What Causes Food Cravings? | What Do Food Cravings Mean?

Craving something salty, sweet, or savory? You’re in good company. This post will explore what causes food cravings, what they really mean, and perhaps most importantly…tips to curb them for healthy alternatives!

Do you find that you are fighting food cravings more than you’d like? This post will cover the most common food cravings and why you get them. Bonus: tips to curb them!

You know when you’ve just gotta have something? 

And you can’t stop thinking about it until you either jump in the car and head to the drive-thru or raid the pantry?

That’s a food craving my friends! Something we all know well, I suspect. You may be taking care to meal prep for the week with all your healthy favorites, but when a craving for ice cream sets in…it’s all any of us can do to resist.

I get it and I’ve been there, believe me. I’m no stranger to giving in to cravings, and I’ll admit it took some discipline to get where I am now. (Want to get here, too? Read this!)

But what causes food cravings, really?

Let’s take a look below the surface at why we crave certain foods…and what to do about it!

Close up of jicama fries. Lacey is dipping one fry into the chimichurri dipping sauce.

What Are Food Cravings?

I’d describe food cravings as your body (or your brain) telling you something. How to recognize one? Well, when you have an intense desire that is difficult to control, you are experiencing a craving.

It’s interesting, but I learned that men typically crave foods on the savory side (like burgers) and women go for sweets and foods that are high fat, such as chocolate. In the same study, it is noted that cravings can occur as a result of deprivation and, of course, due to hormones. You can also have cravings when your body needs more calories.

There can also be cravings due to cultural norms (rice is craved frequently in Japan). Time of day matters, too, with cravings typically showing themselves in the late afternoon and the evening.

Lastly, one cool thing about cravings (although they are not cool when you’ve got them!) is that a craving is satisfied by the specific food you can’t stop thinking about. Hunger is satisfied by food in general.

*There is a distinct difference between normal appetite hunger and cravings.

Close up side view of a burger in a bun trimmed with cheese, lettuce and tomato.

What Do Food Cravings Mean Emotionally?

Food cravings can certainly be a signal that your emotions are being triggered. What causes emotional food cravings? For some, there can be triggers that send them off. For others, it’s an overall desire to calm the nervous system.

Stress is a big one, as is the personality trait of impulsivity. Many people find food to be a comfort and use it as a response to negative emotions. Let’s look more in-depth at the emotional connections to cravings:

  • The context of eating a food: This means that you may connect a certain food to an activity. Watching football may mean nachos and wings, so every football game doesn’t seem quite right without those snacks.
  • Your stress level: High cortisol levels are thought to be tied to food cravings. Cortisol is a hormone directly tied to a desire for high-calorie foods. 
  • Your mood: Moods like sadness, boredom, and anxiety can point to food cravings. Moods can lead to cravings and yet, also become a factor after satisfying a craving. 
  • Your personality: People who are impulsive or have an addictive-type personality tend to have cravings, too.
  • Memories and nostalgic feelings: The happy feelings we remember after sharing a meal at a celebration can lead to cravings.
Close up overhead view of a woman in purple striped pajamas lying in bed with eyes wide open, cannot sleep, hands crossed over her stomach.

What Do Food Cravings Mean Physically?

Your physical health status can lead to cravings. Underlying deficiencies may manifest as cravings so it’s important that you tune into what feels normal and what’s a little unusual.

The following physical factors can all cause food cravings:

  • Lack of sleep: Burning the midnight oil often? Poor sleep quality affects your hormones, leading to cravings. Sometimes it’ll lead to weight gain also.
  • Chronic stress: Kinda goes along with lack of sleep, right? Stress can lead to more hunger hormones like ghrelin.
  • Pregnancy: Again, hormones mean a lot! Pregnancy hormones can go haywire, sending you into craving mode.
  • Addiction-like symptoms: The saying goes, the more you eat junk, the more you crave. And it’s true.
  • Not drinking enough water: Dehydration can cause tons of issues and cravings too! It’s important to stay hydrated to fight off cravings. Fuel up!
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Being deficient can bring on cravings but also things like pica (when low in iron, calcium or zinc, for example, you may crave non-food items – like dirt!). And if your diet lacks protein and fiber, you may experience cravings. To add protein to your diet, read here. For fiber, all the info you need is here!

What Do I Eat For Food Cravings?

There are a ton of good foods out there that can satisfy your cravings without a problem. Make sure you get the vitamins and minerals you need to feel satisfied and healthy. I suggest you stock up on a few of these items and turn to them when you’ve got an uncontrollable urge. Chances are, they’ll do the trick:

Close up side view of grocery products, including ranch dressing, peanut butter, orange juice, and teriyaki sauce.

