Food Cravings – What Do They Mean?
Written by Fritz Nugent
I read a similar headline recently from my healthcare provider and clicked on the link to learn more. I love reading nutrition articles. I like to compare what I read to what I think I know, just to make sure that I am staying in the loop with current practices and new research findings. However, the article headline is sometimes more enticing than the contents within. The article I read stated that cravings can mean you are lacking in sleep, or are eating poorly. They did not go into the trenches and talk about the details that individuals may encounter on a daily basis within their own lives. That’s what I’d like to do in this article to make it applicable and helpful to you.
Over the last few years of nutrition coaching at Invictus, I have coached many athletes utilizing our four pillars approach, and, of course, nutrition is a main focus. You would think that nutrition would be the only focus in a nutrition program, but that is not the case. I have written extensively about how sleep, stress, and movement all play significant roles in our physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health and well-being. I state this upfront because we cannot talk about cravings without touching on the categories of lifestyle as well. We are interconnected organisms, and every part of us is affected by every other part, including the choices we make in our lifestyle outside of the food we choose to put in our mouths.
When our bodies crave anything (food, sleep, water, sex), this is a direct signal from our bodies to our conscious mind to act accordingly. Think of it as our body saying, “Hey conscious being in charge of making decisions on what happens to us, your brain and body, we need energy for doing the stuff you’re asking us to do.” Or when you’re tired, the body and brain might say, “Hey, we’ve been going for 20 hours now and our systems could use a break. Any chance you could f’n sleep?!”
Our bodies might be telling us that we are stressed or thirsty. Maybe we are bored, or emotional, or simply need a state change. The better you get at distinguishing what your body actually needs, the better you can supply yourself with the correct response instead of eating pounds of sugar and cheese all day long when you are bored, sad, or horny.
Food Cravings at Meal Times are Normal
Have you heard of this test? If you are hungry and would eat a piece of fruit, you are in fact hungry. That’s called having an appetite, and is perfectly normal and healthy. We should crave food at meal times! However, if you would rather have a cookie or binge-eat an entire box of Wheat Thins instead of eating that piece of fruit, then you may have a specific craving instead. What you crave and when you crave it can show you what you are lacking, and what your body really needs!
Cravings from Lack of Sleep
In today’s society, I believe sleep deprivation is one of the top roots of food cravings. When we don’t sleep enough, say we wake up early with our head spinning with a long to-do list, and we only get six hours of sleep, our body is awake for an extra two hours that day. Those two extra hours of movement and brain usage demand more energy, so we must eat more.
When we are moving around in our daily lives, especially if we are stressed, we may utilize more calories. If we eat the same amount of food that we ate the previous day after a full night’s sleep, we will be more hungry. And when the body is low on energy, sugary foods become extremely enticing. Sugar spikes blood sugar, immediately providing energy for our brain and body to do whatever is needed. And our body knows, by weight, fat is more than double the amount of energy of carbohydrates and protein, so fat cravings also occur. Our bodies are intelligent, and will forsake future health for immediately combating the needs of our daily life. If those daily needs are not in alignment with our long-term health, the gap between optimal health and actual health widens.
Cravings from Lack of Movement
Sometimes I work with people who crave food as a means to change their state. Maybe they are bored, or frustrated, or some other uncomfortable emotion. Maybe they have a big project at work or at home that looms over them, and they’d rather not work on it right now. Instead, they might choose to eat something because eating is comforting. We get a dopamine hit from sugar. We might get a serotonin response from cheese. These are distractions from what needs to be done, and using food to do so is a bad habit for those who desire improved body composition or performance.
Eating or drinking calorie-dense foods to change our state is a learned habit, and one that we can un-learn with practice.
Another potentially better solution to changing our state instead of shoving sweet or fatty foods into our mouth is moving our bodies. Go for a walk. Do some lunges in place or hold a wall squat. And if you have the time, exercise.
Cravings from Extreme Calorie Deficits
Did you know that we can move too much? Research suggests that being physically active for 15 to 20 hours a week is not unhealthy. However, we must earn the right to train for large durations. We are only as good as our recovery. If I move a lot and don’t eat much, I will definitely lose weight. However, if I have a huge gap between how much energy I spend and how much I take in, I can lose muscle mass, which is not good. It is a clear sign of undereating, and it’s problematic for many reasons. People who eat like this often have strong cravings, especially at the end of the day, usually after dinner, and can hold off from embracing their cravings until Friday or Saturday. Then they might binge on a shit ton of food.
Maybe they were 500 cal a day under their energy expenditure, and they completely offset and then some, actually gaining weight to the process while binge eating 5000+ calories for a few days in a row.
A better solution here to lose body fat while maintaining muscle is to maintain a mild caloric deficit, one that doesn’t leave you ravenous at the end of the day, or at the end of the week. This will help you manage cravings. A mild deficit can provide mild cravings, which are more realistic to resist long-term.
Stress has wide ranging effects on our bodies. I have seen some stressed clients with decreased appetites. I coached a military special ops male who was 6’3”, 220 pounds, and lean. He only needed 2000 cal a day. He wanted to gain muscle mass, so I increased his food, but he could not tolerate any more daily calories. In my opinion, he was extremely stressed. He did not lose weight on that small amount of food, which blew my mind.
