The Biological Triggers of Cravings and What They Are Telling You

Do you ever find yourself overcome with an intense food craving? (Me too). Maybe it is a craving for cookies, pizza, or a big plate of pasta. Perhaps it is a sugar craving for brownies, cookies, or a donut. Maybe it is a trifecta of all three. These cravings may cause you to wonder what, exactly, causes these food cravings.

Well, you can blame biology. Here are some of the biological triggers of cravings and what they are really trying to tell you.

what causes food cravings

What causes food cravings?

Contrary to popular belief, food cravings are rarely a sign that you are lacking the nutrients found in that food, says Jordan Dorn, certified nutritionist, and co-founder of Zuma Nutrition. While diet and nutrition are a part of what leads to cravings, the root causes of cravings go way beyond the food you put in your body. Take a look at some of the common physical and mental causes of cravings:

Physical causes of food cravings

What you are, or are not putting in your body, can be one of the main culprits to cravings. Some of the most common physical causes of food cravings are consuming foods lacking in nutrients, dehydration, and practicing a poor diet. If you find yourself constantly battling food cravings, you may want to reevaluate your daily diet and see if you could afford to drink more water or make more mindful meal and snack selections during the day.

Other physical causes of food cravings can be an increase or decrease in physical activity levels and a lack of sleep. I mean how many times have you started a new workout regimen only to find yourself absolutely ravenous for certain foods? The same goes for a poor night of sleep. I know for me, after a string of restless nights all I want is quick energy in the form of sugar and by sugar, I don’t mean fruit (and there’s research to back that up too: when people get more sleep, they’re less hungry during the day and experience reduced desire for sweet and salty foods).

Physical causes of food cravings do not stop there. Enter hormonal imbalances, imbalances in the gut microbiome, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Yeah, it is pretty safe to say there are a lot of physical causes of food cravings. Oh, and if you are pregnant, you can blame hormones for those cravings as well. 

Mental and emotional causes of food cravings

Besides physical causes, mental and emotional causes can spark food cravings as well. Stress in particular has been known to cause cravings. That is because cortisol, the stress hormone, increases appetite. (Lucky us).

Some other common mental and emotional causes of food cravings include context, personality, and mood. What do we mean by these? Dorn explains each a bit further.

“Your brain can associate eating a specific food to a specific context. For example, popcorn and a movie. This may cause you to crave that particular food the next time the same context comes around. Similarly, smelling a certain food, or even thinking about a certain food, may cause you to crave that particular food.”

What about personality? “Some evidence suggests that people who are more impulsive or have a more addictive personality may also have a higher likelihood of experiencing food cravings,” says Dorn.

In a foul mood? Foods high in fat, sugar, or both create feedback in the body that actually lessen stress-related emotions and responses. That means high fat and high sugar foods really are “comfort” foods in the sense that they counteract crummy moods or stressful situations.

What causes sugar cravings?

Okay, but what about sugar cravings? Sugar cravings are completely natural, so if you have a sweet tooth, no worries. You can totally blame biology for that one too.

Evolution has taught us to look for foods that are sweet in taste. Our primitive ancestors were hunter-gatherers who often foraged for food. Foods with a bitter, sour, or tart taste indicated a food could be poisonous, spoiled, or unripe, all of which were foods that should be avoided. Their lives literally depended on it. 

On the other hand, sweet-tasting foods signaled that food was safe to eat. It is no wonder why we enjoy eating sugar and sweets. Our bodies have evolved to know they are safe (and pleasurable) to eat.

Harland Adkins, a registered dietitian, and nutritionist explains that today, sugar cravings can be caused by a variety of factors including dehydration, an imbalance of blood sugar levels, a magnesium deficiency, overconsumption of carbohydrates, and stress. Let’s also not forget that sugary foods just taste super delicious.

It is important to remember sugar itself isn’t necessarily the problem. Sugar in moderation is not inherently toxic, but rather, excess sugar consumption can negatively impact multiple facets of health and can contribute to diabetes, fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, inflammation, and weight gain. Not to mention, it is incredibly addictive.

According to Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, “Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.” (Yikes!)

How to handle food cravings and sugar cravings

We are all about enjoying food cravings and sugar cravings in a meaningful and mindful way – that is to say, it’s totally fine to eat what you want, when you want it. But if you are looking for a few tips on how to better handle food cravings and sugar cravings, Adkins and Mitchelle Wright, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, founder and editor at Kitchenvile.com, have a few ideas:

  • Avoid craving and stress triggers
  • Distance yourself from cravings
  • Do not get too hungry or stay away from food for long periods of time
  • Drink water regularly 
  • Eat sufficient calories to keep your energy levels high
  • Enjoy fruit regularly, especially to ward off unwanted sugar cravings
  • Fill yourself with dense, filling, nutrient-rich foods
  • Get sufficient sleep
  • Include more protein and whole foods at meals and snacks
  • Manage stress
  • Stay away from overly restrictive diets or diets that promote starvation

Whether you are experiencing food cravings or sugar cravings, now you know why cravings can sometimes creep into our lives and how to better manage them.

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About Ashley Martens

Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a background in a digital marketing coupled with her knowledge of general nutrition and a lifelong passion for all things health, wellness, fitness and nutrition, Ashley offers a healthy alternative to traditional writing. You can learn more Ashley and her writing over at her blog, Three to Five a Day.