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Food cravings...we all get them from time to time. Some people crave sweets, others crave salty food, and some people crave both one after another and never seem to satisfy those taste buds! There are many reasons why our bodies and brain make us have cravings. The definition of a food craving is an intense desire for certain foods (i.e. ice cream) or flavors (i.e. Italian food).  Sometimes the desire can be so intense that it feels uncontrollable until you give in to it. Learning more about why food cravings happen can help you take control over them and stick to your healthy eating plan.

What Causes Food Cravings? 

Food cravings can come out of nowhere, or they can be triggered by seeing, smelling, or talking about a specific food (ever been in the mood for French fries or pizza after watching TV? It’s highly likely you saw an advertisement for them!)  You can thank the areas of the brain responsible for memory, pleasure, and reward as well as the hormones leptin and serotonin for food cravings. It’s important to note that hunger and food cravings are not the same thing. Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need to eat food to give you energy. 

There are several physical indicators that can help you determine if it is a craving OR if you are actually hungry:

  • Hearing your stomach grumble and feeling hunger pangs
  • A feeling of emptiness in your stomach
  • Fatigue, decreased focus
  • Irritability aka “Hangry” due to lack of food
  • Light headedness or shakiness

These are all signs that you need to eat something! The next time you are having a craving, check in with yourself to see if you are actually experiencing any of the above feelings. If not, it is most likely just “head hunger” and not actual hunger.  There are some cases where the food cravings may be related to specific foods because the body is deficient in certain nutrients (i.e. a random craving for citrus fruits and being deficient in folate) however this is fairly uncommon. Most people crave foods that are high sugar, high fat, high salt, and/or high carbohydrate type of foods that do not provide our bodies with much nutritional value. 

Getting more in tune with your bodies’ hunger and fullness cues is beneficial for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. It takes some practice, but over time you will get better at it. Next time you go to grab something to eat, take a moment to pause and check in first and ask yourself, “am I eating this because I am actually feeling hunger or because I know this will taste good/because I am stressed/bored/etc.?”  

Sometimes cravings can occur due to lack of balance at meals, leading to excessive snacking and lots of extra calories! Having a balanced meal means having a protein, vegetable, and complex carbohydrate at the meal (if you are at the stage you can incorporate carbohydrates). Complex carbohydrates are the types that contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals and digest slowly. An example of a balanced meal would be a piece of fish with asparagus and roasted sweet potato. You will notice when you begin to eat more balanced meals, you will feel satisfied for longer. This will lead to a decrease in cravings and snacking, helping you maintain your weight. 

How Can You Prevent or Reduce Food Cravings?

Fortunately, there are many strategies you can try to help reduce food cravings. 

  1. Drink Plenty of Water
    - Hunger and thirst can produce very similar sensations, and people often confuse the two. Many people find that their food cravings are reduced when they stay hydrated throughout the day. The goal is at least 64oz for most people!
     
  2. Reduce Stress Levels
    - A 2015 study found that chronic stress was related to an increase in food cravings which led to a higher BMI in study participants1. Stress results in higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which may promote abdominal fat, causing weight gain even without food cravings. Find healthy ways to cope with stress such as reading, meditation, yoga, exercising, etc.
     
  3. Focus on Quality Sleep
    - A 2013 study that looked at the impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain found that not getting enough sleep can alter the body’s hormonal balance which can contribute to over eating and weight gain2. Try drinking herbal tea before bed, turn off all screens, use a sound machine, and block out light to improve sleep quality.
     
  4. Eat a High Protein Diet
    - Eating quality protein sources at each meal in adequate amounts has been shown to reduce Ghrelin, the hunger hormone related to appetite3. Thus, eating a high protein diet promotes feelings of fullness and satiation. As a bariatric surgery patient, all your meals (and snacks) should be focused around protein, so you can reach that 60-80 gram/day goal. 
     
  5. Don’t Skip Meals
    - Increased hunger levels can lead a person to crave more high calorie/high fat foods. Not skipping meals can help keep hunger at a more manageable level so that you can feel more in control and make a healthier choice. Don’t wait until you are starving to eat, because everything can become even more appetizing and harder to resist.
     
  6. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
    - Just knowing you have your favorite ice cream in the freezer can tempt you. A candy stash in your office desk drawer can also tempt you. Scrolling through social media and seeing images of foods which are not part of your healthy eating plan can tempt you. Cravings often begin in the mind! Don’t make things harder for yourself by constantly seeing foods you are trying to stay away from every time you look in your pantry or fridge. If it’s out of sight, it will be out of your mind! Try to find healthier alternatives to the foods you may get cravings for. Ask family members to keep tempting foods away from you so that you don’t even think twice about them!

References:

  1. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. J Health Psychol. 2015 Jun; 20(6): 721–729.
  2. Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Apr 2; 110(14): 5695–5700.
  3. Effect of short- and long-term protein consumption on appetite and appetite-regulating gastrointestinal hormones, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 226, 1 November 2020, 113123.
     
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Carley Baulick MS, RDN, CDN
By Carley Baulick MS, RDN, CDN
Bariatric Dietitian Educator

Carley Baulick, MS, RDN, CDN is Garnet Health Medical Center’s Bariatric Dietitian Educator. She received her Bachelor’s and Master of Science Degrees in Nutrition and Dietetics from the State University of New York College at Oneonta. She is a Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist, holds an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management, and is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Carley is passionate about nutrition and helping others reach their health and wellness goals through individualized counseling and nutrition education. Carley can be reached at (845) 333-2830 or cbaulick@garnethealth.org.

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