Cravings are not all bad.
When you get super thirsty, you crave water. This is normal, natural and good.
But oftentimes our cravings aren’t as clear as water. In fact our cravings can be confusing, fearful and powerful.
As for me, for many years of my life I’ve struggled with food cravings. Then one day I was reading about health and learned that cravings could mean many different things:.
- Physical hunger for anything
- Craving for a specific food (but which one?)
- Emotional hunger to feel better
This sparked a journey of inquiry and transformation for me. I was a big fan of yoga so I already believed in the power of my mind and body.
So if I could learn to listen to what am I craving in my body, to really understand what those cravings meant …
Then I could be free of binge eating and emotional eating.
Now after many years I’m ready to share some things I’ve learned.
Let’s dive in, and be sure to leave a comment if you have a question or share if you find value here 🙂
How To Tell What You Are Craving: Have The Right Mindset
We first need to talk about cravings themselves.
See, many people believe that cravings are 100% bad, that cravings are a sign of weakness.
But if you have this mindset then you will remain stuck with cravings for the rest of your life, because you won’t ever be able to understand what your cravings are telling you.
Cravings are normal. Even normal, healthy people who don’t struggle with food have cravings, right?
We can agree on this right?
Cravings are natural.
If we have this mindset, that our cravings are telling us something useful and aren’t chaotic meaningless noise, then we can learn to decipher those signals.
Understanding The Different Types Of Cravings
There are two basic types of cravings:
The physical hunger craving is more straightforward so let’s start there:
How To Spot Real Hunger
Look, everybody gets hungry.
I know this seems obvious, but back in my wrestling days I had a distorted relationship with hunger and food.
I thought if I was giving into cravings, then I was weak, but I was also restricting my food intake so that I was hungry practically all the time!
Nowadays I realize that getting hungry a few times per day is totally 100% normal and perfectly healthy.
I know that my hunger sensation is a craving that gives me a simple message:
It’s about time to eat!
So if you are wondering to yourself, ‘What am I craving?’ then the first place you can start is by considering the criteria listed in the table above:
- Do you feel a sensation in your stomach, like growling or emptiness?
- Do you not really care what you eat? Like you are open to many different options as long as they taste relatively good and will satisfy your hunger?
- There’s no crazy sense of urgency?
If this sounds like your cravings, then guess what … go ahead and eat!
For the most part, your cravings in this scenario are just simple, healthy, normal cues for hunger.
These cravings are giving you the message that your body needs something!
Messages If Your Cravings Are Physical
- Lack of water – Being dehydrated can cause you to feel hunger. If you are craving something, try drinking a large glass of water first. Often, this will curb the feeling of hunger and save you from eating unnecessary food your body doesn’t need. People often focus on nutrition when they think about being healthy, but in reality, healthy starts with drinking water!
- Mineral deficiencies – The body will crave certain foods that contain the minerals it lacks. Below you will find specific mineral deficiencies and their cravings and what foods you can eat instead to have a healthier alternative.
- Not enough food – you need to eat! Your body is simply hungry. Most people do best on 3 ‘hearty’ meals per day like breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Plus, in addition to 3 ‘hearty’ meals you’ll probably need a snack or two. Not regularly eating a variety of wholesome foods is a big reason why people get cravings. It’s difficult to eat this well, but you can learn to do so.
Now, if your food cravings are physical meaning that you feel a physical sensation in your belly …
And you also have a slight, non-urgent preference for a certain food, then it’s possible you have a mineral deficiency.
7 Common Causes Of Craving
Please note that deficiencies typically are not the primary cause of food cravings.
If you eat 3-5 healthy meals and snacks per day from a variety of foods, then most likely you will get your vitamin and mineral needs met throughout the day naturally.
This is the best strategy to cure cravings: eat more healthy wholesome foods more regularly.
With that being said, it’s possible that you may just be missing a mineral from your diet and you should try to incorporate some healthy foods that may help you solve food cravings caused by the vitamin deficiency.
- Salty Foods: If you are craving salt, it’s probably because you are either dehydrated or because you need salt. Salt is nothing to worry about if you genuinely are craving salty foods. Just add more salt or you may even dissolve some salt into water. Please note that if you have a history of high blood pressure then try to limit your salt intake accordingly.
- Chocolate: Read this article here if you are craving chocolate. Chocolate can be linked to a shortage of magnesium, but truth be told, chocolate is simply delicious and can be good for your health too! Please note as well that if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic chocolate sugar consumption may need to be more measured and limited.
