Find out what your food desires mean and discover ways to avoid an unhealthy binge.
More times than not, we give into food cravings because it seems to be the only way to get them out of our heads. But like almost all body cues, a food craving can often mean more than just a desire for a good chocolate bar.
What Causes Food Cravings
“When your blood sugar drops, a signal is sent to your brain that tells your body you need a ‘pick-me-up,’ which can lead to a food craving,” says Alexandra Kaplan, MS, RD, a clinical dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Food cravings don’t always originate in your stomach, they can come from the brain, too, when they’re spurred by emotional stimuli. “Sometimes even just thinking about food, smelling a food, or seeing a food advertisement can lead to a food craving,” Kaplan says.
Along with internal factors, environmental stressors can cause you to want a certain food. “During periods of stress, we often experience food cravings, usually for fats or carbohydrates that increase our levels of the hormone serotonin, which makes us feel calm and reduces anxiety,” Kaplan says. Instead of reaching for a bag of potato chips or scoop of ice cream when you’re feeling stressed, Kaplan recommends satisfying that craving in a healthy way, “with an apple dipped in peanut butter for some fiber and healthy fat,” which will give you longer-burning energy than chips or sweets.
Emotional stimuli are a major cause of food cravings, and often our body can’t differentiate between the general craving and what exactly it wants. For example, your body may be “thirsty״ but you may reach for a soda instead of water because you’ve been conditioned to find that option more delicious. In general, Kaplan says, “we usually crave foods that taste good and may not be so healthy. We have positive memories and associations with these foods, which are likely to play a role in food cravings as well.”
Another situation that can cue food cravings? Dieting. “When you are dieting, usually the only thing you want to eat is the one thing you told yourself you cannot eat. Furthermore, once you do start adding that food back into your diet, you tend to overeat it,” Kaplan says. To avoid the diet and binge seesaw, Kaplan recommends staying away from an “all-or-nothing mentality״ and focusing on moderation and substitutions to battle food cravings.
When Should You Listen to Your Cravings?
Sometimes the best thing to do is to make a “conscious indulgence״ by choosing a reasonable portion size, plating the food, and sitting down at a table to enjoy the food without feelings of guilt. “When we tell ourselves we can’t eat a certain food, all we end up doing is thinking and dreaming about that food, usually leading to a food craving. When the craving becomes too hard to resist, we give in and due to feelings of guilt and failure, we usually end up overindulging, ״ Kaplan says. If you can’t distract yourself from the craving, sometimes a “conscious indulgence״ is the best way to go.
When Should You Resist Your Cravings?
The time to resist cravings is when they arise for an emotional reason like a breakup or stress at work. “We typically give into these cravings with high-sugar foods that release endorphins, making us feel relaxed and calm, producing a sort of ‘high.’ Your brain can become wired to remember this type of positive reinforcement and work against you in the future,” Kaplan says. Because your brain can be conditioned, it will remember that a certain food made it happier during a rough emotional time, so it is more likely to crave that food the next time around.
To figure out what your cravings mean, first identify the type of food you’re thinking about:
- Carbohydrates: A craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta or bread, may mean that your body doesn’t have enough calories, or energy, to keep running. “Low carbohydrate levels lead to low serotonin levels in the body, which may stimulate a craving,” Kaplan says.
- Sugary: Candy and chocolate provide a quick release of energy, so “craving these foods may mean that you are looking for a quick boost when feeling tired,” Kaplan says.
- Salty: A salt craving may mean that you consume too much salt, and your taste buds have been trained to want more. Cutting back slowly is a great way to decrease sodium cravings.
Once you’ve identified the type of food you are craving, Kaplan suggests choosing a healthy substitution that will satisfy the craving in 150 calories or less. “For example, when you crave a sweet food, try one cup of chilled or frozen grapes. When craving a salty food, opt for a portion of air-popped popcorn, one small bag of soy chips, or 1/4 cup of roasted edamame,” Kaplan says.