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Food cravings: where they come from and how to manage them

Food cravings are a common experience caused by a mix of factors in our brains and bodies. Learning to manage them will help you maintain a healthy diet.
Joanna York
3/9/2022
11
min read
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Quick summary

  • Food cravings are a strong desire to eat a specific food that is hard to resist whether or not you are hungry
  • Everybody experiences food cravings and they can be brought on by a mix of factors such as hormones, emotions, and food routines 
  • People with type 2 diabetes are also likely to experience cravings after eating due to blood sugar spikes
  • As we often crave sugary, salty, and fatty foods, giving in to cravings too often is likely to reduce our overall health
  • It is possible to manage and reduce cravings through healthy routines

Food cravings are familiar to many of us. Whether or not we’re hungry, we suddenly feel a strong desire to eat a specific food, and this desire is hard to resist. More than 80% of the time people experience cravings, they end up eating the food they crave or something similar.[1]

In the past, experts have suggested that food cravings might be the body’s way of saying it lacks certain nutrients and requires a particular food to top them up.[2] However, modern research shows that while this is the case for some cravings, most come from a complex mix of factors happening in our brains, bodies, and the world around us.

For people with type 2 diabetes in particular, food cravings can be a common result of blood sugar spikes that happen after eating. 

While experiencing food cravings is normal, the food we often crave is, unfortunately, salty, sugary, or fatty—in other words, things that can make up an unhealthy diet if consumed in large quantities.[3] This means that understanding where food cravings come from and how to respond to them is an important step towards maintaining good health and managing type 2 diabetes.

What happens in the brain when food cravings hit?

Research shows that when we think about foods we enjoy eating, certain parts of our brain light up.[4] These include the areas that are linked to our sense of emotion, memory, and reward, known as the hippocampus, insula and caudate nucleus. These three psychological factors also come into play when we crave foods, and common cravings are for foods linked to happy memories, feelings of comfort, or that we remember being pleasurable to eat.  

When we think about foods we enjoy eating, certain parts of our brain light up

Pelchat et al., Neuroimage

As well as these positive psychological associations, the foods we crave also—unsurprisingly!—taste good. While different people can crave different foods, typical cravings are for things that are easy to digest and taste enjoyably sweet, salty, or rich.

Such foods are known as hyperpalatable foods. When we eat them, they activate nerve cells (called neurons) in the reward and pleasure-seeking region of our brains and stimulate our hormones, increasing happiness and feelings of increased appetite.[3] They also increase blood sugar levels and can lead to blood sugar spikes that exacerbate the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

These reactions can cause us to eat more of the foods we crave and create strong feelings of pleasure while eating that makes us keen to seek them out again in the future.

Where do cravings come from?

Cravings can be caused by a number of factors both inside our bodies and in our surrounding environment.

Hormonal changes can impact our appetite and increase cravings. A classic example of this is women who, while pregnant, find they have more cravings than usual and even cravings for unusual foods. But even factors such as getting a bad night’s sleep, experiencing a high level of stress, or poor gut health [5] can impact our hormones and lead to increased food cravings. Medications that affect our hormones can do the same.

On top of these factors, people with type 2 diabetes might experience strong food cravings even after eating due to blood sugar spikes. Blood sugar spikes occur after eating when the glucose (sugar) in our food is absorbed by the body and enters the bloodstream. While everyone experiences blood sugar spikes after eating, people with type 2 diabetes may find their body is less able to absorb the sugar. As such, their blood glucose levels continue to climb, which can result in cravings for high-carbohydrate foods.

External factors can also play a role in triggering cravings. If for example, you always eat a favourite snack while watching the same TV programme, hearing the theme tune might bring on a craving for the associated food. Or, if you always eat something sugary to beat the 3pm slump at work, a craving may regularly hit at that time whether you are hungry or not.

Seeing adverts for particular foods can also trigger cravings, and some studies even suggest that wider cultural factors play a role.[6] Researchers found that women from around the world reported craving chocolate during certain holidays, at particular times of day, to satisfy a sweet tooth, or when they were feeling down. But women in the US were far more likely than others to crave chocolate specifically during their periods because US culture has created the expectation that this is a ‘normal’ craving to have. 

Are cravings linked to emotional eating and food addiction?

There are links between food cravings and emotional eating, as our emotions (such as stress) can trigger strong feelings of wanting to eat specific foods. 

