3 Science-Backed Reasons We Indulge Our Food Cravings

3 Science-Backed Reasons We Indulge Our Food Cravings

A sweet tooth after dinner. Pizza and beer on a Sunday night during the football game. A pint of ice cream when you’re feeling blue. Buttery popcorn and candy at the movies. We all have food cravings…and reasons why we indulge them.

And sure, cravings can be healthy! Some people crave a long endurance run for that runner’s high, or a day at the spa for much needed relaxation, or a big salad after a week of traveling and eating out. But there are also the more unhealthy cravings, like when you mindlessly crush a bag of chips when you’re stressed.

Good or not so good, cravings are real, and there may be a little scientific evidence behind why we indulge our food cravings. Knowing what that is may help you manage your cravings instead of letting them derail your goals.

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Why do I have food cravings?

Cravings are far more complex than a simple cause-and-effect situation. They arise for several reasons — and tend to include a tangled web of psychology, hormones, and other physiological issues.

1. Bad habits

food cravings- woman snacking

Both positive and negative reinforcements impact behavior. It goes something like this: trigger > behavior > reward. In food terms, hunger is the trigger, eating is the behavior, satisfaction is the reward.

While the reinforcement of some habits is necessary to survival, it’s easy to see how bad habits also get easily reinforced. When you feel bad (or bored or stressed or fill-in-the-blank emotion), you seek out something satisfying… food.

The emotional signal triggers a behavior: eating in exchange for pleasure. The reward is briefly satisfying and reinforces the behavior. And thus, a bad habit loop is created.

 

2. Cutting calories too low

Physiological deprivation and starvation cause the body to produce lower levels of leptin, an appetite suppressing hormone, and more lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that increases fat storage.

When you deprive the body, the body works harder to make you more hungry and simultaneously holds onto fat. Periods of under-eating or caloric restriction create a physiological drive to eat — and often it’s to eat high-fat, high-sugar foods because they are the most caloric dense.

Combine this with the aforementioned habit loops, and those food cravings have no chance but to be indulged. So how can you cut your calories and not mess up your hormones? Eat real foods most often, but be flexible to allow yourself indulgent foods in moderation and in small portions.

 

3. Lack of sleep

food cravings- lack of sleep

For the body to function optimally, quality sleep is required nightly and in the right amounts for the individual. Unhealthy sleep habits can lead to a cascade of health issues including weight gain, depression, and altered hormonal function. And not getting adequate sleep can put you at risk for indulging in higher fat and more carbohydrate-rich foods.

Start squashing sleep-related cravings by establishing a healthier bedtime routine. Don’t lie in bed with your phone, computer, or TV on and instead meditate, pray, or read a book to quiet the mind. Keep the lights low and electronics off at least an hour before bedtime. Yes, this includes your phone.

If you didn’t get enough sleep at night (it happens to the best of us!), be aware that your food cravings could be related to your sleep-deprived state. This awareness can help you resist those cravings if they arise.

What does it mean to crave salt or sugar?

Your emotional history with food can play a huge role in cravings. For example, we’re brought up identifying chocolate with birthdays, Halloween, post-soccer game ice cream outings, and all those magic moments when you were a good little boy or girl who deserved a reward. If you can’t see how that would etch a positive association neural pathway deep into your gray matter, we need to get Dr. Freud on the horn, stat.

A reason you could be craving that brownie is because of your emotional history with it. It’s one of the great American comfort foods. A craving for salty popcorn at the movie theater may take you back to your childhood days when you saw your favorite animated movies with your parents.

And unless you like chewing on bitter cacao nibs (and some people do!), the chocolate you consume is filled with sugar — and sugar cranks up the “feel good” hormone serotonin (among other chemicals) levels in your brain, giving you a feeling of mild euphoria. When it’s gone, you want more. Combine this sugar hit with the emotional issues and you’ve got one powerful craving.

 

How To Stop Food Cravings

stop cravings- woman choosing food

How do you ward off the bad habits and situations that lead to overindulging? Focus on the why.

Before you eat that crave-worthy food, ask yourself, “Why do I want this?” Is it true physical hunger or is it emotional? If it’s physical and you are truly hungry, eat a real, wholesome meal with balance of carbs, fats, and proteins.

If it’s emotional, address those emotions instead of treating them with food. To cope with emotional eating, try exercising (even if it’s just a light walk), distracting yourself with an activity (bust out that puzzle that’s been collecting dust in your closet!), meditating, or talking with a supportive friend.

 

When to Give Into Cravings

You could be craving certain foods — or certain food types — because your balance of carbs, protein, and fat is off. If you think this may be the case, feed the craving with healthy food.

If you’re craving sweet things, increase your fruit and veggie intake. If you crave greasy foods, increase your raw nut or avocado (good fats) intake. If you find yourself craving meat and cheese, increase your lean protein intake with chicken, fish, eggs, and legumes.

This can help you indulge your cravings in a healthier way. However, if you do this and it doesn’t work, odds are that your cravings are more psychologically based. This may seem like a bummer, but ultimately it’s helped you learn more about yourself and your relationship with food.

Now, if you’re deliberately eating at a calorie deficit, this method can be a problem. So in these situations, it might be useful to adjust the balance of carbs/protein/fat in your diet overall.

Cravings Recap

Cravings suck. And when you’re trying to lose weight, they suck even more, as calorie deficits tend to increase cravings. In our most frustrated, give-me-the-donut-before-I-kill-someone moments, we’d all like a simple solution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. Finding your way around cravings requires a little patience and experimentation. It’s just a matter of finding a healthy substitute, a little willpower — or some combination thereof.

Kristina LaRue headshot

About

Kristina LaRue, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., is a board certified sports dietitian and author of healthy living blog, Love and Zest. She works with companies to develop healthy recipes and professional food photography and inspires her nutrition clients to eat well through her e-coaching services. Follow her on Twitter.

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