All About Food Cravings and How to Stop Them

Published on February 20, 2017 by Dr. Colin O'Brien

We have all had those moments where it feels like we just cannot resist our food cravings. They take over our rational thoughts. Whether we are trying to avoid sweets or certain types of foods like grains, the craving can be so strong that we are willing to forego our long-term goals such as losing weight or feeling better.

In many cases, even when we know that certain foods make us feel sick, we still give in to the temptation. What is causing us to make the same mistakes over and over again? And how can we break the cycle? Let’s explore why food cravings occur and what we can do to resist them.

Food Cravings are Not the Same as Hunger     

Although the term craving is often used interchangeably with hunger, the two are distinctly different. Food cravings do not require hunger as a precondition. On the flip side, craved foods are not always eaten. Perhaps the best evidence to show that increased hunger levels do not lead to increased cravings is the finding that dieters are no more likely to report food cravings than non-dieters. In circumstances where cravings do lead to eating, it appears to be as a result of hunger and emotions.

Causes of Food Cravings

There are many factors that seem to contribute to our intense food cravings. Here are some of the most recognized influences:

1. Blood Sugar Regulation:
Keeping your energy levels stable and your blood sugar stable appears to be a very big deal when it comes to cravings. Although hunger and cravings aren’t synonymous, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t linked. In those with type 1 diabetes mellitus, it was found that 66% of those with blood sugar reported food cravings, whereas only 15% of those with a well-balanced blood sugar level reported food cravings. Low blood sugar was also found to be closely associated with stronger cravings, cravings that were difficult to ignore and cravings toward foods high in carbohydrates.

2. Stress and Low Mood
Individuals tend to be stressed, anxious or experiencing a low mood just before they experience food cravings. Although many theories exist to suggest why certain foods are craved in these states, it seems that the body is trying to self-medicate by raising serotonin (the brain’s “happy” chemical) and the body’s own opioids. Research has long shown that carbohydrates are necessary to increase serotonin - so craving that bagel or muffin makes sense if you’re feeling stressed out or depressed. Some research has even shown sugar to be as addictive as cocaine by raising endorphins in the brain! That’s powerful stuff.

3. Boredom
There is evidence to suggest that food cravings go up when we are bored, which makes sense when you think about the opposite scenario of being extremely busy. Too often, we’re running around for work, trying to meet deadlines, family responsibilities and social outings. Before you know it, 6 hours have passed and you haven’t eaten anything. Overall, it has been found that the motivation to eat is not only higher when people are in a negative mood, but also that people will eat to provide distraction when they have nothing else to do.

4. Positive Memories
Generally speaking, the foods that you crave come with immediate self-reward. Even if eating a piece of cake makes your stomach cramp an hour later, you still selectively remember how good you felt during those 5 minutes when your taste buds got to enjoy the chocolate and sugary goodness.

5. Hormones
Various research has found that the most common craving in women is for chocolate (accounting for 49% of craving episodes), followed by ‘something sweet’ (16%) and cereal products such as biscuits and cakes (12%). But a 66% increase in the number of cravings has been observed for women during the premenstrual phase, so hormonal changes certainly affect the frequency of food cravings.

  How Can We Change These Food Cravings?

Here are a few suggestions to get you started and to help you overcome your food cravings once and for all:

  • Change Your Environment 

The obvious aspect of food cravings is that we can only eat them if we have access to them. If you’re feeling stressed and craving high glycemic foods like chips, it’s dangerous to have them in the cupboards. Buy groceries when you are in a well-fed state and a balanced mood. You will tend to make better choices when there are not so many temptations around.

  • Eat Regularly 

By ensuring that you are eating regularly and not allowing yourself to go, say, more than 3 hours without food, you are doing two things. First of all, you avoid getting so hungry that you will give in to any food craving and eat any food in your surroundings. Secondly, you are helping to balance your blood sugars, assuming you are eating a well-balanced diet. Additional blood sugar management can be achieved with specific herbs like gymnena sylvestre or nutrients like chromium.

  • Increase Your Variety

Dieters typically are not only depriving themselves of calories, but also they deprive themselves of food variety. It has been shown that self-restriction and monotony (ie. eating the same foods over and over again) are both associated with increased food cravings. It goes without saying, but the variety should include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and a generally well-balanced diet. Avoiding refined sugars and replacing them for whole grains is essential.

  • Balance your Mood

Stress, anxiety and depression are difficult things to manage and each person has their own unique triggers. But one thing is for sure: if you are going to tackle your food cravings, you need to tackle your mood first. Exercise and a well-balanced diet are key. Various amino acids or nutrients may also help in this regard. 5-HTP is an amino acid that can raise serotonin levels in the brain. Tyrosine is another amino acid that may be helpful for raising dopamine (the “reward” neurotransmitter) and treating addiction. Speak with a qualified healthcare practitioner for safe and effective ways for you to personally balance mood.

  • Keep Busy

Do something with your hands and your mind to overcome boredom and stop thinking about eating. The more preoccupied you are with hobbies or ongoing tasks, the less likely you will be to reach for a bag of chips.

In the end, food cravings will always be an ongoing battle and it’s impossible to ever rid yourself of the desires. However, it is possible to control them. Know your triggers and focus on the most important ones to start. Finally, if there are any tricks or tips that you have found extremely useful, let us know by leaving a comment below!

Select References:

Hill AJ. The psychology of food craving. Proc Nutr Soc. 2007 May;66(2):277-85.

Wurtman RJ and Wurtman JJ. Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression. Obes Res. 1995; Supp 4:477S-480S.

Ahmed SH, Guillem K and Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013;16(4):434-9.

Sahley, Billy Jay. Tyrosine, the Addiction and Depression Amino Acid. Pain and Stress 2006.