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What Causes Food Cravings?
By Don Bennett, DAS

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.

his scenario can be helped by eating more nutrient dense food (organically grown food instead of conventionally grown food which helps a little), and by taking a very high quality, nutritional supplement (which is not Theragram, Centrum, or One-A-Day). If trying these things resolves the issue, then it was this type of desire for food that you were experiencing.

And remember that fat, even though we don't need a lot of it, is a nutrient. If you do a 180 and go from a high-fat diet to a 4% fat diet (no high fat foods at all), this could throw your body off initially because it has come to associate "food" with "high-fat" – it was literally getting a portion of its caloric needs from fat (which is not where we're designed to get our fuel from). So eating a little avocado is a good idea. It doesn't have to be every day, and it doesn't have to be a whole avocado, but making sure you eat some overt fat may make the transition to a healthier diet less challenging (just remember that avocado is the worst source of fat because of its very unbalanced Omega 6 to 3 ratio of 17:1 !). And although less likely, it is possible to eat too low a fat diet to where you bump up against an EFA insufficiency; this can happen if you're not as active as you're supposed to be: less activity = less food eaten = less fat consumed, so two people both eating 8% fat (as a percentage of total calories) can mean very different amounts of fat if one person is active and the other is sedentary. And if the amount for the sedentary person falls short of providing sufficient Omega 3s, this person needs more than 8% fat to get enough EFAs. The body requires amounts and not percentages.

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.

This brings up the issue of multiple thought processes. You know that when you are dealing with emotional cravings, it can seem like there's a battle going on. It's like there's one voice coming from your right which says, "You know you don't want to eat this food, you know how bad it is for you, you've decided not to eat it any more" and at the same time from over on the left you hear, "Oh go on, eat it, you know you want to, you know how good it tastes, c'mon, go ahead, you deserve it, you've had a hard day..."

So how is it that we can experience these conflicting thoughts at the same time? It's because they come from two different areas of the brain; there's a rational neural network and an emotional neural network both trying to control your behavior, and unlike Congress or Parliament, there's no Chairperson or someone with the final say. Who wins depends on who's stronger at that moment. And there are tricks to help the rational side win (the side that will get you the best results from a health perspective). If the emotional side wins, the only real winner are the industries who do their best to market to your emotional neural network (industries that don't give a rat's rump about your health).


Two ways to help deal with emotional cravings

One tactic for dealing with emotional cravings is to wear a rubber-band on your right wrist, and when you feel the "bad" side of your brain trying to coax you into doing something you don't want to do, wait until that part of the argument when you're hearing from the coaxing side, and quickly lift and release the rubber-band while at the same time uttering in your head a loud "I said NO!". Believe it or not, this will startle that part of your psyche that was trying to get you to do something you don't want to do. If done correctly, it will smart a bit when you release the rubber-band, but it can be very effective (but you've got to do it quickly so there's the element of surprise... seriously, this is how the various "minds" in your brain function). This aversion therapy technique has helped many people drive by the fast food place instead of pulling into the drive-through, and has prevented certain products from landing in the shopping cart. And don't worry, after a while you won't need to use the rubber-band (but continue to wear it for a while anyway because it will help to keep the emotional neural network quiet, and if do hear a peep from it, just threatening to release the rubber-band will shut it up because it knows you'll do it, and it doesn't want to experience that pain).

A far more effective type of aversion therapy works on the same principle as the rubber band technique, but you do it before you get a craving, as a form of therapy. Traditionally, this is done on an outpatient basis in a clinic, but it is very expensive. And it is not just for dietary behavior modification; it can also be used to help you stop smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.


Why do so many raw foodists and people eating a healthy diet get a specific craving for something salty?

We have trillions of sodium-potassium pumps in our body... every cell has one. It's one of the ways certain things are brought into and out of the cell. So it stands to reason that we'd need a good balance of sodium and potassium inside us and in our diets.

Farmers discovered a long time ago that when growing crop after crop they needed to replenish the soil with three basic things for fruits and veggies to continue growing on an ongoing basis: Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Without at least these three they couldn't grow crop after crop, and thus NPK fertilizers were invented. So no one is suffering with a potassium insufficiency. But all fruits and veggies also uptake sodium from the soil, but you don't see sodium on that fertilizer's list of ingredients, do you? This is why many store-bought celery and tomatoes taste like cardboard, certainly not tasting "savory" as their homegrown counterparts do.

So you can see how when someone stops eating processed foods that contain sodium salt, an imbalance in the body can develop: plenty of potassium + not enough sodium, so is it any wonder some people get cravings for sodium (salt).

The answer? If you can't source truly delicious celery and tomatoes to get your sodium, the best option is adding powdered barley grass juice to your smoothies (it can also be made into a paste to spread on celery or to stuff into tomato halves to restore those foods to their once glorious savory status); a minimum of two heaping tablespoons a day. The second-best option is to add a tiny pinch of unprocessed, sea salt (which should be pink or gray) to a smoothie. If you can easily taste it, you added too much. I dislike calling this "second-best" because this is the "pre-plant" form of sodium and the powdered barley grass juice is the "post-plant" form of sodium, which is the form we're designed to eat and is the most bioavailable. So let's call adding a pinch of salt the "very last resort to be avoided at all costs if you can help it" option. (P.S. We didn't evolve eating tomatoes, and they do contain Solanaine, which is a glycoalkaloid toxin that blocks cholintesterase, an important enzyme in nerve cells, and can contribute to arthritis over time, which is why I do not eat them. Just say'n.)


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?"


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