Foods That Cause Cravings

Some types of food will cause you to crave even more—like a vicious circle, you know? 

Carbs: Yes, we do need carbs as they are part of the macronutrient picture (carbs, fats, protein) but if you constantly eat carb-rich foods like pasta and bread, your body will crave more.

Instead: Satisfy your body’s needs with something like healthy overnight oats.

Sugar: We all know that we take in way more sugar than we should, especially with all of the hidden sugars in foods. Consequently, you’ll want more and more.

Instead: Reach for chia pudding or protein paleo cookies.

Salt: Stress often leads to a desire for salt. Don’t reach for salty foods like nutritionless potato chips or another salt-laden treat.

Instead: Toss chickpeas in spices like cumin and chili powder and then sautée them in olive oil for 10 minutes.

8 Foods To Reduce Stress

How Do You Stop Food Cravings?

Right off the bat, I’d say to drink more water. Hydrate, hydrate all day long for better health. I love my apple cider vinegar and water combo because it keeps me hydrated and has TONS of benefits!

Another way to kick those cravings to the curb is to eat more protein because it keeps you full longer. In fact, studies show that a high-protein breakfast helps to reduce cravings all day long. Looking for a way to easily add protein to your day? Dustin and I created cleanish Plant-Based Protein Powder specifically to help people do that. Mix it in your shakes and smoothies (or add it to your pancakes) for an awesome boost of all important protein.

Try to plan your meals and snacks to avoid getting hungry and grabbing treats in between meals that aren’t good for you. If you do snack, make it a healthy one like a filling hard boiled egg or crunchy popcorn.

Additionally, try to get enough sleep and exercise, and don’t shop when hungry. Eat mindfully by avoiding distractions like your phone or television. Eat slowly and enjoy your food!

5 flavors of infused water lined up in a row, in mason jars, including watermelon and mint, and strawberry lemon flavors.

What Do Food Cravings Tell You?

Food cravings can tell you a lot about your body and about your emotional health. We’re really going to dive into that now, so you know what the cravings are telling you.

Included are tips on how to curb the urge to eat when chances are, you aren’t even hungry.

Let’s decode the cravings, shall we?

What Do Food Cravings Mean

Craving Processed Foods:

Processed foods and junk food send messages to the brain that are like rewards. For instance, Dopamine is sometimes released by the brain, bringing us a pleasurable feeling that becomes associated with that food. 

Tips to curb the craving:

Craving Chocolate:

There are a lot of reasons we crave chocolate. Think PMS for the ladies, a need for sugar, or even a lack of magnesium

Tips to curb the craving:

  • Look for ways to replace the need. Avocado toast or an apple with nut butter are good substitutes. 
  • Magnesium-rich foods are a good idea, too. Stock up on almonds, fatty fish, and avocado.
  • It’s okay to give in to a bite of chocolate. Keep it dark (above 85%).
    Chocolate does have benefits — read more.
What causes food cravings

Craving Caffeine:

Many people state they just can’t get going in the morning without their cup of coffee. This could be due to habit or because you are craving caffeine and its pick-me-up.

Tips to curb the craving:

  • Drink plenty of water and eat iron-rich foods to give you energy.
    These include spinach, broccoli, quinoa, and red meat.

Craving Sweets:

Sometimes we crave sweets because our blood sugar is imbalanced. Too much starch and not enough fat and protein can do that. It’s all a matter of eating right. D

Tips to curb the craving:

Craving Salt:

Salty cravings can mean an electrolyte imbalance. There are a few reasons why this may happen. Not hydrating during an intense workout or drinking too much alcohol can lead to an imbalance.

Tips to curve the craving:

  • Add quality salt (such as pink Himalayan salt) to your diet, but with some mindfulness and restraint.
  • Go for foods like beets, carrots, and shrimp to curb the craving healthily.
  • Try to cut back on foods that may contain a lot of sodium. Make your soup instead of eating it from a can.
What Causes Food Cravings

Cravings Takeaway

In a nutshell, it’s never good to deprive yourself of food because it can lead to uncontrollable cravings for things like salt and caffeine. The best thing to do is to fuel your body every day with all three macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Doing so will help you to avoid cravings!

This post contains affiliate links for products I use regularly and highly recommend.

Lacey Baier

Hey there! I’m Lacey Baier and I’d like to welcome you! I’m a healthy lifestyle influencer and the creator of this clean-eating blog and YouTube channel, as well as cleanish, my clean-eating supplement brand. My recipes have been published on Food Network, Good Morning America, FoxNews, Tastemade, Fitness Magazine, and much more. I live in Austin, Texas with my husband and four kiddos. Let’s get started!

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