What Is Behind My Food Cravings?
By Kristina Steinberg, RD
One minute you’re completely focused on watching another Seinfeld rerun, the next all you can think about is a homemade brownie. We all have food cravings at some point, but it turns out, that these hankerings are an important piece of our health puzzle. Food cravings “refer to an intense desire to consume a specific food”. They are temporary, lasting only up to 1 hour. Numerous studies have been done on food cravings and many factors including interactions between our stomach, brain and hormones, can contribute to food cravings. Previously, it was thought that food cravings were the body’s signal of a nutritional deficiency but that now has been debunked because people don’t crave or eat foods with those nutrients in them as a remedy for those cravings. Below is a summary of some studies related to food cravings.
One study discussedthe circadian system’s (body’s internal clock) effect on increasing hunger and cravings for sweet, starchy and salty foods in the evenings. A related study concluded that the internal circadian system regulates hunger where participants felt less hunger in the morning and hungriest in the evening. This may be why many bariatric patients report that they tend to skip meals, especially breakfast, eating larger, higher-calorie meals at night.
Other studies mentioned various hormones as having an effect on food cravings. Appetite-related hormones (leptin, ghrelin and insulin) were studied, with the conclusion that ghrelin played a role in increased food-cravings. Serotonin and dopamine hormones were also listed as having an effect on food cravings. Carbohydrates boost serotonin – the feel-good hormone - which has a calming effect. A study linked decreased levels of serotonin, marked by a decline in mood and concentration, to a craving for carbohydrates. The researchers discovered that many people experience a “universal carbohydrate craving time between 3:30pm-5pm every day”. According to another study, sugar and fatty processed foods trigger dopamine,the same area of the brain responsible for the feel-good effect as drugs do, and keeps you wanting to go back for more.
Studies suggest that many people crave carbohydrates – especially cookies, candy or ice cream – due to stress, emotions, being depressed or tired, using carbohydrates as a remedy for stress and anxiety. Tired people are more likely to crave carbohydrates/sugar to give themselves a pick up. Bad sleep can cause your ghrelin levels to be thrown off.
Research also indicates that gender plays a role in food cravings. Women are more likely to have cravings then men. Men tend to crave savory items: barbecue, French fries, pizza and pasta. Women tend to choose sweets or chocolate.
Lastly, studies listed desire, environmental triggers or cravings possibly being a learned habit, linking cravings to a setting and memories. People associating certain foods with various places such aseating popcorn at the movies, hot dogs at the ball game and certain foods at the beach.
While there are many theories on whether it is a chemical or emotional issue and regardless of all the possible causes, the studies had a common link of food cravings being associated with high calorie foods: fat, sugar or both.
For an interesting perspective on foods that people commonly crave and healthier (non-food) alternatives to those foods go to: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/food-and-spirit/201508/what-the-9-top-food-cravings-say-about-your-emotions
Obesity (Silver Spring), 2017 Apr, 25(4):713-720. Dol: 10.1002/oby.21790.
Oregon Health & Science University. “What triggers those late-night snack cravings?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 April 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130430110321.htm.
Physiol Behav, 2017 Apr 8:177:20-26. Doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017 .04.004.
WebMD. “Craving Carbs: Is it depression?” http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/craving-carbs#1
WebMD. “The facts about food cravings – 7 ways to deal with those irresistible urges”. http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-facts-about-food-cravings#1
Web MD. “Cravings: Why they strike, how to curb them”. http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/features/cravings-why-they-strike-what-to-do#1
What the 9 top food cravings say about your emotions. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/food-and-spirit/201508/what-the-9-top-food-cravings-say-about-your-emotions