Understanding Food Cravings- Explained by a RD

Ah food cravings! Most of us get them and a lot of us hate them! Food cravings have been demonized quite a bit by diet culture and associate with lack of willpower or motivation. Well, I am here to debunk some of that and explain WHY we get cravings to better understand how to address them! (PS: the answer is not to "curb" your craving or restrict..)

What is a craving?

A food craving is a strong desire to eat something; cravings are usually for specific foods and are very intense (1). The foods that we crave depend on our personal preference, our culture, time in the menstrual cycle (PMS anyone?), age and many other factors (1). Cravings are normal and up to 97% of people experience them, women typically more than men (2). A craving is not necessarily accompanied by actual physiological hunger and it may be hard to distinguish between hunger and cravings.




How can I tell if it's a craving or physical hunger?

Cravings are usually for specific foods or specific types of food whereas hunger can be satiated by any food that we eat. Listening to our bodies to see what it is asking for is a good place to start: do you feel hungry? When was the last time you ate? Cravings are more of a psychological want for a certain food and is not usually accompanied by feelings of hunger. Cravings and hunger can also be present at the same time so listening to your body is important. Giving in to cravings is not necessarily a bad thing but you do want to make sure that if you eat the food that you are craving, it will not be accompanied by negative feelings.


Can you get cravings from missing nutrients in diet?

In some very rare cases, it is possible to get cravings because you are missing foods in your diet! Craving non-food items (an eating disorder called pica) is linked to iron deficiency (3) and sodium (salt) deficiency can lead to “salt hunger” which involves intense cravings for salt-rich foods (4). However, most of the cravings that we get are not linked to missing nutrients.



Why do we have cravings?

There are many reasons why we may experience a strong desire to eat a specific food. Here are some common reasons why we may get cravings:


1. Restriction

Restriction often leads to increase cravings, food obsession and overeating/binge eating. When tend to crave the foods we restrict ourselves from. (1)


Solution:

Including all foods in your balanced diet! #Allfoodsfit . Allowing yourself to eat all foods mindfully will help you crave them less. If you struggle with this, please reach out to a registered dietitian. To learn more about why you should quit diets for good, click here


2. Boring diet

When we always eat the same thing, this can lead to cravings for foods that aren’t included in our typical diet (5).


Solution:

Eat a variety of different foods! Focus on eating balanced and varied meals that include carbohydrates, fat, protein and fibre to keep you satisfied and full for longer. Don't forget to include snacks if you’re hungry between meals.




3. Emotional eating:

Food can be very emotionally charge! It can provide pleasure (release of dopamine and serotonin (6)), comfort, distraction, numbness,... Emotional eating is a normal behaviour that can lead to cravings specific foods to meet our emotional needs.


Solution:

Using food as a coping mechanism is not inherently bad (Read more on emotional eating) but food is not the only way to cope with our emotions. The first step is to identify what is the underlying emotion and what is your need. Reducing stress can also help reduce cravings, to learn more about stress and nutrition, click here




4. Situational/Habitual cravings:

The situation that we’re in can affect whether or not we crave certain foods (7). For example, if you’re used to chewing gum every time you go for a walk then you will likely crave gum when you step out the door. If you go to the movie theater and smell popcorn you will probably crave popcorn!


Solution:

If you get cravings in certain situations, check in with yourself and your body; sometimes the action of thinking through the craving can help it disappear (6). If your craving is just because it is a habit for you to eat that food or its expected in certain situations, you may want to check in with yourself and your hunger to see whether or not eating the food will really satisfy you. It's also totally ok to have a craving and just ENJOY the food! This is a great part of our human experience!


5. Nostalgic Craving

Craving a certain food based on a memory. Nostalgia can be evoked in different ways but research demonstrate that scent is a powerful trigger(8). Example: the smell of campfire may remind you of roasted marshmallow with your loved ones. Or the smell of a freshly basked apple pie may bring many memories of family dinners.


Solution:

Recognize the memory that is triggered and take a moment to feel the emotion associated. Tune into your body and your hunger and see whether or not eating the food will really satisfy you. You may experience a lot of joy from allowing yourself to eat the food and reminisce on old times! Allow yourself that space to decide.


Conclusion

There are so many reasons why we experience food cravings. Remember that this is normal and there is no shame in getting pleasure from foods. When it comes to reducing cravings, self awareness and prevention is key. Allowing ourselves to enjoy foods and incorporating all foods in our diet is important in reducing cravings


If you feel completely out of control around food, I invite you to reach out to a registered dietitian specialized in disordered eating to help you navigate through this. (Contact me)


As always, I hope this article was helpful do not hesitate to reach out :)


Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology

Thank you to Céleste Bouchaud, RD!


References:

1. Hill AJ. The psychology of food craving. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2007 May;66(2):277–85.

2. Weingarten HP, Elston D. The phenomenology of food cravings. Appetite. 1990 Dec 1;15(3):231–46.

3. Kettaneh A, Eclache V, Fain O, Sontag C, Uzan M, Carbillon L, et al. Pica and food craving in patients with iron-deficiency anemia: a case-control study in France. The American Journal of Medicine. 2005 Feb;118(2):185–8.

4. Hurley SW, Johnson AK. The biopsychology of salt hunger and sodium deficiency. European journal of physiology. 2015 Mar;467(3):445–56.

5. Pelchat ML, Schaefer S. Dietary monotony and food cravings in young and elderly adults. Physiology & Behavior. 2000 Jan;68(3):353–9.

6. Rebello CJ, Greenway FL. Reward-Induced Eating: Therapeutic Approaches to Addressing Food Cravings. Advances in Therapy. 2016;33(11):1853–66.

7. Giuliani NR, Berkman ET. Craving is an Affective State and Its Regulation Can Be Understood in Terms of the Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation. Psychological Inquiry. 2015;26(1):48–53.

8.Reid, Chelsea & Green, Jeffrey & Wildschut, Tim & Sedikides, Constantine. (2014). Scent-evoked nostalgia. Memory (Hove, England). 23. 10.1080/09658211.2013.876048.

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