What Causes Food Cravings & How to Manage Them

Donuts on a cooling rack.

Picture this—you’ve been eating healthier and working out, and you’re finally seeing some real results. Suddenly, you’re hit with the urge to binge on all of the processed junk foods you’ve been trying so hard to avoid. How do you resist that donut for breakfast, or that slice of pizza at lunch? Food cravings can seriously sabotage your attempts to lose weight and keep it off. Fortunately, there are some tricks to combating your hunger for unhealthy foods, starting with understanding what causes food cravings in the first place.

Why Do We Crave Junk Food?

Food cravings don’t occur by chance. In fact, there are a number of different reasons for our insatiable appetite for junk. The clearest physiological explanation deals directly with the brain. There are three main regions of the brain that are responsible for memory, pleasure, and reward. Studies have demonstrated that these regions are activated during episodes of extreme cravings, which suggests that the brain associates these foods with a reward. The reward could be something as simple as a comforting feeling or warm memory, but it’s enough to compel us to break our rules and binge.

If you’ve noticed an increase in unwanted food cravings, you may need to examine your hormone levels. Hormones like serotonin help regulate mood and impulses, which means the slightest imbalance can cause you to crave foods rich in carbohydrates and sugar. This explains why pregnant women sometimes have intense cravings for unusual foods, as their hormones are undergoing some pretty unusual changes.

It’s also a possibility that the body craves certain foods when it’s lacking essential nutrients. For example, a deficiency in mineral levels will prompt cravings for salty foods, while cravings for carbonated beverages like soda may stem from a lack of calcium.

How to Curb Cravings

Determining the cause of your cravings will help you decide how best to address them. If you’ve been searching for strategies to combat your hankering for junk food, we’re here to offer some help. The following are 10 tricks for controlling the cravings and getting back on track towards your goal!

1. Stay Well Hydrated

Woman drinking water.

People often mistake their thirst for hunger. Believe it or not, that rumbly in your tumbly may actually be your body telling you it’s time to re-hydrate. When you feel an unexpected urge to eat, try drinking a full glass of water first. You might be surprised to find the cravings subside, replaced by feelings of fullness. Plus, the benefits of staying well hydrated extend far beyond just managing cravings.

2. Eat More Protein

Evidence shows that a high protein diet can help drastically reduce cravings by keeping you full and satisfied for longer. If you tend to crave foods that are high in sugar, try eating a protein-rich meal instead. Protein can actually slow the body’s absorption of sugar and prevent sudden spikes in glucose which may trigger your sweet tooth.

3. Reduce Stress

Have you ever noticed your hunger is more demanding when you’re stressed or anxious? For most people, the urge to binge on junk is amplified when we’re overly emotional or under too much stress. People tend to turn to food as a means of comfort, which can cause unwanted weight gain. Stress also results in excess levels of cortisol, which can lead to the buildup of belly fat. If you’ve noticed your cravings becoming more frequent, try eliminating some of the stress in your life.

4. Get Plenty of Sleep

Traditional alarm clock.

Throughout the day, our hormones are constantly fluctuating, including those that help manage appetite. When your body is deprived of sleep, these fluctuations are disrupted, resulting in irregular hormone levels. As you might imagine, this can trigger unexpected cravings and cause you to overeat. If you’re regularly skipping out on sleep, you could be killing your efforts to lose weight. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night can make a tremendous difference in your overall health and help you shed the pounds much easier.

5. Plan Your Meals

Avoiding cravings is much easier when you have healthy meals and snacks pre-prepared. It’s no wonder so many health experts advocate for meal prepping. Setting aside one or two days each week to assemble your meals guarantees you always have something healthy to reach for when you feel a pang of hunger. Alternatively, if you wait till you’re already hungry to browse the pantry, you’re more likely to opt for a quick snack that’s more convenient than nutritious.

6. Balance Your Diet

Woman carrying basket of veggies.

Because cravings can result from a lack of key nutrients, you can help combat them by working to balance your diet. Incorporating the right portions of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats, and fiber rich foods will ensure your body has all of the nutrition it needs. And when you fill up on healthy alternatives, you’ll be less inclined to crave processed junk. Besides curbing your cravings, a balanced diet will help combat common conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Not to mention, when your body is fueled by the right foods, you’ll notice increased energy that lasts throughout the day.

7. Choose Healthy Alternatives

Having a hankering for something sweet? Rather than reaching for candy or a cookie, try eating some fresh fruit instead. Plenty of fruits are high in fiber and powerful antioxidants that are extremely beneficial for the body. If you’re more prone to craving salty snacks, air-popped popcorn or veggie chips are a low calorie option to satisfy your taste for something savory. Finding healthy alternatives to your common cravings will help you feel content without guilt.

8. Avoid Extreme Hunger

If you’re trying to resist unwelcome food cravings, the worst thing you can do is let yourself get too hungry. Undereating will actually cause your cravings to intensify, prompting you to overeat once you finally sit down for a meal. When the body gets too hungry, it’s more likely to crave calorie dense foods like a greasy hamburger or slice of pizza. Instead of waiting till your hunger is so intense that you feel ravenous, try eating smaller meals every 2-3 hours and fill up on healthier options.

9. Don’t Grocery Shop When Hungry

Grocery shopping on an empty stomach is downright dangerous. Supermarkets are strategically designed to fuel your cravings by making unhealthy foods super accessible. They set up elaborate displays that welcome you when you enter, offering endless snack options to satisfy any appetite. These same naughty foods are placed near the checkout as a last ditch effort to tempt you as you’re waiting in line. When you’re overly hungry, you’re more likely to succumb to these sneaky tactics and buy foods that you know are bad.

10. Distract Yourself from Cravings

Sometimes, all it takes to quiet your cravings is a distraction. Divert your attention to something else, or try changing up your environment altogether. Even something as simple as a walk or relaxing bubble bath can take your mind off a craving long enough for it to subside. Simply separating yourself from the craving for just a few short minutes can make a world of difference, especially if you struggle to resist temptation.

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