- Sugary Processed Foods: You are not eating enough wholesome slow-burning foods and your blood sugar has dropped. Your body needs fuel so it craves sugar, which gives your body access to quick energy. This includes bread too! Bread may not seem like it has sugar, but white bread does dissolve directly into sugar after being digested. Try eating more wholesome foods that burn slow – like whole grains, lean meats, nuts, etc – in order to reduce your sweet tooth cravings.
- Caffeine from Coffee / Tea: You are not sleeping well enough (see below for more info). Your body could also have become adjusted to a certain caffeine level that you now crave.
- Dairy: You need more calcium in your diet. Dairy can also be craved if you aren’t eating enough. Since dairy like ice cream has a high amount of fat, proteins and overall calories, it’s a great way to get energy if you haven’t eaten enough that day.
Same with cheese too! Cheese and all of these dairy products just have so much fat in them that if you aren’t getting enough fat through other sources you’ll crave dairy products.
- Meat: It’s possible that you lack iron or vitamin B12. However, I know for me I lacked iron and vitamin B12 but that was only because I was vegetarian. I was eating vegetarian, but not the healthy way.
Now let’s switch topics away from nutrition and health to focus on emotional cravings.
Because what if your cravings are emotional? What if you know logically what to eat in terms of nutrition, but you find yourself always craving the ‘bad’ stuff?
How To Tell If You Are Emotionally Driven
If you get cravings that never go away despite seemingly perfect nutrition then this section is for you.
For starters, let’s confirm that your cravings are emotional in nature:
- You have a sense of urgency
- It feels like you need one specific food and nothing else will do
- They are leading to eating too much food and make you feel bad about yourself
- Your overall diet feels out of control
- You are feeling hungry but not sure where in your body, a sense of pressure but hard to pinpoint
Does this fit you?
Causes Of Emotional Cravings
There are many different reasons why people get cravings that are emotional:
- Stress: For many people food is a place of solace and relaxation. If you have a job or relationship that is really stressful and doesn’t have many other sources of relation and joy in your life, it’s quite likely that you crave food for the emotional reason of stress relief.
- Lack of sleep: Advertisers make food seem incredibly appealing with pictures and catchy slogans. With lots of sleep it’s easier to resist their messages, but lack of sleep makes you susceptible to craving sweet food that is high in sugar, salt and fat. If you need more sleep check out these 11 tips here.
- Food kept you safe as a child: Sometimes children come from a household of either abuse or neglect. In either of these situations, a child has emotional needs for safety and predictability.
Food can temporarily offer a child a feeling of safety and predictability. At a very young age it’s possible for your brain to strongly associate food with feeling safe and under control.
Even as an adult in a safe environment with no threat of abuse, your brain may still strongly associate food with a feeling of safety and predictability. In this unstable world of corona-virus, climate change and shifting racial tensions, you could easily crave food as an escape.
- Following a diet: Following a diet is a likely cause of food cravings. When you follow a diet oftentimes you end up not eating enough. Not eating enough food then triggers your body’s survival reflex because your body thinks that it is starving to death. So your body craves food as a result.
Nowadays however, it’s rare that weight loss programs refer to their programs as a diet. You are much more likely to hear the words detox, cleanse or food elimination but these are still diets nonetheless.
Understanding What To Do About Emotional Cravings
So as we covered above, there are various reasons behind emotional cravings.
But what can you do about it?
The most important thing to realize is what ‘reward’ your emotional craving is satisfying:
- If you are stressed, is food giving you the ‘reward’ of feeling calm and safe?
- Consider if you lack sleep, is food giving you the ‘reward’ of turning off your brain so that you don’t have to think and can sleep in a way?
- If you had a childhood history of abuse, is food giving you some sort of distraction or relief from a frustration in life that reminds you of your childhood?
You have to identify the ‘reward’ the food is giving you.
In this image, Homer Simpson gets an emotional hunger cue.
- In scenario 1, the sugar cookies give Homer a temporary feeling of satisfaction, but then he’s craving more cookies again soon. You can easily substitute ice cream or any other junk food for cookies here too.
- In scenario 2, the slow carbs also give Homer a feeling of satisfaction, but this time the effects are long lasting
The key is to understand what rewards the food is giving you.
Then, identify healthy different ways to get a better reward that lasts a long time that also fulfills the temporary reward too and try those activities.
Now admittedly, this is easier said than done. Identifying the rewards of food cravings may seem easy with Homer, but in reality it’s tough.
It’s highly advisable to seek the guidance of a health eating counselor for this all-important step towards greater health.
With that being said, leave me a comment down below. Which element of health do you most relate to regarding food cravings?