If your rumbling stomach can only be satisfied by a particular food, you're not simply hungry, you're craving. Most everyone experiences food cravings occasionally, and they're seldom cause for alarm. Eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, managing stress and feeding desires before they grow into cravings can go a long way toward reducing cravings, says the University of Rochester Medical Center. If your cravings are frequent or severe, learning more about underlying causes may inspire you to make positive changes.
Desires for sweets are hardwired into the brain, says Samara Felesky-Hunt, a registered dietitian in Calgary, Canada. Because carbohydrates help your brain produce the feel-good chemical serotonin, low serotonin levels can stimulate cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods. Eating a carbohydrate-rich snack or meal alters your brain chemistry, providing temporary respite from mild depression, tension and stress. You may also crave comfort foods, such as foods you loved as a child, during times of anxiety or stress.
If you diet to lose weight, you're likely to gain food cravings. In a study published in "Appetite" in June 2012, researchers analyzed the food intake, cravings and moods of 129 women who were dieting, watching their weight or not doing either for seven days. The vast majority of the 393 cravings reported derived from dieters, whose cravings were the most intense. Women watching their weight showed moderate amounts and intensity of food cravings, and non-dieters exhibited the fewest and weakest. The most craved food was chocolate. If you carry excess pounds, eating more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, exercising routinely and allowing treats in moderation provides a more effective option that's less likely to cause cravings.
Low Blood Sugar
If you're a fitness fanatic, you may find yourself craving carbohydrates. Heavy exercise causes your body to use up glycogen stores in your muscles, which your body reaps from carbohydrates. If you fail to replenish those stores post-workout, you can develop low blood sugar. Low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia, causes carbohydrate cravings, says the University of Rochester Medical Center. To prevent hypoglycemic-related cravings, have a carbohydrate-rich snack, such as a banana or a slice of whole-grain bread with peanut butter, shortly after exercise. Whole grains, nuts and fresh fruit provide carbohydrates and promote longer lasting blood sugar control, compared to refined carbs, such as sugary cereal or candy.
When your diet lacks particular nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein or fat, you're likely to crave rich food sources. Salt cravings can derive from low-calcium diets, says Michael Tordoff, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Salt cravings have also been linked with potassium and iron deficiencies. To ensure that your nutrient needs are met, aim for a balanced diet, rich in a variety of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fish, lean meats and dairy products. If you have trouble meeting your needs through food alone, discuss the potential need for supplements with your doctor or dietitian.
- University of Rochester Medical Center: Coping with Food Cravings
- Samara Felesky-Hunt & Associates; Taking a Bite Out of Cravings
- Appetite; Dieting and Food Craving: A Descriptive, Quasi-Prospective Study
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
- Women's Health Magazine; Know Why You're Craving Food
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images