Food cravings – why do we have them?

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Food cravings are not an unusual thing. They can be frustrating, especially when the cravings seem to come out of nowhere and not go away until we have the food that satisfies! Why does this happen, and is there an explanation as to why it happens?

There are a huge variety of factors that affect our appetite and food preferences – upbringing, sites, places we have been, people we know, holidays, special memories, smells, sounds, touch. These play a role in not only what we eat day to day, but also what we do desire sometimes out of the blue.

Upbringing has a huge role in food cravings. Foods you are exposed to in your younger years and at certain places can stimulate our cravings for certain foods. If you were given a certain food on every family car trip, chances are you will crave these foods when doing the same activity yourself. Your mum having a cake baked for your every time you got home from school may still have a strong hold on you as you age and revisit that person and place. It is a habit to look for this food more than a craving, and habits can be changed.

Genes can play a role in the foods we like, such as strongly flavoured foods like blue cheese, dark chocolate, and broccoli, which you may enjoy but other people do not enjoy at all. Genes can dictate how much sugar and salt we like to add to our foods (although be aware, that salt cravings can be because of an acquired taste through behaviours).

Environmental cues are a huge influence on foods craved.

Stress effects everyone in different ways, but can increase our desire for sugary foods due to the way it stimulate our hormones and effects brain chemistry. Eating sugar stimulates pleasure centres in our brain, so eating sugar can satisfy cravings when we need a pick-me-up, or when we are feeling down can make us feel better. Those pieces of chocolate you have when you are stressed can help relax you too.

Sight, sound, and small can affect cravings too. When you walk past a restaurant that has delicious cravings wafting out the door, cravings can be created. Seeing food, such as beautifully displayed cakes in a window makes our salivary glands start pouring more saliva in than can stay in our mouths. For instance, if you saw an apple pie dressed up with ice cream (yum yum!), you may find yourself desperate for that apple pie, but if the apple pie was given to you as crust, apple pie, and spice on the edge of the plate, and put in front of you, it probably wouldn’t set off the same factors for cravings.

Deficiencies are thought to play a role in our cravings for certain foods.

When we haven’t eaten for some time and our blood glucose levels drop, we crave carbohydrate foods to bring those levels back up again. Cravings for some foods are thought to be related to deficiencies, like chocolate can be related to magnesium deficiency, so having a magnesium rich food such as yoghurt, dried fruit, avocado, wholegrain bread of cereal, nuts and seeds, or beans, can provide our body with a more substantial amount of magnesium, and it is then less likely that you will have another craving so soon.

Hormones – when serotonin levels fall as they do in a woman’s monthly cycle, the stress hormone cortisol is increased which leads to a craving for carbohydrate foods to rebalance serotonin levels. But instead of that fast food option you are looking for, trying have an option such as wholegrain bread or cereal, and some baked beans to give you a mood boost, and leave you feeling full and satisfied so you won’t get any more cravings as soon.

And lastly, dietary restriction and limiting yourself from certain foods can increase cravings! Wanting everything you told yourself you couldn’t have while dieting is normal. We don’t always like being told no.

When you are aware of the things that trigger your cravings, it can be easier to distinguish whether it is a real craving for food (i.e. you are hungry), or if you are experiencing something else that will influence your choices.  Make an appointment to see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian for more information.