What Causes Food Cravings?
Experiencing cravings can make adopting healthy eating habits a challenge. Here are some of the main reasons for food cravings. Understanding them can help in dealing with these strong desires that can often derail your health improvement efforts.
Generally, cravings fall into one of two basic categories: physiological and psychological. And keep in mind that you may be dealing with issues from one or the other or from both categories.
1. "Detox hunger" This reason for craving certain foods resembles the consumption of cigarettes or heroin, just milder of course. When you start eating a healthier diet, more nervous system energy (aka "nerve energy") is freed up for healing, and since there's usually a bunch of housecleaning and repair to do, when this kicks into high gear, you feel worse. And since no one wants to feel worse, we naturally crave whatever will stop us from feeling bad. This is one reason why it's so hard to quit smoking; you feel terrible when you stop. If we eat hard to digest food (relative to a simple fruit meal), energy demand for digestion goes way up and so energy available for internal detoxification goes way down, and the "detox" process takes a break, and you feel better. So this "detox hunger" is not real hunger, but a desire to feel better, or more accurately, to not feel worse.
2. Hunger for nutrients Your body needs
food for two reasons: fuel and nutrients. When you're eating the foods
you're designed to eat that come from nutritious soil, the foods will
provide enough of all the nutrients that you need. When they don't (because
they were disconnected from the soil too soon because of the need for
early harvesting or because the soil is over-farmed and not fertilized
with all the nutrients that we need), since your body still needs them,
when it isn't getting them, it will signal you to eat more food in an
effort to get them. This is not hunger for fuel (measured in calories)
which should be the normal type of hunger we experience, it is a hunger
for nutrition. When people eat a Typical Western Diet containing processed
foods, those foods are fortified with important nutrients that are lacking
in our lives. When we stop eating those foods in favor of a more healthy,
natural diet, if those nutrients aren't in the foods we're eating in sufficient
quantities for our body's needs, we can experience a desire for "more
food" (and the body often points you to where it remembers getting
some of what it needed, and this can be the foods of the non-human diet
that you had been eating, which can explain a craving for those foods
you're trying to eliminate from your diet). It should be noted that eating
a diet that is devoid of a variety of fruits and vegetables can
also cause this type of hunger.
If you post what you eat to www.fitday.com (a free service), or Cron-O-Meter, make sure that the fat content of your diet stays within 8% to 18% of total calories on average for a seven day period (there's a nifty pie chart on fitday.com that shows you the ratio of carbs-to-fat-to-protein of the foods you've entered for the day; then just add up seven of the fat figures and divide by seven to get your average for the week, because it's the weekly average that matters).
If you want to see the reasons for nutritionally sub-par fruit, view this video.
3. True hunger When you're not getting enough calories to fuel your body's needs, or when your stored glycogen (fuel) is running low, you should be hungry (unless your body wants you to fast so it can deal with a semi-serious situation to prevent it from becoming a serious situation). But most people haven't felt "true" hunger since they were kids because they're always eating ahead of it. And most people think they're hungry when their stomach grumbles, or when they get light headed, but these are not true hunger. Real hunger is silent, like thirst. It's a feeling that only you can feel, and it's felt in the same general area as thirst; in the upper chest / throat area.
So what distinguishes hunger from thirst? Thirst is not what you'd call a pleasant feeling, in fact, when you're very thirsty, it can furrow your eyebrows; it has an immediacy to it. Real hunger on the other hand, is a pleasant feeling, and is at first a very subtle feeling, so if you're intently busy you may not even notice it. But real hunger, if not acknowledged by eating, goes away so that it can come back again and hopefully catch your attention this time. (And if you now decide to intentionally wait for true hunger, and you are on the lookout for it, and you don't experience it, this may be because your body would rather you didn't eat for a few days so it can have access to the nerve energy that digestion normally uses a lot of, to use for dealing with something that has been getting ahead of the body's ability to deal with it.) And that's how you know when your body wants you to start eating; the feeling of true hunger.
