Food cravings are experienced by everyone from time to time but some people find it more difficult than others to control them without a daily hit of chocolate or chips just to get through the day. Food cravings arise from numerous causes and in severe cases can lead to more serious health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and bulimia. Distinguishing the underlying cause of your food cravings is often challenging, since they can stem from a complex combination of emotional, hormonal and biochemical factors.
Physical and biochemical factors
A major trigger for food cravings is low or fluctuating blood sugar levels. This is typically caused by a lack of food as a result of going too long between meals or following very low-calorie diets. Your mid-afternoon cravings may be your body’s way of telling you it has been too long since lunch and you actually need to eat. A piece of fruit, some yogurt or a handful of nuts can get the blood sugar levels back up and prevent you from reaching for that chocolate bar you’ve been craving.
Food cravings can sometimes be due to a nutrient deficiency. You may find yourself craving a particular food because your body is looking for the specific nutrients contained in it. Craving red meat can be a sign of iron deficiency, for instance, while craving dairy products may indicate a calcium deficiency and a craving for dark chocolate may be a sign of magnesium deficiency.
Some of the strongest food cravings for women often occur in the week before menstruation or while pregnant, suggesting that hormonal swings have an influence on this type of urge to eat. A craving for chocolate was surveyed in a sample of 568 individuals and it was shown that about half of the female cravers experienced a well-defined craving peak for chocolate premenstrually.
Cravings can also result from exhaustion and, in more chronic cases, adrenal fatigue. The body sends a signal to the brain for a quick pick-me-up and this results in craving sugar, carbohydrate snacks or coffee. Salt cravings can also be related to adrenal fatigue.
Occasionally, cravings can be the result of a food allergy where you crave the very food you are allergic to. Food allergies can produce the same symptoms as an addiction, whereby eating certain foods you are allergic to becomes a chemically induced dependency.
The foods you are allergic to are often likely to be your favourites, the ones you eat frequently or crave because you think they make you feel good. Allergenic foods are thought to trigger in the brain an addictive substance called opioid enkephalin. With time, you become accustomed to consuming the allergenic food only to experience withdrawal symptoms such as nervousness or discomfort once it is removed from the diet.
Emotional and psychological factors
Emotions such as anxiety, frustration and loneliness play a big part in food cravings, too. The most common emotional or psychological triggers for food cravings include stress, depression, boredom and a general need for comfort. Reaching for a bag of biscuits, chocolate or a bowl of icecream in order to comfort yourself can become a regular habit. A study published in 2001 in the journal Appetite involving 241 individuals showed that carbohydrate cravers reported feeling distressed before their cravings while protein cravers reported feeling anxious or hungry before their cravings.