There can also be similarities between food cravings and food addiction—although there are distinct differences too. Food cravings are extremely common, and are experienced by most people from time to time. While they are not necessarily a symptom of an unhealthy attitude towards food, if cravings occur very often and are extremely hard to satisfy, they might play a role in food addiction or a lack of control around eating.[7]

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How can I reduce food cravings?

For people with type 2 diabetes, working out how to avoid sugar cravings in particular is a priority. Although it’s not possible to completely eliminate food cravings, there are steps you can take to manage and reduce them over time.

Pay attention to your diet 👀

Eating a healthy diet with regular mealtimes every three to four hours helps to manage your appetite and avoid hunger.

Including complex carbohydrates (found in foods such as oatmeal or beans) and fibre (in foods such as wholegrain cereals and vegetables) in your diet also helps balance your gut health, and regulate hormones that can cause cravings. 

Try a mindful approach 💭

Analysing your food cravings will give you more information about when and why they strike. When you experience a craving, make a note of the type of food you crave and any possible reasons you might be craving it. These could be emotional, psychological, hormonal, or physical. "Try not to give into cravings immediately," advises one Habitual patient. "Wait a few hours or even a day. If you're still craving it, eat a sensible amount then put it behind you. Don't dwell on it, as you are on a long course."

Identifying patterns may help you understand and change behaviours that could lead to cravings. Learning to see cravings as thoughts rather than needs can help keep them in check.[8]

Recognise the role of a healthy routine 🕓

Lack of sleep and stress can both cause hormonal shifts that affect our appetites and make cravings more likely.

Adapting your routine to get more sleep and finding ways to manage and reduce stress will reduce cravings, and make them easier to manage when you do experience them.

Replace problem foods 🔁

If you find you frequently experience cravings for the same unhealthy foods, studies suggest that cutting them from your diet for a while can be an effective method.[3]

Doing so cuts ties between the foods and external triggers that might remind you of certain foods, so you’re less likely to associate watching your favourite TV show with your favourite snack, for example. 

Replacing unhealthy snacks with healthy ones can also increase cravings for the latter over time, making it easier to make healthier choices in the long run.[1] 

Change your environment 🌳

There may be factors in your environment that trigger cravings such as watching cooking shows, sitting in view of a vending machine at work, or walking down the sugary snacks aisle in the supermarket. 

Keep busy—if you’re busy, your mind does not think of food

Habitual patient

If you’re able to avoid these triggers, doing so can help reduce cravings. But, if a permanent change is not possible, studies suggest that when you’re experiencing a craving distracting yourself for 5-7 minutes (by listening to a song or meditating, for example) can help.[3] "Keeping busy is the biggest thing. If you’re busy, your mind does not think of food," says another Habitual patient. "Take the kids out to the park. Volunteer to go and do something for someone to help them. Doing stuff for other people gives a sense of well-being and keeps you busy as well." Exercise, such as taking a brisk, 15-minute walk is an especially effective method of reducing stress and cravings.[9]

Food cravings are a normal part of a healthy appetite and are unlikely to go away completely. But understanding what triggers your cravings can help you feel in more control when they hit, and better able to manage them as part of a healthy diet.

References

[1] Chao, A., Grilo, C.M., White, M.A., Sinha, R. (2014). Food cravings, food intake, and weight status in a community-based sample. Eat Behav 15(3):P478–482. Accessible here.
[2] Do Nutrient Deficiencies Cause Cravings? Healthline. Retrieved 10 February 2022. Accessible here.
[3] The Nutrition Source: Cravings. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved 10 February 2022. Accessible here.
[4] Images Of Desire: Brain Regions Activated By Food Craving Overlap With Areas Implicated In Drug Craving. Science Daily. Retrieved 10 February 2022. Accessible here.
[5] Alcock, J., Maley, C.C., Aktipis, C.A. (2014). Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. Bio Essays 36(10):P940-949. Accessible here.
[6] Hormes, J.M., Niemiec, M.A., Wiley, A.S. (ed.), (2017). Does culture create craving? Evidence from the case of menstrual chocolate craving. PLoS One 12(7): e0181445. Accessible here.
[7] 8 Common Symptoms of Food Addiction. Healthline. Retrieved February 10 2022. Accessible here.
[8] Lacaille, J., Ly, J., Zacchia, N., Bourkas, S., Glaser, E., Knäuper, B. (2014) The effects of three mindfulness skills on chocolate cravings. Appetite 76:P101-112. Accessible here.
[9] 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. Accessible here.

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