But how do you know when to stop? The foods of our natural diet can give the body a "stop" signal, and this can be a subtle change in the way the food tastes (it's no longer as delicious as it was when you started eating). But if you're used to eating "everything on your plate" (eating by habit), you may overeat. So in case you're not at the point yet where you can recognize true hunger and the body's "stop" signal, it's a good idea to have a method of determining your caloric need so you don't under or over eat. One reasonably accurate method is to multiply your ideal weight in pounds (which may not necessarily be the weight you are now) by an "activity factor": 13-15 for mildly active, 15-18 for appropriately active, and above 18 for "athlete activity" (which can be defined as "over-active"). That will put you in the ballpark (it's not an exact science for many reasons, one of which is digestive efficiency). So if your ideal weight is 150 pounds, and you're mildly active, you should need about 2,000 to 2,200 calories a day on average (some days can be less and some more). More on the caloric need issue and on how to determine your ideal weight in this article.
4. "Emotional eating" to prevent feeling strong emotions Since digestion and strong emotions both require large amounts of nerve energy, they can't occur simultaneously there just wouldn't be enough energy to fuel both so one will take precedence over the other. When someone eats a meal, and then gets a phone call about a very tragic situation, or has a very heated argument, this elicits a very strong emotional response that goes on for a while, and digestion will stop during that time (as demonstrated by indigestion). When people lose a loved on, research shows that they fall into one of two distinct categories: they go through a grieving period, and while doing so, they have no appetite at all (no one will be able to get them to eat a thing), or their eating increases tremendously in a subconscious effort to not feel the strong emotions associated with the grieving process. So a craving for food for emotional reasons is an attempt to not feel some strong emotions that your subconscious doesn't want to deal with. And even though this works, it's only a temporary solution because it's in your best interest to deal with those emotions sooner rather than later, and if emotional eating goes on for an extended period, weight gain is usually the result (for those people who gain weight from overeating).
5. Emotional eating to feel happy Some of us associate certain foods with certain pleasurable experiences and fond memories. There are two basic triggers for this, one is physiological and one psychological. On the physical side, certain things, like chocolate, contain substances that make us feel loved, and that feels good! So your craving for chocolate could be due to the effect it has on your body. (Sweets like chocolate can also affect you physically by providing some needed fuel, and if your body is used to using such sweets as a fuel source, it will naturally make you desire it when it needs calories, and a fix for this is retraining your body to get its carbs from sweet fruit rather than sweet junk).
On the psychological side, if there are things happening in our lives right now that are "bringing us down", we can naturally desire those things that we know will bring us up and make us feel happy again. Some people turn to recreational drugs, and others want to eat those things that have psychological connections to "happier times". When I was a kid, my family didn't always eat the evening meal together for various reasons, but every Friday we'd all get together and order Chicken Delight (fried chicken delivered to your door). I have fond memories of those family get-togethers, so nowadays when I smell fried chicken, my mind gets a smile on its face, even though another part of me feels revulsion at the smell because, being vegan, I know what it represents.
So the next time you feel a craving coming on, sit down with this article and try to figure out which one of the above is the root cause. Doing this will help you stay on track with your health creation goals. And having a good health coach in your corner when you are transitioning to the healthiest of diets can often be the difference between struggling and having a much easier time of it. And if he or she is also an experienced health educator, you'll have the advantage of being sure you're also on the right track as far as the advice you are following (there are diet and lifestyle programs that have 90% correct information, but that 10% incorrect info can mean that you will only survive and not thrive decades down the road).
Some Cravings Misinformation
My third book is entirely about the misinformation in the raw vegan community. I talk about misinformation because it's one of the biggest causes of "fails", so I thought I'd share some misinfo about cravings. Here's an example. Notice, under a craving for salty things, it doesn't list sodium, and under chocolate, it doesn't mention the chemical in chocolate that makes you feel loved, and under sugary foods it doesn't list fuel. With what is known about human physiology, it's sad that the Paleo advocates believe themselves to be 100% correct about their "What To Eat Instead" category. But they can say the same thing about me and my dietary recommendations.
The reasons why some people turn to recreational drugs, and others want to eat those things that have psychological connections to "happier times" are discussed here.
Additional reading: "Cravings/Addictions on a Raw Food Diet?"