3 Science-Backed Reasons We Indulge Our Food Cravings

Cravings. Sweet tooths 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 our cravings and the reasons we indulge them.

Cravings can be healthy… some people crave a long endurance run for that runner’s high and sense of accomplishment, or a day at the spa for much needed relaxation, or a big salad after a week of traveling and eating out.

But let’s be honest, most of us crave unhealthy things every now and then. Like that time I begged my husband to take me to my favorite ice cream shop when I was procrastinating on a big project. Cookies and Cream gelato… check. Cravings are real folks, and there may be a little scientific evidence behind why we indulge our food cravings.

Bad habits

According to Applied Behavioral Analysis psychology, positive and negative reinforcement impacts behavior. It goes something like this: trigger, behavior, reward. In food terms, hunger is the trigger, eat 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.

How to ward off the bad habits that lead to overindulging? Focus on the why.

Ask yourself before you eat that crave-worthy food: 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 meal with carbs, fats, and proteins. If it’s emotional, address those emotions instead of treating them with food.

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 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.

Sleep deprivation

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 obesity, diabetes, 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.