Nutrition The Science Behind Food Cravings

food cravings

Food cravings are extremely common and they manifest as an intense desire for a specific food, taste, or texture.

We’ve all been there. It’s those moments when we really want that juicy burger from our favorite burger joint or ordering a stack of fresh pancakes from Denny’s at 3 am.

Nonetheless, food cravings are extremely common. It’s an intense desire for a specific food, taste, or texture. When we experience hunger, it is a physiological sign our body tells us it needs more fuel for energy especially when our metabolism is revved up. Cravings, on the other hand, can stem from many different factors such as food restrictions, nutrient deficiencies, stress, and poor lifestyle habits.

Here’s why those cravings are creeping in.

Calorie Restriction

I often come across clients who told me they have cravings for sweets or carbs and others having cravings for something salty.

When we dive deeper into the topic of their nutrition, we uncover something common: a diet or calorie restriction. Some, severely under eating. Keep in mind, every individual varies in the amount of calories their diet requires.

I always recommend a balanced nutrition plan with a variety of protein, non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats, and fiber. A balanced diet can help curb those cravings before they start. Below is a standard recommendation:

  • 1-2 Palm sized portions of lean protein
  • 2-3 Fist sized portions or half a plate of non-starchy vegetables (spinach, carrots, broccoli, etc.)
  • Thumb sized portion of healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc.)
  • 1-2 servings/day of starchy carbs
  • At least 25g/day of fiber

When we experience cravings, our body is telling us it needs something we’re lacking.

Physiologically, our body makes the necessary changes when we have low energy. Our body adjusts our hormone levels and energy expenditure to bring us back near homeostasis. But if we are consistently restricting complex carbohydrates, it is inevitable that we will crave the chocolate candy we purposefully hide in the back of the pantry (carbohydrates) or the endless pasta and breadsticks from Olive Garden (starchy carbohydrates).

Interestingly, research shows that attempted restriction or deprivation of a particular food increases cravings for the unavailable food.1 In fact, dieters tend to have even stronger cravings that are more difficult to resist than non-dieters.2

Bottomline is we don’t have to have a love/hate relationship with food. I recommend speaking to a nutrition specialist about an appropriate caloric intake to minimize cravings.

Nutrient Deficiencies

It is beneficial to have a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as multiple sources of protein and healthy fats. However, even the most popular diets and nutrition plans don’t reach recommended daily intake values (RDI). Long-term restriction may do us more harm than good.

Along with my suggestion above, I always recommend supplementing with a high-quality multi-vitamin to fill in nutrient gaps. Here are some examples of nutrient deficiencies and the reasons you might have cravings.

Iron Deficiency 

Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. It’s involved in oxygen transport and storage, formation of blood cells, blood vessels, and hundreds of proteins and enzymes.

A key feature I’d like to highlight about Iron is that it’s involved in producing anaerobic energy and forming cytochromes involved in cellular energy production. Anaerobic energy is particularly associated with short-duration, high-intensity bouts of strength or power training. About 10-90 seconds into high-intensity exercise we deplete our energy stores. It’s no wonder we crave a “quick fix”. Our body is telling us to refuel.

Magnesium Deficiency

Most Americans don’t meet dietary requirements for Magnesium yet it is required for many physiological processes: carb and fat metabolism, protein synthesis, active transport, and hundreds of enzymatic reactions to name a few.

Magnesium is also known to have calming effects easing muscle cramps, anxiety, and helping you fall asleep. Not enough magnesium can cause problems with thinking, mood, memory, and cause abnormal heart rhythms and muscle cramping. A common sign that you have a deficiency are those irresistible chocolate cravings. Dark chocolate has magnesium and is a favorite go-to for most.

Hormone Imbalances

Two hormones that play a major role in our energy balance are leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin is a hormone whose job is to sense our energy stores and regulate energy balance. It also acts on our appetite by signaling to the brain our satiety or “fullness”.

When leptin is high, we’re not hungry. On the other hand, when we have low body fat and not enough energy to fuel our body, leptin is low. This is one reason why a combination of stress and dieting makes people ferociously hungry.

In addition, leptin has a 24-hour diurnal pattern peaking in the middle of the night and bottoming out around noon, an explanation for the mid-day munchies.

