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What Do My Food Cravings Mean?

Food cravings can be most commonly associated with pregnant women who crave odd or large amounts of very specific foods. (Pickles and ice cream, anyone?) Some people crave specific foods, seemingly for no reason at all. Others crave nostalgic foods tied to special memories or comfort foods to ease stressors. Scientistic research on food cravings proves that there is more to cravings than we originally thought. Even cravings for certain foods can mean different things for your body.

Craving vs. Hunger

A craving is defined as an intense desire for a certain food or drink. Hunger, on the other hand, is the absence of food in the stomach. Though any food can satisfy our hunger, only particular foods that are desired at that time can satisfy a craving.

Dieting and Food Cravings

When it comes to dieting, food cravings are often inevitable because so many foods are likely “forbidden” when dieting. Both mind and body may crave extra nutrients if a diet is highly restrictive, which can cause intensified cravings. According to research published in Current Nutrition Reports, food cravings can be conditional rather than being based on a need for deprived nutrition.

Humans generally crave energy-dense foods, which are often high in calories, as well as sweet or savory foods. This is a cultural phenomenon, with certain cultures around the world craving the sweetest or most savory foods over others. The most common low-calorie craving observed in humans is fruit. The timing of most cravings was observed to be in the afternoon and early evening. Researchers also found that the desire to eat high-calorie foods increases throughout the day, as low-calorie cravings decrease.

Psychological Explanations for Food Cravings

The research published in Current Nutrition Reports outlines several different reasons for food cravings, many of which have a psychological background. Though it is logical to think that a craving must solve some sort of a nutrient deficiency – and this does happen – this is not the answer to most food cravings. Instead, most food cravings are conditioned into the brain. Consider these research findings:

  • In one study, those who avoided ice cream (restrained eaters) ate more ice cream for a period of time than those who never avoided ice cream and ate it normally (unrestrained eaters). The evidence suggested that the conditioning surrounding the “I can’t have it” mentality often leads to overconsumption after the craving is initially satisfied. In other words, when restrained eaters satisfy their craving, they tend to think they already ate what they were not supposed to, so why not eat more?
  • In another study, self-report measures for restrained eating were positively correlated with self-report measures of food craving. Those who are restrained eaters are likely to have more frequent and more intense cravings. Even when restrained eaters are not experiencing major calorie restrictions that would likely lead to a nutrient deficiency, restrained eaters say they have multiple intense cravings. The conclusion is that the psychological effect of not being able to eat certain foods is what leads to these extra cravings, not a nutritional need.
  • In one study at a dairy, researchers found that chocolate-deprived restrained eaters ate more chocolate in a taste test than those who were not restrained eaters. This suggests that deprivation of a certain food will increase cravings for it in restrained eaters and dieters.
  • A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology proves a connection between food cravings and stress. People who are under a lot of stress tend to crave nutrient-rich and comfort foods.

What Certain Food Cravings Mean

All this research proves that food cravings can be intensified and created through psychological conditioning. That being said, there are some outliers. People experiencing strong hormonal changes may crave specific nutrients or sweet and savory comfort foods to fill a psychological need. Pregnant women tend to experience cravings for the same reason.

People may also experience cravings for nutritional reasons, such as a person craving a salad when they do not usually eat vegetables. The body experienced the need for nutrients found in the salad, and the person’s craving satisfied that need.

Here are some foods that can help fulfill certain needs for you:

  • Craving sugar: You may be under stress or have a hormonal imbalance. Instead of restricting chocolate altogether, eat a little (perhaps one square of a chocolate bar or one piece of candy) to satisfy the craving and hold you over until mealtime.
  • Craving salty or savory snacks: You may be under stress or in need of electrolytes or foods that are rich in Vitamin B. Try nuts, seeds, and fruits to satisfy this craving.
  • Craving protein: If you notice that you have brittle hair or nails, you may be experiencing a true protein deficiency. Eat lean meats, lentils, nuts, and fish.
  • Craving milk or cheese: You may need protein or more omega-3 fatty acids. Eat fish, nuts, yogurt, eggs, and avocado to satisfy this craving.
  • Craving carbs: You are low on energy. Eat whole-grain bread or whole-grain snacks with fruit or vegetables to satisfy this craving.

Don’t worry, food cravings are not all bad. Sometimes these cravings can be beneficial – they are your body’s complex way of telling you that you need something. Most of the time, a craving is a psychological event that cannot be satisfied just once and will be intensified by restrictive eating. Many people crave alcohol or addictive substances in times of stress, also due to psychological conditioning. If you’re overusing alcohol or other substances and need help with your cravings, call RECO Intensive. At RECO Intensive, we understand how intense the cravings that accompany addiction can be. Getting sober isn’t easy, but it’s necessary for future success. Our professional staff and experienced alumni can create a treatment plan that is specifically catered to you and helps manage your cravings. We will also work with you on any co-occurring mental health disorders, so you can overcome your addiction. Call us at (561) 464-6533 today. Let’s get back to a brighter future. 

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