The new year has just begun, and your resolutions are underway—one of which is a commitment to eating healthy. But you can’t seem to kick those pesky food cravings. From sugary treats to salty snacks, you find yourself reaching for foods you crave over nutrient-dense foods that will transform your health. If this sounds like you, I know what you are going through.
We have all experienced the irresistible urge to indulge in highly palatable foods that hit all the right taste buds and evoke a nostalgic sense of comfort. While these foods can be enjoyed in moderation, ongoing cravings may be a signal from your body that there are other areas of your health that need your attention. By gaining a better understanding of where cravings come from and what they are telling you about your health and habits, you will be able to push your cravings aside and regain control of your food choices.
Understanding Food Cravings
Food cravings involve the activation of specific regions of the brain that impact our desire for certain foods. More specifically, the heightened sensory appeal of foods high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates excites the reward regions of the brain, triggering the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Often referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, dopamine sends messages to other nerve cells that are associated with feelings of pleasure. Therefore, dopamine intensifies the desire to consume foods that elicit pleasurable sensations. As a result, these positive feelings reinforce the behavior of eating palatable foods, increasing the likelihood that you will continue to seek after and consume the foods you crave. Fortunately, you can curb your cravings by addressing the underlying health factors that cause them in the first place.
What Your Cravings Are Communicating
When it comes to cravings, it’s best to view them as a symptom and not the primary problem. Instead, they act as alerts, trying to communicate that there is a root cause that needs to be addressed. Therefore, your cravings may be telling you that:
1. Your Stress and Hormone Levels are High
Chronic stress and altered hormones are intricately connected. But what does this have to do with cravings? Well, ongoing stress prompts your adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. In a chain reaction manner, elevated cortisol levels adversely affect your appetite hormones by increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreasing the satiety hormone leptin. As a result, cortisol can increase your cravings for comforting foods high in sugar, salt and fat. Personally, I get regular salty and crunchy cravings from stress and adrenal fatigue. This is why incorporating stress management techniques, such as meditation, breathwork, mindfulness, and regular exercise, is an effective way to combat cravings.
2. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Nearly 33% of U.S. adults do not get the recommended 7 hours of sleep each night, according to the CDC. Not only does inadequate sleep impair cognitive function and increase chronic disease risk, but it also impacts food cravings. Similar to stress, sleep deprivation intensifies hunger by increasing cortisol and ghrelin levels while decreasing leptin levels. During this hormonal shift, food preferences also change, resulting in cravings for high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods. Therefore, I often encourage my clients to limit artificial light from screens before bed, get a bit of sun to support the body’s natural circadian rhythm and take sleep-supporting supplements like magnesium bisglycinate and GABA.
3. Your Meals Are Imbalanced
If you typically find yourself scavenging your pantry for a sweet or salty snack soon after you eat a meal, you may need more fiber and protein on your plate. To effectively curb your cravings, your meals should be balanced with these key nutrients. Fiber, in particular, is an incredible nutrient found in plant foods that helps to slow stomach emptying, therefore increasing feelings of fullness and reducing appetite. On the other hand, protein helps keep you full and satisfied by stimulating the release of the satiety hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) while decreasing the hunger hormone ghrelin. You can up your protein and fiber intake by including more beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your daily meal preparations.
4. Your Diet is High in Processed Foods and Artificial Sweeteners
As mentioned above, highly processed foods that are loaded with sugar, fat, and salt elicit responses from the reward system in the brain that further increase cravings. In an attempt to reduce sugar intake, many people turn to processed foods and beverages with artificial sweeteners as an alternative. However, artificial sweeteners may alter your gut microbiota, leading to reduced satiety. Therefore, it is vital to incorporate more whole foods into your diet. As a former sugar-acholic myself, I’ve negated my sugar cravings by eating more whole-food, plant-based meals and juices that are rich in nutrients that nourish my body and aid in satiety.
5. You’re Restricting Food
The underconsumption and complete restriction of food can also create cravings. In fact, a recent study highlighted the effects of selective food deprivation, which involves restricting the intake of specific types of food, such as carbohydrate-rich foods and chocolate. They found that short-term food deprivation indeed increases cravings for forbidden foods. Therefore, it is best to focus on adding nutrient-dense, whole foods to your diet rather than focusing on complete restriction. After all, many foods can be enjoyed in moderation.
6. You’re Deficient in Certain Nutrients
While cravings for sugar and fat are the most common, some individuals crave non-food substances, such as ice, soil, chalk, or paper—among others. This condition is known as pica. Sometimes, these cravings signify mineral deficiencies, specifically iron and zinc. Therefore, if you crave non-nutritive substances, it’s essential to consult your physician to get tested for potential deficiencies. In the event a deficiency is identified, you may be instructed to take a supplement to improve your mineral status.
7. You’re Dehydrated
One way hunger and increased cravings disguise themselves is in the form of thirst. In other words, heightened cravings may indicate a need for water rather than a true need for food. Therefore, upping your water intake may help silence your cravings. It is recommended that men consume around 16 cups and women 12 cups of water per day. Consider purchasing a reusable glass or stainless-steel water bottle to keep handy as you go about your day.
While it’s normal to experience occasional food cravings, persistent cravings may be a sign of chronic stress, sleep deprivation, dehydration, imbalanced meals, nutrient deficiencies or a diet high in processed foods. If you need help incorporating more nutrient-dense, whole foods that promote satiety, consider signing up for my 5-Day Kitchen Cleanse! You will receive a delicious array of fiber- and protein-rich soups, salads, and Super Seed Bars that will help you kick your cravings.