I am fascinated with the science behind why we crave certain foods. The “why” behind cravings can be highly varied – sometimes there are emotional aspects, sometimes mineral, sometimes bacterial, and sometimes cravings are related to energy needs.
So often we associate cravings with weakness – especially when we have a perception of guilt around the cravings. But – what if our cravings were actually giving us valuable information about our physiological needs? And what if, instead of immediately rushing to satisfy a craving, we spent time with that state to get to the deeper root cause of what’s going on?
What’s really interesting about experiencing cravings is that we actually create MORE dopamine (that neurotransmitter that has many roles, including making things even more desirable) when we deliberately prolong feelings of happiness. So there’s benefit in taking the time to sit with where cravings come from, and what they may be communicating!
I’m going to detail some of those processes below, as well as discuss two of the most common cravings myself or my patients have experienced, and what the root causes could be. Use this information as opportunities to ask greater questions of yourself in the quest for understanding your cravings even more!
Cravings for Sugar.
I hear this one all. the. time. Not surprisingly, it’s also associated with some of the highest levels of shame.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret – your sugar cravings aren’t bad, and aren’t a measure of your willpower. Instead, they could be communicating that you’re stressed, or that you need more fuel! When we experience high levels of stress, this ramps up the body’s fight or flight response – the neurological activity that prepares us to perpetually outrun a predator. Even if that predator is a work email. In this preparation, we seek out carbohydrates – particularly fast sources of carbohydrates – to keep the energy coming into a system that needs it!
Craving sugar can also be communicating that you need more carbohydrates at baseline. In a rough estimate of my personal practice experience, about 80% of the people I meet with are unintentionally under-fueling on carbohydrates! They are very active, very mobile, and just aren’t eating enough to support everything they need to do in a day! If your carb cravings are accompanied by feelings of ongoing fatigue, this could be the culprit.
Finally, with sugar cravings, sometimes it’s a sign that there’s an imbalance of yeast or bacteria in your gut. These cravings are also commonly associated with other signs – like itchiness (especially, *ahem*, around the rectum), a white coating on the tongue, eczema or psoriasis, brain fog, and athlete’s foot. If you have these signs in addition to the carb cravings, it’s definitely important to make an appointment with your provider to discuss treatment!
Cravings for Salt.
Cravings for salty foods are another commonality in my practice experience. Outside of boredom, stress is the primary driver for salt cravings. Especially prolonged stress which can, over time, contribute to the overproduction of cortisol.
In very rare occasions, intense and unrelenting salt cravings are due to a condition in which the adrenal glands – master producers of cortisol- stop producing appropriate levels. This is known as Addison’s disease and requires medical attention.
Salt cravings could potentially also come from electrolyte losses– especially after fluid losses from an illness or a more intense period of exercise.
It’s important to note that sometimes cravings are less about a physiological process, and more about something emotional, and can absolutely cause an increased desire for salty and/or sweet foods.
When you have a better idea of the root cause of your sugar cravings, you can come up with a game plan. I know personally, if I’m sitting in traffic for more than 20 minutes, or if I’m looking for a way to decompress after a hard day of work, I routinely crave sweets. It’s part stress – but it’s also part comfort for me! Food has a remarkable ability to fill little holes we find – and it’s so easy to do it when we don’t feel like sitting with the discomfort of those moments. Something that’s been pivotal to healing my relationship with treats is recognizing when the cravings speak to an emotional need, or when they are truly physical. When the cravings are emotional, I take my power back at that moment by deciding if I want to meet that need through food, or through something else. Sometimes it’s food! And that is okay. But I also recognize that often I feel better phoning a friend. It takes practicing awareness and a pause before making choices to decide what is best in those moments!
I love meeting and working with people on identifying where cravings come from, and what they may point to. If you are at a place where you might benefit from support, I would be honored to help, and hope to see you around STAT soon!