I’ve also seen the opposite, where stressed clients can handle a huge amount of food and not gain weight. I coached a female who ate 3000 calories a day and went from 150 pounds down to 130 pounds in a matter of a few months. The difference between those two humans is wild. I believe stress was the main driver for both of their unique calorie needs, and yet their bodies responded differently to food.
What’s the point here? That we don’t know how we will respond to specific levels of stress from multiple sources, so the solution is unique to you. Cravings definitely can arise from stress, and once again, the same sugary and fatty foods are present.
If you think that your cravings are stress-induced, there are two options:
- Decrease your stress. Remove the stressors from your life. If you can’t remove them, reframe them so you are no longer as stressed about them. This is a shift in mindset. If you can’t remove or reframe them, that leaves only option 2.
- Add destressors into your life. This includes any activities that help you downregulate and relax. Reading, writing, journaling, exercise, sex, going for a walk, taking a nap, playing an instrument or making art, meditation, breathwork… These are all examples of tasks that you can use to calm the f down.
Cravings from Dehydration
Sometimes we are just thirsty, or dehydrated, and we misinterpret this body signal as hunger. Then we eat the same type of foods that everyone who craves food eats – salty, sugary, and fatty foods. Try drinking a big glass of water instead. If you are still craving food, do the fruit test. Would you eat a piece of fruit? If so, you are probably hungry. So eat the fruit, or have a meal if it’s your meal time.
Cravings from Poor Nutrition
Maybe you eat a ton of sugar in your diet. Maybe you eat too many fatty foods. Eating certain foods can cause cravings for similar foods. In addition, eating tons of sugary and ultra sweet foods can make nutritious and moderately sweet foods like fruits, berries, and dark chocolate taste unpalatable in comparison. Simply eating well for a week or two and reducing or removing those hyper palatable foods from your diet can help you return your taste buds to a state where fruits and vegetables and minimally processed foods taste good to you again. This alone has a massive effect on reducing cravings for super-sweet and fatty foods.
Cravings Due to Nutritional Deficiencies
Your body may crave certain foods because it instinctively knows those foods contain components that the body needs. Vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fat, and amino acids are all crave-worthy. When we eat healthy foods for the majority of our meals, our body signals become more clear, and we are able to supply ourselves with what we need, instead of an unfounded craving based on satisfying and emotional need.
Craving salty foods might mean you are low on electrolytes. You could add some table salt to your next meal, or eat some foods high in magnesium, sodium, and potassium. Dried fruits and nuts are my personal go-to here. If you’re craving sugar, try eating berries and dark chocolate instead. If you’re craving high-energy foods like cake, donuts, or fried food, you may be significantly under-eating and need to eat more total food from nutritious sources.
Sometimes we are hungry after a full meal because we did not have enough protein. Our bodies might sense a deficiency for specific amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Eating enough protein at each meal and during each day can help reduce the need to snack after meals. For plant-based eaters, make sure you get your protein from multiple sources. For example, if I’m a vegetarian and I only eat beans, then I could eventually become deficient in specific amino acids. My body may begin to crave foods that contain the amino acids that I’m not getting through beans!
Solutions for Cravings
Funny enough, the solutions to curbing your cravings are the same guidelines I provide to athletes who want to optimize their performance:
SLEEP. Sleep enough and work towards improving your sleep quality. This will reduce sleep-related cravings.
FOOD. Match your energy intake with your energy expenditure for improving body composition, and if you want to lose body fat, eat a little bit less than what you expend. Doing so has longevity and allows consistent fat loss while maintaining or gaining muscle mass. This will also reduce strong cravings for sweet and calorie dense foods.
STRESS. Manage the stressors in your life. If you have people who stress you out, either find a way to better deal with them, or spend less time with them, or if possible, remove them from your life. If you have a stressful job and there’s no way around it, and you think that your job is at the root of your stress, consider changing your job. I have had several clients over the past few years who changed their jobs, and it had massively positive effects on their personal and professional lives. On the other side of that coin, if you lack meaningful relationships in your life, you may eat out of loneliness. I have had clients who fall into this category. It’s heartbreaking. We all crave human connection and meaningful relationships.
MOVEMENT. Train as much as you can recover from. Stay active. Move your body. Go on walks and hikes. Play silly pick-up games and sports with family and friends. If you train too much, you’ll progress slowly, you will get injured frequently or have nagging overuse injuries, and your appetite will probably be a mess. If you train too little, you will have trouble retaining muscle mass, and your caloric need will slowly decrease as you age, and this often puts on a steadily increasing coat of body fat.
Master the basics (sleep, nutrition, stress, and movement) and watch your cravings decrease, your body composition change for the better, and your performance will begin to soar!
- Greer, S., Goldstein, A. & Walker, M. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain.Nat Commun 4, 2259 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms3259
- May, J., Andrade, J., Kavanagh, D.J. et al. Elaborated Intrusion Theory: A Cognitive-Emotional Theory of Food Craving. Curr Obes Rep 1, 114–121 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-012-0010-2