Where do food cravings come from?
It’s near bedtime, and your stomach is growling. You succeeded with that dinner of healthy protein with some veggies … but in truth? You’re not satisfied. All week you’ve secretly wanted to snack on chips.
Sound familiar? Food cravings often feel like they sneak up on you—as in, why are you craving this particular food, and why right now? Until recently, even scientists weren’t sure, according to Frank Greenway, MD, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center’s chief medical officer, and professor at Louisiana State University.
However, more recently, research has found an answer that might be the real sweet spot. Says Dr. Greenway (who has studied the science of food cravings for decades): “We used to think hunger was controlled by an area of the brain, known as the hypothalamus, as a way to ensure survival. But our most current research suggests it’s actually the brain’s reward system that controls much of our eating habits, including cravings.”
Understanding cravings in this way might make so much sense. Keep reading for more insights to explain your cravings from some of the latest research on this topic, along with input from Taylor Newhouse Leahy, RD, a clinical dietitian at Baylor Scott & White Hospital and Katie Bressack, a holistic nutritionist who’s board certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. (Bressack suggests one notorious craving may be answered by reading this: Craving Sugar? A Dietitian Says You May Need More of This Surprising Nutrient.)
Why you crave what you crave
A couple of insights to start: Dr. Greenway says research suggests women are more likely to report food cravings than men are, though most everyone reports more cravings at night than earlier in the day. This may bring even more evidence to back the notion that your brain perceives certain foods as rewards. After all, at the end of a demanding few days, does anything scream Rest and recharge! quite like curling up with a little something decadent to indulge in?
Dr. Greenway explains that your cravings can give you a lot of information about yourself, including important things about your mental and physical health (beyond the fact that you have a major sweet tooth). Sometimes, an individual craves food simply because they’re hungry. Other times, there’s more behind the specific craving. Keep reading for some of the usual suspects.
Craving cookies and milk?
Do cravings get more classic? Milk is high in l-tryptophan, a compound that boosts mood, promotes relaxation, and encourages better sleep. So if your food cravings revolve around a tall glass of milk and cookies or a milkshake, it may just be that you’re in need of a little more R&R.
Indulging in a reasonable portion can be a good way to de-stress and feel better (but ideally, grabbing the occasional nap is a good way to feel more rested. Read 10 Things that Happen to Your Body When You Take a Nap).
Have you ever noticed that when you’re on a diet, your cravings for high-fat foods, like pizza and ice cream, suddenly seem to increase? It might feel like as soon as you start operating with some discipline, forbidden foods call your name—and there may be some accuracy to this. A 2018 study published in Behavioral Brain Research found that these increased cravings might be linked to the dieting behavior itself.
The researchers found that going on a diet increased a brain chemical called “neuromedin-U receptor 2” within a region of the brain that regulates food intake to make it clear you’ve had enough. So if your cravings for fatty foods are intense, it might mean your diet is a little too extreme to be practical for you. If you could use help staying on track, look at these 5 Meal Prep Tips For People Who Want to Lose Weight.
Craving burgers and fries?
Our modern world is full of stress—everything from distressing news reports to family stress, work deadlines, and more.
These stressors add up over time, leading to chronic stress, which in turn leads to elevated adrenal hormone levels. Eating high-calorie, high-fat comfort foods puts the brakes on these hormones, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So if you’re constantly feeling the pull to toward the drive-thru, instead, you might want to look into healthier trending ways to manage stress.
The idea might make your teeth ache, but some people really love chewing ice. Science suggests if you find yourself craving the cold stuff, it might be a sign of anemia.
A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners concluded that doctors should ask patients if they crave ice, as it’s a sign of iron deficiency. Ice cravings are a form of pica—a desire to eat non-food items like dirt and laundry soap—and are linked to low iron levels. The researchers hypothesized it might be because chewing the ice might temporarily increase blood flow to the brain, counteracting the slowdown caused by iron deficiency.
Meanwhile, Bressack offers this possibility: “Crunching on foods (or chewing gum) can actually release stress in the body, via the act of chewing.” Her suggested swap? “Eat more carrots or cucumbers to get that crunch on.”
If you find yourself constantly reaching for chocolate—one of the most popularly craved foods—you may be one of many people who count this as a reliable mood-lifter. A survey of more than 13,000 people found that those who ate dark chocolate during a 24-hour period were 57 percent less likely to report symptoms of depression than those who ate no chocolate.
A possible explanation? Dark chocolate contains magnesium and theobromine, two compounds shown to reduce levels of stress hormones and promote muscle relaxation. “Eat more magnesium-rich foods, with dark leafy greens, nuts, seed, and avocados,” Bressack suggests.
