very appetising when you’re craving hyperpalatable food, but a healthier option will satisfy your cravings without interfering with your health goals.

Below are some common unhealthy cravings and a healthy swap.

Unhealthy craving Healthy swap

Sugary sweets

Sugary sweets

Whole fruits like peaches, cherries, grapes or melon

Whole fruits like peaches, cherries, grapes or melon

Sugary fizzy drinks

Sugary fizzy drinks

Sparkling water with a slice of lemon or orange

Sparkling water with a slice of lemon or orange

Chocolate

Chocolate

Dark chocolate (contains at least 70% cocoa)

Dark chocolate (contains at least 70% cocoa)

Crisps

Crisps

Salted nuts (e.g. peanuts or cashews) or popped corn

Salted nuts (e.g. peanuts or cashews) or popped corn

Main takeaways

Food cravings can be frustrating, especially when you’re on a weight loss journey or improving your lifestyle. Finding the underlying cause of the craving is the key to tackling it.

However, you should still be kind to yourself. Giving into the occasional craving is okay. If you’re still experiencing cravings, it’s good to find healthy substitutes to satisfy that craving but not interfere with your diet goals.

Further reading

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