Aug. 14. 2020
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Food cravings can happen to all of us.

And usually, the first response many people have is “how can I control my cravings.”

But “controlling” your cravings isn’t exactly what we want to do — we want to understand them.

Cravings are one of the many ways your body communicates to you. The more you understand your cravings and determine where they’re stemming from, the better you’ll be able to care for your body and its needs and the more ease you’ll have with your food choices.

6 Common Causes of Food Cravings

Although they may appear to be random and without rhyme or reason, there are quite a few well-supported causes of cravings.

While each individual may experience them differently, many of the reasons for why we’re experiencing cravings can be explained through science.

1. Inadequate Nutrient Intake

In order for the body to function properly and efficiently, we need to supply it with energy through food. The major food groups that we need to ensure intake of are protein, starchy carbohydrates, non-starchy carbohydrates, and healthy fat.

When consumed in adequate amounts for your body’s individual needs, you should feel satiated and energized. Yet when some of these items are lacking in the diet, it’s not uncommon for you to experience intense cravings in response.

For example, if you’re maintaining a diet that is consistently low in starchy carbohydrates, you may experience intense cravings for refined sugars and potent sources of carbohydrates. This is your body’s way of telling you that you are not consuming enough starchy carbohydrates.

Take a look at your typical meals, is anything missing?

You can use our Foundational Five format to help with this. Make sure you have a combination of protein, healthy fat, starchy carbohydrates, non-starchy carbohydrates and flavor in each and every one of your meals. This helps give your body everything it needs to feel its best.

If you aren’t eating the Foundational Five at most meals, cravings maybe your body’s way of telling you it’s missing the nutrients it needs.

2. You’re Stressed, Sad or Anxious

Feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness often result in cravings.

When we’re feeling particularly stressed, our body releases a hormone called cortisol that can lead to an increased appetite and therefore cravings as well.

Additionally, research has shown that those with chronic stress often experience cravings due to increased motivation for rewarding substances and behaviors (1).

Stress eating and emotional eating are well-known phenomenons, and cravings play a big role in each of them. Many studies have shown that in the increase of emotional and even physical stress can lead to an increased intake of foods high in fat and sugar (2).

Stress management looks different for everyone — whether it’s a daily walk in nature, evening journaling,  an exercise class or even meditation, practicing stress management can help to significantly reduce unwanted food cravings.

3. Food Rules Can Cause Cravings

When we restrict ourselves from certain food items, it’s human nature to want and crave them even more.

If you’ve ever decided to remove a certain food group or abide by a strict diet, this sensation should feel familiar to you. When you tell yourself that you can have something, then you’re presented with said food item or group, cravings will generally ensue.

The craving is brought on by having a mental list of foods to avoid, so this may be your only opportunity to have it.

We call this the lack mentality, which causes you to want to overindulge in that food and experience a heightened craving for it because you don’t know when you’ll be able to have it again since you’ve labeled it “off-limits”, rather than being able to enjoy a serving whenever you please and be fully satisfied.

Removing and restricting food items from your diet can not only lead to extreme food cravings but also unhealthy, unsustainable relationships with food.

Having a healthy and balanced approach to food helps you nourish yourself well and create long-term healthy eating habits.

4. Dehydration

When we’re dehydrated, the body will do whatever it can to increase fluid intake. While thirst is one sensation that leads to this, food cravings are another.

Sometimes it can simply be difficult to differentiate between the two sensations. Cravings as a result of dehydration are general experienced through non-selective hunger, where instead of craving one item in particular, we instead have an extreme craving for food in general.

While non-selective hunger is often a result of real hunger and low blood sugar, it can be a result of dehydration as well.

As far as water goes, a good rule of thumb to start with is to ensure you’re getting about half of your body weight in fluid ounces of water daily. Individual needs will vary depending upon specific disease states, activity levels and more.

5. Lack of Sleep

A good night’s sleep allows the body to replenish, reenergize and recuperate for the following day. One poor night of sleep won’t do much harm, but a perpetual lack of sleep can start to wreak havoc on the body.

When sleep-deprived, the hunger and satiety hormones ghrelin and leptin can get out of whack (3). This can result in excessive cravings, hunger cues and an increased appetite over time.

In regards to sleep, it’s generally recommended that adults aim for anywhere from 6-9 hours per night.

6. Old Habits

Are there certain places that remind of you particular food items?

We have external and internal cues that remind us of habits we have pertaining to food. For example, have you ever walked into a movie theatre and automatically craved popcorn?

This is a food craving that occurs as a result of a habit. In this scenario, you probably made it a habit of always getting popcorn at the movie theatre, therefore the movie theatre became an external cue for your popcorn craving.

Identifying your eating habits and external cues for certain cravings is the first step to diminishing them. Once you know when they usually occur, you can properly prepare.

For example, if you know you almost always get an extreme craving for popcorn at the movie theatre, going into the situation prepared with knowledge already sets you up for success. In addition, if you prepare in advance by having a well-balanced meal before getting to the theatre, the chances of your craving taking control are much slimmer.

Navigating Food Cravings in Your Daily Life

Now that you know a few of the common causes of food cravings and a few tools you can start using right away, which practice is resonating the most with you that you could give a try this week?

The key is to start taking a small action with the knowledge you have just gained to align with what you want to be experiencing.