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8 reasons you might be having food cravings, and what to do about it

Interview with Aly Eads

Why do food cravings start?

Food cravings can be caused by a number of different things - it’s actually quite impressive! To break it down as much as possible though, you’re simply lacking something in your life, and your body is sending you signals of cravings to try and make up for that lack and achieve balance again. Cravings aren’t the problem - they are the solution. So the question becomes: what are you lacking? It could be nutritionally based, or it could be more symbolic if you’re lacking something like love or joy in your life. No matter what, it will require a bit of investigative work!

Let’s review 8 common reasons why someone might have food cravings:

  1. Hydration - You might be dehydrated or even overhydrated, which can affect your electrolyte balance resulting in a craving for salt. So pay attention to your water intake, especially if you’re sweating a lot in your workout or throughout your day.

  2. Food imbalances & nutritional deficiencies - If you’re not getting what you need from your diet, your body is going to let you know. A great example of this is if you’re not consuming enough protein, your body will likely crave sugar, as it’s the quickest source of energy available. This is why maintaining a well-balanced, whole food diet is so important to ensure you’re getting all the macro and micro nutrients your body needs. It’s also important to regularly check your nutrient levels with your doctor to make sure there aren’t any major deficiencies that need to be corrected.

  3. Processed foods & food marketing - heavily processed foods, snacks and treats are engineered and strategically created with the goal to be highly palatable and addictive. And same thing with food marketing - it’s a science all about creating desire. It’s important to remember that these companies want you coming back for more - it’s not a matter of will power and it’s not your fault for craving these!

  4. Seasonal Changes - As the weather changes, your body’s needs change with it. For example, in the hot summer you might start to crave more cooling foods such as watermelon and cucumber; this is your body’s attempt to stay at a balanced temperature. Seasonal cravings are completely natural!

  5. Hormonal changes - The most common scenario we think of as women, is the natural changes in your hormones throughout your menstrual cycle causing different cravings at different times in the month. However, stress hormones (hello cortisol) and imbalanced hunger hormones can also affect cravings.

  6. Yin-Yang Imbalance - Everything in life holds a certain energy, and too much of one type of energy or direction can lead you to crave something in the opposite direction (again, your body trying to maintain balance!). For example, too much sugar (yin) may cause a craving for meat (yang), or too much raw foods (yin) may cause a craving for heavily cooked foods (yang).

  7. Emotions - Food is an emotional experience, period. And so anything that triggers a certain memory or emotion can also trigger a food associated with that memory or emotion. You’re not weak for having this experience, you’re simply human. Also, feeling difficult or uncomfortable emotions can result in a craving for food as comfort and relief. We are wired from infancy to seek food as comfort.

  8. Dissatisfaction or lack in other areas of your life - This is a big one. Being dissatisfied with your relationships, having an inappropriate exercise routine, being stressed or uninspired in life or in your job, lacking a spiritual practice, etc. Nothing is off limits! It’s extremely common to use food as a coping mechanism for difficult situations and lack in other areas of your life.

What are food cravings?

To put it as plainly as possible, cravings are simply messages from your body to guide you in maintaining balance. Your body knows what it needs to stay happy and healthy and it will always find a way to communicate that to you, and cravings are a perfect example of this!

What role does our nutrition status play in them?

As mentioned earlier, nutritional deficiencies are only one potential cause of cravings, but they are one of the most important to dig into because if you don’t correct the deficiency, the cravings will persist and could expand into other symptoms. For the most part, it’s typically much less complicated than we make it out to be. The majority of the time, your cravings will lead you to exactly what you’re needing, but there are of course some more complicated instances that require a little more investigation.

Some obvious cravings scenarios:

  • Craving water? You’re probably dehydrated.

  • Craving salt? You probably aren’t getting enough sodium and minerals in your diet.

  • Craving sugar? Take a look at your protein and complex carb intake - you might not be providing your body with enough sustained energy. Sugar = fast energy.

Some more complicated scenarios:

  • Being deficient in iron is typically associated with fatigue, which can cause you to reach for sources of quick energy, i.e. sugary foods and refined carbs.

  • A magnesium deficiency may be behind your craving for chocolate! Because, you guessed it, chocolate is a great dietary source of magnesium.

How can we shift our cravings to crave things that are good for us, like carrots? :)

It’s not so much about “shifting your cravings”, as it is about focusing on why they are happening in the first place. If we address the true root cause(s), then the craving should subside and reaching for the healthier food options will come much more naturally! I always caution clients on the “avoidance mindset” of doing anything possible to avoid the craving, and instead, facing it head on to be able to truly heal. Of course, getting to the root will depend on your unique situation, but here are some general things we can all focus on to mitigate cravings:

  • Manage and decrease stress levels

  • Prioritize good quality sleep

  • Engage in daily movement and exercise

  • Stay hydrated

  • Eat a colourful and wide variety of real, whole foods (the less processed, the better!)

  • Recognize habits that lead to cravings and switch things up. An example of some habits might be reaching for X food when the clock hits 3 pm, or reaching for X food as an instant coping mechanism when starting to feel overwhelmed or stressed.

  • Develop self-awareness around your emotions and mindset, and work to process through your personal roadblocks in these areas

But if you are looking for a quick tip for choosing a healthier option in the moment, try matching the specific flavour or texture of the food you’re craving with a healthier alternative. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

How has this impacted your own life or the lives of your loved ones?

I’ve definitely had some very strong cravings - who hasn’t? One of my most recent struggles was my carb and sugar craving, which I tackled a few different ways. I got real with why I was reaching for these foods as comfort and began to heal some emotional layers, I upped my protein intake to ensure I was getting enough of a sustained energy source, and I also supplemented my iron consumption after taking a blood test with my doctor and finding an iron deficiency.

Besides that specific example, carbs, in general, can definitely take a toll on your mental and emotional health - I’ve experienced this myself and supported clients through the same struggle. It can be hard feeling like you are weak for having the craving in the first place, and then even weaker for “giving in”. It requires a huge mindset shift from feeling like the victim of your uncontrollable cravings to approaching cravings from a place of non-judgemental curiosity and self-compassion. It’s not an easy shift but is such a crucial one to long term mental and emotional health.

If we could remember 1 thing about food cravings- what would it be?

To acknowledge the craving, approach and explore them with non-judgemental curiosity, and proceed from a place of empowerment for what is right for you in that particular moment. Think, “what is my body trying to tell me here?” and “what do I actually need in this situation?”. You are in control, always.