Or, if you really need that cocoa kick, “Always look for chocolate bars with at least 80% cacao,” she advises. “Most of the chocolate in the store is just dairy and sugar, and your body needs the cacao to feel satisfied.”
Do you find yourself daydreaming about chewy candy bars and sour sugar-coated gummies? If so, you might need to spend more time in dreamland. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people increased the number of hours they slept, they significantly decreased their intake of sugar.
Other research in the journal Physiology & Behavior found a link between the stress hormone cortisol and the desire for sweet foods. Prioritizing sleep could be key to keeping sweet cravings at bay—check out this supplement that dietitians say could help you wind down.
Cheese is a star ingredient in so many comfort foods, like pizza and nachos—and for good reason. There are plenty of explanations for a cheese craving, besides its creamy texture.
One possibility: cheese is a great source of tryptophan, an amino acid that plays a role in producing the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, per the Journal of Amino Acids. So if your Friday night cheese board date can’t seem to come soon enough, there might be an underlying need for a serotonin boost.
Likewise, dairy products such as cheese contain casein which helps in the process of releasing dopamine, according to Agricultural and Biological Chemistry. This other feel-good neurotransmitter is specifically associated with feelings of reward and motivation. The brain releases this chemical, attracting us to whatever produces it … including cheese.
One other potential reason you are constantly craving the melty treat may be because you’re having issues with concentration and memory. A 2015 study out of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were twice as likely to crave cheese as others.
Though, again … let’s not forget about the creaminess factor. “You might notice that you reach for cheese or ice cream after a long day,” Bressack says, as “dairy is a super comforting food.” Your best bet? “Look for organic, antibiotic, and hormone-free dairy.”
Whether you get a longing for a fix of fizzy sweetness every day, once a week, or just a time or two a month … if you’re craving soda, it’s possible that what you’re really craving is the caffeine hit. One 12-ounce serving of Coke provides around 45 milligrams of caffeine—about half the amount of a cup of coffee, which is arguably enough to give you a nice wake-up jolt but not enough to make you jittery.
A less common reason for soda cravings is a calcium deficiency. According to a 2017 study in Front Endocrinol, the daily consumption of cola can leach calcium and magnesium from your bones, creating a vicious cycle of depletion and craving.
Craving potato chips?
Potato chips and their hot cousin, French fries, are two of the most commonly reported food cravings, but downing bags of the fatty junk foods may be a signal you’re low on healthy fats, says Leahy. Of particular interest are omega-3s. Our bodies don’t manufacture those fatty acids, so to get our daily requirement we have to eat it in foods like salmon and other fatty fish, avocados, nuts, and olive oil.
Another possibility, according to Bressack, is that cravings for foods made from potatoes and other starches that grow in the ground might suggest that it really is time to take a breather from all your activity. “Root veggies are grounding and can help you feel calmer,” she says.
If you’re super thirsty, it’s very possible you’re just dehydrated and your body is telling you to pick up the slack with your water bottle. But if you’re always craving the wet stuff, it could signal a deeper issue like diabetes. Excessive thirst and urination are one of the earliest warning signs that your insulin levels aren’t as they should be, according to the American Diabetes Association. Extra glucose builds up in your blood, making your kidneys go into overtime to process all of it. When they can’t keep up, it gets excreted through your urine which in turn makes you thirsty again.
For other reasons you might feel thirsty, read 7 Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration—and How to Treat It and The 10 Most Hydrating Foods to Eat (Without Drinking Water).
Pretzels definitely satisfy the need for a crunchy snack, but you may specifically have this craving for a salty snack if you’re in need of water. Yes, it seems counterintuitive—but if you’re dehydrated, your body will crave salt. Think of this as a backwards way for your body to get you to drink more H2O.
Salt cravings can also be a sign of can be a sign of Addison’s disease or Bartter’s syndrome, especially if the cravings come with other symptoms like exhaustion, weight loss, and skin discoloration. If you’re worried that cravings are getting the best of you, take note of these foods that can actually make you hungrier.
Craving kettle corn?
The body needs both sodium and glucose to function properly—two nutrients that are quickly depleted when you exercise, especially if you sweat a lot. So if you’re craving any salty-sweet treat, it may be your body telling you it needs to physically recover and replenish its stores, Leahy says. (This is part of why most workout recovery drinks contain both sugar and salt.)
An intense craving for any food (but usually treats) is often mistaken as hunger when it may mean you’re dehydrated. But be aware: Thirst is actually the last resort signal for dehydration. “We often misinterpret the signals our body is giving us,” explains Leahy. “As a society, we are chronically dehydrated. The next time you reach for something sweet or salty, try quelling the craving with a tall glass of water. You may be surprised at the result.”