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The Science Behind Your Food Cravings

The Science Behind Your Food Cravings

There you are, driving home from a long day of work, staring at the car in front of you without a thought in your head other than the image of you relaxing on your couch with your feet up when suddenly it hits you: pizza.

And not just any pizza…you want…no…you need Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza.

Suddenly you’re at full alert, watching the exits for a sign of a pizza place. A thousand scenarios play out in your head; should you call in an order? Who would get that delicious pie to you the fastest? Should you have it delivered or pick it up on the way home?

These cravings are very real, and very strange. They come from seemingly nowhere. You weren’t even thinking about pizza a moment ago!

Did you see someone eating a slice earlier maybe? Was there a billboard along the side of the road that your subconscious mind picked up on? Are you falling for advertising, or do you truly have to have that pizza?

Yes, you decide. Soon, you’ll have a whole wonderful box to yourself.

We’ve all been there, and not just with pizza. Sometimes it’s chocolate. Or ice cream. Or chocolate ice cream.

But what causes our cravings, and what can we do to overcome them?

Where do the cravings come from?

donutsCravings are still somewhat of a mystery to science. There is evidently no single cause of the craving, but a number of body functions working together to produce that singular focus, that unquestionable desire for a specific taste to grace your taste buds.

There are many factors at play in any given craving including emotions, environmental factors, memories, hormones, even DNA. All these factors have a hand in convincing your mind and stomach that the pizza is a necessity for you right now in order to continue a happy existence.

This is what makes them so hard to predict.


unhappyWhen you’re stressed or unhappy, you may be more inclined to go for sugary foods. This might be due to your taste buds being more receptive to these foods during these times. The tongue contains receptors called glucocorticoids, which are activated during periods of anxiety and stress. They make sweet foods taste even better.

But don’t blame your cravings on your menstrual cycle. Research has now shown that this classic culprit blamed for cravings has no real effect.


asetheticsStudies have shown that human food cravings are also affected by their surroundings. In a dimly-lit grocery store, we might be attracted to more unhealthy foods. And, depending on the music playing from the speakers overhead, we may not think twice about tossing a box of cookies into the cart.

The aesthetic appeal of the food can also stick in our memories and make them more enticing to us. A crunchy chip, a crispy crust, bright colors and packaging, can all influence us to enjoy the food more the first time we eat it – then later, the cravings come.


mum daughterNow this is the part that makes me feel a little helpless: we may be completely predisposed to craving some foods over others thanks to our genetics. Studies have shown that certain chromosomal variations lead us to fancying different flavors, particularly when it comes to sweets. So, you can blame your parents for some of your food cravings.

When it comes to caffeine, a handful of genes have been linked to determining how much you want every day. These genes can affect the way you perceive the stimulating effects of coffee, or the way your body breaks it down.

Your individual food preferences might also come down to your upbringing. If you were exposed to a wider variety of foods as a child, your craving palate might be broader. Instead of junk food, you might crave caviar. But regardless of how fancy your cravings may be, you’re still a servant to the subconscious forces of your mind.


memory eatingPsychologist Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center told the Washington Post: “Think of food cravings as a sensory memory. “You remember how good it felt the last time you had that food. You have to have experienced eating it before”.

Cravings affect an area of the brain that is similarly stimulated by our desires for new clothes, experiences, and anything else that can deliver a serotonin response. The reward centers of the brain, the hippocampus, insula, and caudate, are activated by food cravings in much the same way as drug cravings.


ice cubesIn the past, people figured our cravings were the result of nutrition imbalances or deficiencies. However, expert Karen Ansel MD, RD, CDN, told the Huffington Post this probably has no truth to it.

Shae said: “If cravings were an indicator of nutritional deficiency, we’d all crave fruits and vegetables. The fact that we all want high carb, high fat comfort foods, along with the research, is a pretty good indicator that cravings aren’t related to deficiencies”.

There may be one craving linked to a deficiency. Doctors use the term ‘pica’ to describe the craving for substances with little to no nutritional value. People who want to chew ice may suffer from iron deficiency anemia.

But we can be sure of one thing: a craving is not the result of hunger.

What is hunger?

empty plateThe need to eat is a very different beast from a craving for a specific food.

The sensation of hunger serves the very useful purpose of encouraging us, through a gnawing and frustrating emptiness, to eat anything in sight.