Ghrelin is fast-acting and known as the hunger hormone. When food and energy is low, especially when we’re fasting or on a restrictive diet, ghrelin acts on our appetite by signaling to the brain, we’re hungry.

It’s known to initiate mealtime. As we fill our empty stomach, the decrease in ghrelin signals to our brain that we are no longer hungry. To prevent imbalances and the feeling of hunger, it is important to prioritize protein. Incorporating adequate amounts of protein in your diet helps with satiety and may help prevent cravings.

A collection of studies show that abnormalities in circulating levels of leptin and ghrelin are imbalanced, diurnal patterns can be thrown off, and many can become leptin resistant resulting in overeating.3 If the leptin and ghrelin system becomes out of balance, we expect cravings and improper responses to satiety and hunger cues.


From the moment they wake up to the time they rest their heads, many Americans have full schedules, a demanding career, and a busy family life all while watching what they eat and fitting in time for exercise.

It’s a typical American way of life. The moment we experience stress, our body naturally goes into fight or flight mode (the feeling we are being chased by a lion). Our glycogen stores are tapped, and a surge of glucose enters our bloodstream raising insulin levels.

The result: a blood sugar crash. This is a physiological response to immediate stress. Nowadays, the stress we experience is more chronic and our body, unfortunately, cannot burn off blood sugar the same way we experience immediate stress.

Stress also causes hormone imbalances and increases cravings for high-calorie foods. But, we’re only human and stress isn’t going away. When we feel stressed, we react in many ways, sometimes self-destructively like binge watching our favorite tv series in one night, overindulging on junk food, or drink too much alcohol. Much of these reactions are normal and explains one of the reasons why we have cravings.

Blood Sugar Imbalance

As mentioned previously, stress and cortisol imbalances cause blood sugar fluctuations. Eating foods high in sugar or carbohydrates by itself without any protein or healthy fats causes our blood sugar to spike.

As a response, our pancreas releases insulin suppressing our appetite, signaling to the brain that we feel satisfied. The result: a blood sugar crash then we repeat the vicious cycle again and again. We consistently experience these energy crashes, cravings, and hold unwanted fat in our midsection.

So be mindful of the next energy drink you pick up to get you through the day. With each energy crash, we crave even more the next time around than what we previously experienced to be satisfying.

Manage Your Cravings

The best shortcut to take control of your cravings is to have healthier alternatives when they do kick in. Instead of reaching for a sugar-loaded doughnut in the break room or salty chips during game time, I recommend trying these favorite alternatives:

1. For sweet cravings – fresh berries and dark chocolate, Greek yogurt and honey

2. For salty cravings – Mixed nuts, seeds

3. For starchy carb cravings – Apple slices with cinnamon, baked sweet potato fries

Another solution to managing your cravings is to stay busy or distract yourself. It may take some practice, however if you can recognize when your cravings strike but aren’t hungry, you can make better nutritional decisions. Try going for a walk, talking to a friend, stretching, or brushing your teeth.

Long-term management of cravings requires habit and behavioral changes. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have what you crave, but to minimize these occurrences.

I recommend the following lifestyle habits:

  • Consume balanced meals – Keep a food journal or use an app to ensure you are consuming balanced meals. Not only logging your food and drinks, but logging down things like your mood, stress level, and sleep may help pinpoint correlations to your food intake.
  • Supplement with high-quality multi-vitamins – Diet or no diet, ensure you are taking a multi-vitamin to fill in nutrient gaps.
  • Manage stress in a positive way – The best way to keep our stress level from rising is by having a reaction plan. When we feel stressed do something positive such as going for a walk, talk to a friend or family member, or relax in the sauna.

If you feel like you need help to start or have started but can’t tackle the 5 o’clock cravings for loaded nachos and happy hour drinks, ask for help! Get in touch with a nutrition specialist today.

  1. Hill, Andrew J. “The Psychology of Food Craving: Symposium on ‘Molecular Mechanisms and Psychology of Food Intake.’” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol. 66, no. 2, 2007, pp. 277–285., doi:10.1017/S0029665107005502.
  2. Hill, Andrew J., Massey, Anna. “Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study.” Appetite, vol. 58, issue 3, 2012, pp. 781-785., doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020.
  3. Klok, M. D. et al. “The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review.” Obesity Reviews, vol. 8, no. 1, 2007, pp. 21-34., doi:10.1111/j

Comments are closed