We’ve all felt the struggle to fight our food cravings.
You enjoy a nice meal that leaves you feeling great afterward. In no time at all, you’re feeling hungry again when you return to work. You’re probably wondering, “How can I be hungry when I just ate lunch an hour ago?”
That is the power of food cravings at work. Food cravings are extremely common, and not just for pregnant women like the stereotype says. In fact, more than 90 percent of people have experienced a food craving at some point in their lives.
But what exactly are food cravings, and why do you get them? Do they mean that you’re hungry? How do you control them? Let’s find out.
What are Food Cravings?
A food craving is an intense desire for a certain food. It may feel insatiable— like you can’t be satisfied unless you eat the food you are craving.
Most food cravings aren’t for healthy foods, unfortunately. Junk food cravings— foods that are high in unhealthy fat, sugar, and salt— are the most commonly experienced food cravings. There’s an interesting reason for this, which we’ll discuss later.
What Causes Food Cravings?
There is no one specific cause for a food craving. However, many potential causes may be causing that craving. Some of these include:
- You’ve seen, smelled, or heard about a specific food in your day-to-day life. For example, you may suddenly crave a peanut butter cup after watching a Reese’s commercial on TV.
- Hormone imbalances— particularly of serotonin, the “happy hormone,” or leptin, the hormone that tells you to stop eating when you’re full. 
- Hormonal fluctuations from menstruation or pregnancy. This is where the stereotype of weird cravings like pickles and ice cream during pregnancy comes from.
- A desire for comfort food. When you’re not feeling great, you probably want to reach for junk food like ice cream, potato chips, or chocolate. Because of their fat, sugar, and salt content, unhealthy food is quite comforting when you’re down in the dumps.
- Nutrient deficiency. If your body is lacking a certain nutrient, then a food craving may be your body’s way of letting you know. For example, a chocolate craving can be a sign of low magnesium levels, or craving salty food may mean that your body needs more sodium. 
To make this even more baffling, sometimes a food craving can happen out of nowhere. You may be going about your day as normal when suddenly you get a sugar craving, and you have no idea why!
There are two kinds of food cravings:
- Selective cravings. These are cravings for a specific food.
- Nonselective cravings. This is the desire to eat anything— nothing specific; you just want to eat. These can actually be caused by thirst.
So if you’re craving food, then you must be hungry, right? Not exactly.
What’s the Difference Between Hunger and a Food Craving?
Craving food is all about an associated feeling and not a stomach rumble. A hungry stomach will physically get your attention by growling or cramping. On the other hand, a craving is just a fierce desire for a particular food— you probably aren’t hungry, you just have to have it.
Also, food cravings are tied more to your emotional needs than physical ones.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
When you’re excited, do you reach for a hamburger, steak, or pizza? When you’re upset, maybe you feel like eating a pint of ice cream or a whole box of Oreos.
Eating does more than fill your belly— it also satisfies the ingrained emotional eating patterns we develop over time. These patterns are stored feelings tied to an emotional experience either through repetition or intensity, such that it becomes your new “normal response.” And unfortunately, that response is emotional eating and over-indulgence that has nothing to do with actual hunger.
Emotional cravings— often followed by emotional eating— can be linked to our upbringing and is a pattern developed from childhood. Children will often become unsuspecting emotional consumers due to their well-meaning parents trying to comfort and console their traumatic experiences.
Imagine this. Your child’s sports team just lost an important game, and they’re understandably upset about it. Then to heal that emotional wound, you take them out for some comfort food. On the other hand, you probably celebrate victories with ice cream. Both feed a subconscious pattern connecting emotion with food, ingrained deep within your subconscious mind.
So how can you tell if you’re physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Here’s an easy way to tell the difference:
- Emotional hunger can’t wait— physical hunger can.
- Emotional hunger appears in an instant— physical hunger occurs gradually.
- True hunger is satisfied by various foods— emotional eating is only satisfied by particular foods.
- You can quickly stop eating when you are full and satisfy your true hunger if you are physically hungry. You may continue eating when emotions are in the driver’s seat.
The Power of Comfort Food
We all know how comforting all the sugary, fattening or salty food we love can be. Why are they so comforting? Again, it’s all tied to that emotional satisfaction. Whether you’re sad, celebrating something special, or even staying warm on a cold day, there’s always food associated with those emotions.
Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the University of Illinois’ Food and Brand Lab, says, “Comfort foods are eaten to obtain or maintain a feeling.”
He adds: “Comfort foods are often wrongly associated with negative moods, and indeed, people often consume them when they’re down or depressed, but interestingly enough, comfort foods are also consumed to maintain good moods.”
Comfort food can boost your mood by unconsciously reminding you of a happy memory associated with that food. For example, maybe you enjoy a dish as an adult because it’s something your mother made when you were young. Or maybe you find a bowl of tomato soup comforting because of the warmth it provides on a chilly day.
That rush of emotions connects that particular food to that feeling of comfort, boosting your mood and making you happy.
(And if you’re curious— ice cream is the #1 comfort food, followed closely by chocolate.)
How to Control Your Food Cravings
Remember— food cravings are extremely common, and almost everyone has had them. But they can be very distracting— especially if you’re trying to lose weight, are exercising caloric restriction, or have food restrictions for your health.
But there are ways to curb those cravings without depriving yourself of the foods you love. Here are a few of our tips.
Eat a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet is the best way to ensure that nutritional deficiency doesn’t cause any food cravings. Your diet should include healthy food like:
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, such as leafy greens, apples, carrots, et cetera.
- Choose whole grains— such as brown rice, oats, or quinoa— over plain flour for the healthy fiber you need.
- Avoid processed food as much as possible— especially excessively fatty foods or sugary foods.
- Healthy fat— like from avocados or olive oil— can actually help with weight loss and nourishing your body. Just don’t eat too many of these healthy fats— too much of a even a good thing can lead to weight gain.
Remember, there’s always room for the occasional treat too, even with healthy eating.
You don’t need to deny yourself whenever you’re craving unhealthy food— moderation is key, though. The stress of depriving yourself of a food you love can be more harmful than the occasional indulgence because this can cause you to develop unhealthy eating habits! So if you’ve got an occasional hankering for a cookie or a scoop of ice cream, enjoy!
Did you know that you may actually be thirsty if you think you’re hungry? It’s true!
If you’re thirsty or dehydrated, you can confuse your body’s signals for more fluids with hunger. To prevent this, drinking plenty of fluids— primarily water— each and every day is important.
For men, this is about 15.5 cups of pure water per day. For women, it’s about 11.5 cups to stay hydrated.
Recognize What Emotions Cause Emotional Eating
According to our research at Morter HealthAlliance, it’s estimated that about 75 percent of overeating habits are caused by emotional overeating. S.E.M.O., or Subconscious Emotional Memory Override, occurs when your brain gets stuck telling your body an inappropriate message.
In this case, the message is to fixate and binge on food your body doesn’t need. So, here’s a plan to help avoid the roller coaster of emotional eating.
First, you must learn to recognize the onset of the emotional eating pattern. Document when you’re eating at times outside of your regular mealtimes. How did you feel at that exact moment? Were you upset, happy, sad, or overwhelmed? Record how you feel over time to learn to recognize your emotional eating pattern or patterns.
Be thankful for your perfect body, weight, and fitness, and do the Morter March! Reward yourself afterward by going for a walk or a swim.
Train your brain to be different by activating your physical body. Begin to picture yourself craving healthy food, and then Morter March to success!
Food for Thought
Whether it’s because of hormones, emotions, or even the power of suggestion, most people have experienced food cravings at some point in their lives.
Typically they’re nothing to worry about, but if you’re struggling with emotional eating and cravings, don’t worry. There are ways to satisfy your food cravings while nourishing your physical and mental health. All it takes is a little mindfulness and a different approach to the foods you love.
Want to learn more about how the Morter HealthSystem can help not just you, but your whole family— including your pets— achieve your B.E.S.T possible health? Let us know— we’d love to hear from you!
1. Wiginton, Keri. “The Facts on Leptin: FAQ.” WebMD, WebMD, 19 May 2022, www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/features/the-facts-on-leptin-faq.
2. Petre, Alina. “Do Nutrient Deficiencies Cause Cravings?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 20 May 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/nutrient-deficiencies-cravings.