Once you’ve burned through all of the last meal that has been cruising through your gastrointestinal tract, a drop in blood sugar and insulin production occurs and a hormone called ghrelin is produced. Ghrelin talks with the hypothalamus, the same part of the brain responsible for basic body functions like sleep, thirst, and libido.

Once the message is received, the hypothalamus pumps neuropeptide Y into your system, which stimulates your appetite. After you eat, the feeling of hunger is stifled by the hormone leptin, the satiety hormone, which tells the brain you’re satisfied.

Most of us have never experienced true, ravaging hunger. That’s a very different sensation than the irritating feeling you suffer from before dinner.

In fact, it may be difficult for us in the advanced parts of the world (where food is practically always available to us and often abused) to differentiate between hunger, and anxiety or boredom.

That daily reminder of hunger can be conquered even with a few bites of food, or sometimes a glass of water.

So, remember: you can pretty easily conquer your hunger, as long as there’s some form of food around. However, those unrelenting cravings might take a little more work.

Managing Your Cravings

manage cravingsAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of Americans are obese.

Because of the obesity epidemic, a lot of work is being done by scientists to figure out how to manage cravings. This is especially important because of the nature of the food we typically crave: high calorie, high energy, and high fat.

If we can do nothing to stop them, regular cravings for these foods can lead to some serious health and weight issues.

Some people have the force of will to go cold turkey and deny themselves the pleasure of satisfying their cravings, but not all of us can be superhuman.

Chew Gum

gum mouthIf you aren’t really hungry, but have the itch of craving something sweet, maybe you just need something to chew on. Gum has been shown to decrease cravings and appetite overall, and because of the wide variety of flavors and consistencies found in chewing gum, it might be the next best thing.

Choose Fruit Instead

eat fruit

You’d be shocked to find out how effectively fruit can stop a craving before it takes hold. Fruits are full of natural sugars, as well as a variety of nutrients and fiber. They’ll also leave you feeling full.

But be careful. There are many different fruits to choose from, and some may be better for you than others. If you can, go for the healthiest options, like berries, melons, and citrus fruits.



Because a lot of our cravings are triggered by stress, before you go reaching for that candy bar, take a few deep breaths. Listen to your favorite music. Hang out with your pets. Pick up a book.

If you aren’t actually hungry, it’s fine to force yourself to forget your craving. Try to take a nap by focusing on how wonderful it will be to drift off into sleep, to leave your worries behind, and by the time you wake up you’ll have completely forgotten the urgency you felt about eating that whole pan of brownies.

Eating foods high in carbohydrates, like most of the commonly craved foods, has a calming effect because of the serotonin boost you receive when you eat them. This is often why we crave a carb heavy snack.

If you learn any of the multitude of ways to manage your stress levels, you’ll be more effective in fighting off those cravings.

Drink water

drink water

Like I mentioned earlier, what you think might be a craving for something you just can’t quite put your finger (or taste buds) on, might just be thirst.

If you drink an 8-ounce glass of water every time you feel that inexplicable urge, you’ll feel fuller and may successfully distract yourself from your desire for something else.

Keep a reusable bottle of water handy throughout the day and drink from it every time you think about it. It’s pretty hard to drink too much water, so replacing your cravings with a refreshing drink of this life giving liquid is the perfect replacement for that donut. You could even use a water enhancer to give it some added flavor, and maybe hit that sweet spot a little easier.



This is tricky. Sometimes, it’s fine to give in and allow yourself that snack. Just don’t overdo it, and don’t overindulge. Definitely don’t make it a daily sin. If you become addicted to foods, it can be tough to fight your way out of it. I recently covered ways of conquering food addictions in an earlier post.

When you do give in, try opting for a healthier snack. While eating it, don’t rush; savor every delicious morsel. Really enjoy what you’re eating, and make the experience fully satisfying.

And afterwards, if you feel guilty, go outside for a quick jog around the block. Go to the gym and do some cardio to burn off those extra calories. In fact, regular exercise can cut cravings altogether. Studies have shown that walking for 45 minutes on a treadmill led to reduced stimulus response in the brain to food images.

If you already lead a healthy, active lifestyle, indulging every now and then is perfectly acceptable.

