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We’ve all been beset by food cravings at some point in our lives, but most of us don’t really know where they come from or how to resist them.

Since cravings are associated with higher body mass indexes, it has become more important than ever to understand the science behind them, especially when you consider that 39.6% of our adult population struggles with obesity.

The Science Behind Food Cravings

A food craving “is an intense desire to consume a specific food, and is different from normal hunger”. Because it can seem uncontrollable, many of us go into a spiral where we end up binge eating.

This is because our enjoyment of food triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, creating a sense of pleasure, happiness, and well-being while we eat. They promote compulsive eating by weakening our control over our appetites.

They may also affect the cephalic phase responses (CPRs) or the first step of the digestion process that responds to the thought, smell, sight, and taste of food. When triggered, it creates a sensory simulation where you have increased salivation and gut motility, more gastric juice, etc., to prepare you to eat.

Aside from these physiological changes, there are other factors at play.

What Triggers Cravings?

Food cravings are brought on by physical, mental, and behavioral factors. They can also be triggered by our environment. Some to watch out for include, but aren’t limited to:

Food Marketing

We give in to food because of temptation. Creative food advertising shrewdly exploits this weakness of ours. Food ads trigger the unconscious mind by turning the mundane into a lip-smacking delight. It hijacks your hunger-signaling mechanisms, making your belly growl to increase your food consumption.

A 2010 study on the eating behavior of elementary schoolchildren showed that their consumption increased by a staggering 45% when they were exposed to food advertisements.

Take a look at how some popular food brands entice us:

  • Lay’s: “No One Can Eat Just One”
  • Chipotle: “As Real As It Gets”
  • Taco Bell: “Build Your Own Cravings Box”

Burger King, Dunkin’, IHOP, M&M’s, and Wendy’s also employ catchy, effective, and engaging food marketing techniques.

Hormonal Changes

Most of us associate periods with chocolate cravings, but a study has debunked this by pointing to cultural influence instead. It suggests that the perceived trigger might be an effort to justify the consumption of otherwise “forbidden” food.

Obvious buzzkill aside, women’s periods do influence their snacking habits, typically during the luteal phase when there’s a sharp drop in their estrogen levels.

A small study involving 27 young women showed that it increased the desire for food high in salt, sugar, and fat. While this is not fully understood by science, the general opinion is that low levels of estrogen make women crave pleasurable experiences like snacking.

Inadequate Sleep

Even a single night of poor sleep can decrease the leptin (the hormone that helps us feel full) that’s circulating in our bodies and increase ghrelin (the hunger hormone) according to a 2008 study.

So, lack of sleep can throw the balance of appetite and satiation into a frenzy, weakening our abilities to resist cravings while opening the doorway to weight gain.

Restrictive Diets

Calorie-restrictive diets are said to suppress overall food cravings—a fact that’s extensively backed by research.

But most don’t realize just how difficult it can be to put it into practice.

Based on a 2011 article, nutritionally sound reduced energy intake can be challenging to follow. Another experimental study showed that short-term, selective food deprivation can increase cravings, making healthy eating even more difficult.

Social Environment

Think about the aroma of coffee, the tantalizing display of donuts in the bakery, or the vending machine at the gas station. Temptations abound wherever you go.

Research found that our interactions with our social and physical environments can influence food behaviors. The packet size, plate shape, lighting, etc., can also increase our food consumption.


Stress, brain food, and reward circuits overlap significantly which can lead to an increased drive to eat. While this mechanism was useful ages ago when food was scarce, it could lead to overeating today when food is much more abundant and accessible.

Another study also showed that negative emotions can increase our motivation to eat.

How To Manage Food Cravings

Giving in to food cravings can have significant effects on your well-being. With these genius tips, you can manage them more effectively, eat consciously, and maybe even shed a few pounds!

  1. Boost your protein intake: Eat high-protein foods like chicken breast, eggs, fish, and nuts. They can increase the secretion of satiety hormones, making you feel fuller for longer and lead to reduced consumption.
  2. Chew gum: Chewing gum for at least 45 minutes can help suppress hunger, appetite, and cravings for snacks, making you less likely to binge eat.
  3. Do a deep clean of your fridge and pantry: Optimize your food environment by keeping highly palatable foods like bread, chocolate, and chips off your plate and away from your pantry. If you can’t get to them, you’re a lot less likely to indulge in unhealthy eating.
  4. Stay hydrated: Thirst is often mistaken for hunger. So, the next time you’re craving for calorie-laden food, chug water instead. It will make you feel full, lessen your appetite, and stimulate your metabolism.
  5. Get quality shuteye: Sleep deprivation alters appetite-regulating hormones, leading to increased consumption. So, getting more shuteye could make you less hungry during the day, keeping uncontrollable cravings at bay.
  6. Reduce stress: If stress is affecting your waistline, instead of reaching for calorie-heavy food, exercise to control food cravings or write down your thoughts in a journal. Distract yourself and engage in relaxing activities.
  7. Try to limit alcohol: Even the smell of alcohol can influence food cravings. Drinking it can cause dehydration which can heighten your cravings. It’s best to reduce your intake to avoid food cravings.

If all else fails, work with a healthcare professional to identify your triggers and find targeted solutions that allow you to make healthier choices.


Take Home Message

Food cravings can make you susceptible to a range of health issues so it’s important to manage them. Stopping abruptly is the best way to go, but it comes with intense withdrawal symptoms. So, be sure to have healthy alternatives on hand to help ease you into more mindful eating habits.