Your Cravings, Explained

Too much junk food wreaks havoc on the body, so why do we crave cake and cookies instead of carrots?

Cravings are a lot like itches. They demand your attention. They occupy your thoughts. They are hard to resist. And yet, once they go away, you question why they had such a hold on you. Here's what you need to know about these urges — and why it's OK to sometimes let yourself have that treat.

Why Don't I Crave Carrots?

We tend to pursue foods that have an addictive quality. “They’re often highly palatable and high in sugar, salt and fat. Typically, they are highly processed, not foods we can find in nature. Our brains aren’t wired to know what to do with those foods, so they kind of go haywire and get overstimulated and we get a rush or a high off of that,” says Allison Childress, a registered dietitian nutritionist and board member of the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

These foods tend to trigger a pleasurable chemical and physical reward, and we go to them again because we want to repeat the sensation.

Blood Sugar Boost

People often crave foods high in carbohydrates, which cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. You can get surges of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine from these foods, and you’ll want to create those good feelings again. Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokes- woman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explains that carbs are digested quickly, so two hours later, as your blood sugar levels fall, you may want to eat again, creating another cascade of hormones.

If you eat large quantities—which is common with cravings—you’ll tax your digestive system repeatedly. Over time, if you overeat, you can become over- weight and increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes and other long-term health problems.

Find the Middle Ground

Cravings are tricky to manage. “We have learned that the more we give in, the more we have them. And the more we restrict them, the more we have them,” Childress says. “The trick is finding that balance—not giving in to them every time and not restricting them completely." 

To keep cravings at bay, eat regularly and stay hydrated, as you're more likely to cave if you're hungry or thirsty. Get regular exercise, which acts as a natural appetite suppressant. And get enough rest so you have the energy to resist the urge when you need to. 

To satisfy a craving, get a single serving of the food you want—a slice of pizza or an ice cream cone, for exam- ple. That way you won’t overeat or be tempted later with your leftovers.

To resist the urge to eat a not-so- good-for-you food, try an artistic or tactile activity. Cohn recommends knit- ting, coloring and making jewelry. “If you find something that’s more enjoyable, you’ll have more success than if you punish yourself and force yourself to clean the bathroom,” she says. And seek out an activity that’s accessible. Rock climbing might be a great distraction, but it’s not something you can turn to every time the need arises.

If you struggle with emotional eating, it can be helpful to journal about the emotions you feel during a craving. Cohn notes that some research is beginning to draw correlations between certain emotions and flavors. Crunchy and salty foods like pretzels and chips are associated with frustration or anger, while sweet and creamy foods or baked goods are associated with depression, sadness or loneliness.

You Don't Have to Be Perfect

Cravings stem from an emotional desire. But it's important to realize that emotional eating isn't necessarily off the table. "We have this notion that there should be no emotional attachment to food, but in reality food has positive and negative associations, and that's not a bad thing," Cohn says. For example, enjoying a slice cake at a birthday party, or an ice cream cone on a beach vacation, can be a positive experience. "But when it becomes frequent or excessive," Cohn says, "it starts to become dangerous physically and emotionally."

Hunger vs. Cravings

Why is it that when you’re hungry, you could eat just about anything, but when you have a craving, only one food will do? Devin Vicknair, PhD, behavioral health coordinator at GMC’s Center for Weight Management, provides insight into the key differences between the two sensations:

Hunger is physiological. Physical hunger builds gradually and tends to be associated with an eating schedule, when your body needs calories, energy and nutrients. Nutritious meals should satisfy physical needs for four to five hours.

Cravings are more psychological than physiological—that is, more mind than body. Cravings tend to persist even after eating, when you may not actually be hungry. Break the cycle by asking yourself, why am I about to eat or drink this? This will activate your rational/logical decision-making side, stopping the impulse to satisfy the craving.