Food cravings are intense desires for specific foods.
Cravings are incredibly common — more than 90% of people experience them.
Interestingly, there seem to be differences in cravings between males and females: Males tend to crave savory foods, while females tend to crave high-fat, sugary foods. And females may be more likely to act on their cravings in the run-up to their periods.
There are cultural differences, too. For example, rice is a common food craving in Japan.
Time is also a key factor — cravings typically happen in the late afternoon and evening.
In this article, we’ll dive into the world of food cravings to explore what triggers them and how to manage them.
We’ll also list some healthy alternatives to satisfy different cravings.
Cravings vs. hunger
First, let’s look at the differences between cravings and hunger.
Hunger is your body telling you that you need to eat to maintain your energy and nutrient levels.
When you’re hungry, it tends to be nonspecific — you’re just hungry for food in general.
But food cravings can strike when you’re not hungry. And they’re specific — they’re only satisfied by a particular food, usually something indulgent and high in fat, salt, or sugar.
Also, a craving is usually more intense, an urgent desire.
What causes food cravings?
Your brain has several reward centers, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
Among their many roles, these regions play a part in decision-making, habits, and the association of particular foods with emotions.
A key messenger in your brain’s reward system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. When you eat a food you’ve been craving, dopamine is released, and you feel pleasure.
But what causes cravings in the first place? Well, there are several triggers, and these can vary between people.
For example, you might have an environmental trigger — the sight, smell, or sound of food can be powerful in driving food cravings. Think of that freshly baked bread smell when you pass a bakery or the sound of a sizzling steak.
Other triggers are emotional. People might “comfort eat” when they’re stressed or sleep deprived.
Meanwhile, hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy can also trigger food cravings.
And research suggests that people with certain personality traits, like impulsivity, may be more likely to have food cravings.
We should also mention a condition called pica. This involves craving non-foods, like wood, wool, hair, clay, soil, or ice.
And it’s early days, but some research suggests that the gut microbiome may signal the brain to regulate eating behaviors. So, it may play a role in food cravings.
At ZOE, we’re fascinated by the many effects of the gut microbiome.
When you join ZOE, we’ll give you a detailed breakdown of the bacteria in your gut. You’ll also discover how your blood sugar and blood fat levels respond to food. And you’ll receive ongoing nutrition support from our fully qualified team of nutritionists.
If you’d like to learn more, you can start by taking our free quiz.
Tips for managing cravings
Food cravings may be impossible to avoid altogether, but here are some effective ways to manage them.
Studies have shown that mindfulness-based strategies may help lessen food cravings.
More specifically, self-acceptance seems to lead to increased levels of perceived control and decreased levels of food preoccupation, resulting in fewer food craving behaviors.
Stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol. Aside from being the stress hormone, cortisol also regulates eating behaviors and food choices.
In general, short-term stress typically reduces appetite. But prolonged stress is linked with increases in appetite, including food cravings.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and yoga, may help minimize stress and therefore cravings.
Research has shown that being physically active may help curb food cravings.
For example, one study showed that exercise reduces cravings for sugary snacks.
But keeping active doesn’t mean spending hours at the gym, unless you want to.
The key is to choose an activity you enjoy. It might be a swim at your local public pool, an evening dance class, or a walk around your neighborhood.
Lack of sleep may trigger cravings for unhealthy foods by disrupting hormones that regulate appetite.
For example, one analysis of 11 studies found that partially sleep deprived people ate 385 calories more each day than people who got enough sleep.
Meanwhile, more sleep has been linked with decreased overall appetite and desire for sweet and salty foods.
Also, ZOE’s own research has shown that people are more likely to have pronounced blood sugar responses after a poor night’s sleep. And, as we’ll explain later, this can sometimes make you feel more hungry.
When you can, aim for 7–9 hours of sleep and a regular pattern, so you go to bed and wake up at around the same times.
However, sleep is very personal, and you might need a little less or a little more.
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Choose nutrient-rich foods
Foods containing more fiber, protein, and healthy fats are more likely to keep you fuller for longer. And feeling full might help reduce food cravings.
Drinking water may also be a good strategy because fluids can help you feel more full.
There’s some evidence that getting distracted can reduce food cravings.
So, taking a short walk, watching an episode of your favorite series, or reading a magazine article or book chapter could help.
Avoid restrictive diets
Studies suggest that restrictive diets may lead to food cravings in some people.
For instance, one study showed that people who weren’t allowed to eat chocolate were more likely to crave it.
The researchers also found that when these participants were allowed to eat chocolate again, they ate more than the participants who weren’t denied chocolate in the first place.
Dr. Emily Leeming, ZOE’s senior nutrition scientist, explains:
“Cutting foods out isn’t the way to stop cravings. In fact, researchers have found that cutting foods out, like chocolate, actually makes you have more cravings, and you’re more likely to overeat them.”
So, having a regular eating pattern that keeps your hunger in check may help with cravings.
Gain insight into your personal biology
ZOE’s research has shown that some people have more pronounced blood sugar spikes and dips after eating.
People with big blood sugar dips 2–4 hours after they eat are more likely to feel hungry sooner after eating.
They also consume, on average, around 300 more calories per day than people with the smallest blood sugar dips.
When you join ZOE, we’ll show you how your blood sugar and blood fat levels respond after you eat. We’ll also analyze your gut microbiome and provide personalized nutrition advice to help you eat well for your body.
To find out more, start by taking our free quiz.
Try a swap
In some cases, you might be able to satisfy your craving by eating a different, more nutritious food. Below, we look at some ideas for craving swaps.
If you often crave the same foods, it can help to have healthier alternatives to hand.
The foods below have similar flavors, textures, and smells. But some are more nutrient-rich and packed with gut-loving fiber, proteins, and healthy fats. Nutritionally speaking, you’re getting more bang for your buck.
Try swapping out higher-fat foods, like milk chocolate, muffins, and cakes, for:
a few squares of darker chocolate (with at least 70% cocoa)
a handful of dark chocolate-covered nuts
sourdough toast with nut butter
dates stuffed with nuts or dipped in crunchy peanut butter
Swap salty snacks like chips for:
crunchy sweet corn
a handful of nuts
Swap candy and sweets for:
homemade trail mix with nuts and dried fruit
fresh or tinned fruit
poached fruit with vanilla and cinnamon or a drizzle of dark chocolate
plain yogurt topped with fruit
Food cravings are incredibly common — most people experience them at some point.
Cravings tend to vary among different cultures and sexes, but overall, we tend to crave salty, sweet, or fatty foods.
Unlike hunger, cravings occur when your body doesn’t need food.
Many factors can trigger cravings. Triggers might be environmental — the sight, smell, or sound of a food being made might start a craving.
Stress, lack of sleep, hormones, and certain personality traits can also be involved.
Although you’re unlikely to prevent food cravings, there are effective ways to manage them.
Some tips include keeping active, managing stress, practicing mindfulness, getting enough sleep, eating nutrient-dense foods, and avoiding restrictive diets.
If you’re prone to food cravings, it can also help to have some healthier alternatives ready.
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