Trick your brain

trick your brainYou can also try using various techniques to trick your mind into believing the cravings have been satisfied by combining foods together. If you really want something chocolatey, lightly drizzle some chocolate syrup over a bowl of strawberries.

Eat some trail mix, but don’t just pick out the chocolate candies.

If you want something saltier and more filling, opt for healthy avocado or a protein packed food that will contribute to your health while hitting the spot. Then, you won’t have to eat that whole pizza!

Final thoughts

choose goodWe may never fully conquer our cravings, but by learning more about our bodies we can start to discover why we have them in the first place. And what can be done to manage them.

You might not always be able to stop yourself from giving in, that’s okay, we’re all human. But maybe now you’re one step closer to making sure your health comes first.

What foods drive you crazy with cravings, and what have you done to conquer those cravings?

Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. Aryan

    September 10, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    “Before go reaching for that candy bar, take a few deep breaths. Listen to your favorite music. Hang out with your pets. Pick up a book.” hunger for the candy bar will fade away with happiness.
    meditation is a good way to lower your stress.
    There is one more option to trick your brain to eat less, use small plates and small spoons (x They will help you to eat less.


    • Mike Kamo

      September 11, 2015 at 9:22 am

      Aryan, great tips. I like the part about smaller spoons — something we can all start doing!


  2. Vishal Kataria

    September 10, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    Loved your ideas Mike. Especially chewing gum, drinking water (it satiates more hunger pangs than anything else), and having a protein shake (no place in my stomach after that). 🙂

    I also think that the psychological aspect of will power is at play here. In ‘The Power of Habit’ Charles Duhigg writes that if we had a bad day, our will power weakens (there are scientific reasons for this, as Nir Eyal reiterates). And when our will power is at its lowest, we often give into temptation, the easiest forms of which are food and lust. I guess that’s why pizza joints open up beside gyms, and people on bad days binge on pizza right after a workout, wiping out all their hard work.

    Looking forward to reading more awesome articles.


    • Mike Kamo

      September 11, 2015 at 9:21 am

      Vishal — that’s a good point. I always seem to see pizza right outside my gym… clever.

      Looking forward to hearing much more from you as well!


  3. Zarayna

    September 11, 2015 at 12:24 am

    Hi Mike,

    Good post – thank you. And very good points raised, and tips given, by Aryan and Vishal.

    We do live in a toxic food environment (bit dramatic but you know what I mean) where it is very difficult to avoid seeing cues and triggers to indulge our naughty taste buds. (Mind you, that is better than famine – the worst ‘diet’ of all).
    Always best to have some sensible, usually protein food, so that a ‘hunger’ cue doesn’t get triggered by temptation, either when we are psychologically down or over-excited in the supermarket or high street and then we create a vicious cycle for ourselves and call it an addiction.
    I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ll suggest it in case it might be useful to someone. When I used to smoke cigarettes, there was a very definite cycle of indulging in nicotine – you get satisfaction – followed by a very low feeling (after the nicotine has left your blood stream) which triggers the need for another ‘fix’ i.e. another cigarette. This is, of course, what we call addiction. But, if instead of having another fix, you just wait for the feeling to pass (less than a couple of minutes) the craving will diminish. As soon as you begin to recognize and time this cycle, you can begin to see that you can be in charge and not be a slave to your biochemistry.
    A very similar cycle might be detected with high sugar foods. As long as we observe and don’t panic, (as the boys suggest, sip water and breathe steadily) we might be able to restore calmness without creating a vicious cycle of habit/dependency/addiction.
    Cheers and thanks again.


    • Mike Kamo

      September 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

      Zarayna, thanks for sharing your story — the cigarette comparison is very apt. Addiction is purely the absence of toxicity in our bodies. Always great reading your insights.


  4. Kith

    September 11, 2015 at 4:00 am

    “Being angry makes you FAT” 😀


    • Mike Kamo

      September 11, 2015 at 9:18 am

      Kith, at a base level it’s true 😉


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About Mike Kamo

Hi, I’m Mike. One of my biggest passions in life is nutrition and after being certified, I wanted to create a site where I could help readers live a healthy and nutritious life. I believe we control our destiny and we can choose to live a long and healthy life by eating right and treating our bodies with respect.

Let me show you how our simple and efficient online fitness coaching has made it easy for thousands of women to lose weight, and how you can too!

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