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What Are Your Cravings Telling You?

By Rebecca Downey, RDN

Lifestyle refers to the way you live your life including your daily habits, activities you participate in and dietary choices. Understanding your food cravings can provide valuable insight and allow you to make changes to improve your overall health. 

Food cravings are often for unhealthy, processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and/or fat and can stand in the way of maintaining a healthy weight or achieving your health or weight loss goals. A common myth is that we crave foods to fill nutritional deficiencies. Although internal bodily processes and hormones can impact your food choices, external factors such as emotions and habits, often play a larger role in influencing the foods you crave.

What is a Food Craving?
Food cravings are an intense desire to eat a specific food or flavor. For some people, a food craving can feel uncontrollable and/or like the craving cannot be satisfied until the food is consumed. Internal and external factors including your overall health and daily habits and life circumstances, play a role in what you crave.

Internal Factors
From neurotransmitters in your brain to hormonal fluctuations, your bodily functions play a role in food cravings.

Food for thought
Food cravings can be triggered by regions in your brain that are responsible for memory, pleasure and reward. The hippocampus, insula and caudate, areas of your brain connected to memory and sensing pleasure, are active when you crave foods. Additionally, endorphins, neurochemicals produced by your pituitary gland and central nervous system, promote feelings of pleasure. Your body naturally releases endorphins in a response to stress, but also during other activities such as exercising or eating.

Hormonal imbalances
Throughout your life hormonal imbalances occur. For example, the hormonal shifts that take place during pregnancy and menopause may lead to food cravings. Food cravings are often a symptom of hormonal imbalances that may be caused by inadequate nutrition.

Hormonal imbalances can lead to a low serotonin level in your body. It is a chemical that impacts many bodily functions from motor skills to mood. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid, tryptophan, which enters your body through the foods you consume.

Many people crave sugar or simple carbohydrates as both release bursts of serotonin.  However, as serotonin returns to its normal level, you experience the “crash” and the cycle starts over.

Metabolic disorders
Dietary changes and lifestyle modifications are ways to support long-term weight loss. As you begin your weight loss journey, you may need to resist the urge to eat carbohydrates and sweets. However, some metabolic conditions such as hypothyroidism can make it difficult to lose weight and are often accompanied by food cravings.

External Factors
Your daily habits and stress are major contributors to experiencing food cravings. From poor sleep to a stressful situation during the day, what goes on throughout your day can impact the foods you crave. 

During stressful times, you may find yourself craving comfort foods. Common food cravings include carbohydrates, fatty, salty and/or sweet foods.

Carbohydrates impact your blood glucose (sugar) levels more than any other nutrient. Popcorn is a great alternative when you are craving carbohydrates outside of a traditional meal time.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends focusing on foods that contain healthy, unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats provide heart health benefits and can improve your cholesterol levels. Grab a handful of nuts or a slice of avocado toast the next time your craving hits.

Sodium, the primary component of salt, plays a role in healthy bodily function such as maintaining fluid levels in your body. Excess salt can lead to bloating, dehydration and elevated blood pressure, as well as other health conditions. Opt for a savory food such as cheese or a whole grain cracker the next time the urge hits.

Added sugars increase your caloric intake while providing little to no nutritional value. Choose natural sugars such as berries or other fruits when you are craving something sweet.

Many people are creatures of habit, we have our routines and we stick to them. Although some routines such as maintaining a regular bedtime or going for a morning run promote good health, other habits may be working against our health and wellness goals. If you treat yourself to a cookie or other sweet treat at the end of stressful days, try sliced apples and natural peanut butter next time. Small modifications over time can help lead to developing new healthy habits.

Tips to Manage Your Cravings

Reduce stress
Food cravings are often triggered by stressful situations and used as a coping mechanism. Stress can impact the way your body functions and your overall health. Learning to manage your stress can have a lasting impact on your mental well-being and your physical health. Lifestyle modifications such as regular physical activity, or practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or stretching, can help you manage stress. 

Portion control
Cravings are a natural part of life, and oftentimes, extreme dietary restrictions increase food cravings. Although it isn’t recommended to give in to all of your food cravings, it can be helpful to allow yourself to have a moderate amount of the food you are craving. If weight loss is a goal you are working towards, exercising portion control can be a helpful approach. Opt to buy a single cookie instead of a box, or treat yourself to a scoop of ice cream at your local ice cream shop. 

Eat regularly
Skipping meals can increase the chance that you will crave convenient snack foods throughout the day. Eating smaller meals throughout the day will keep you full and may help control cravings.

Keep a food journal
Keeping track of the foods you consume is a helpful way to observe your dietary habits. Include information around your cravings such as the time of day you experience them, emotions you are feeling and the foods you would like to eat. Your journal can provide valuable insight and allow you to identify patterns that are connected to your cravings and choices.

Distract yourself
Cravings are typically temporary and will pass. Try going for a walk or reading a book instead.

Whether you are just beginning your health journey or you have been working towards a healthier lifestyle for some time, small steps can lead to big changes. Understanding your food cravings provides more visibility into your overall health. For more information on improving your health, or to schedule an appointment with an obesity medicine physician, please call 1.888.MY.DMG.DR (1.888.693.6437) or schedule an appointment online.


If you are interested in this health topic, you may also like: 

Sober-Curious: Benefits of an Alcohol-Free Lifestyle

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Topics and Subtopics: Diet & Nutrition & General Health

Physicians & Experts

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Obesity Medicine - Weight Loss Clinic
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