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Reasons & Prevention for Food Cravings

Definition of Cravings

Cravings can be very unpleasant, but they are a regular problem for many people. Cravings differ significantly from the normal feeling of hunger that we experience every day.

Cravings are directed towards specific foods, usually extremely sweet, fatty, and high-calorie foods. Cravings often occure quite suddenly, with the feeling of having no control. Many report that this desire for food can be stronger than any habit or discipline, and it's extremely difficult to resist.

Additionally, the feeling of satiety is absent during a craving attack. There's a sense of being able to keep eating endlessly, with a lack of control and mindfulness.

In-depth knowledge for your new & fit self.

food choices

Most Common Causes For Cravings:

  1. Extreme Dieting and Food Restrictions

  2. Stress

  3. Lack of Sleep

  4. Emotional and Psychological Reasons

  5. Hormonal Changes

  6. Pregnancy

  7. Medical Causes

Let's dive into them in more depth.

1. Extreme Dieting & Excessive Food Restrictions

One common cause of cravings is prolonged and intense dieting phases. However, it's important to note that not every diet leads to cravings. Studies show that only about 8 out of 40 individuals on a diet experience regular cravings, which means that the diet alone is often not the sole cause and may not necessarily be responsible for cravings.

Perhaps you've experienced this phenomenon when dieting: 

You tell yourself, "I will never eat food XY again" - and shortly after, your body craves exactly that food. It's a psychological phenomenon that we often desire what we can't have. It's also called the 'forbidden fruit effect'. Therefore, it's important to be cautious with self-imposed dietary rules and restrictions.

Instead of saying "never again", it would be better to say "only once a month" or "only on certain occasions". This way, you avoid the scenario where the imaginary barrier in your mind completely closes off that food, and you experience a greater sense of freedom in your diet.

If you maintain a too intense and a prolonged calorie deficit, your body may resist it. Losing body fat is primarily something your body wants to avoid. Weight reduction, especially fat reduction, is an intense and demanding process for your body.

To prevent cravings during a diet, it is recommended to take small diet breaks occasionally, such as in the form of refeed days or refeed weeks. Additionally, the calorie deficit should not be too severe. Slow weight loss lasts longer than intense calorie restriction and crash diets. With too high a calorie deficit, your body retaliates in the form of cravings, leading to the well-known yo-yo effect.

stress management

2. Stress

Eating hastily, consuming unhealthy foods, and having little time for enjoyable activities can cause stress. Elevated stress levels result in a higher concentration of cortisol in our blood. The problem arises when this cortisol is not broken down because we don't give ourselves and our bodies the opportunity to relax.

One of the many consequences of stress can be cravings. The reason for this is that excessive stress inhibits dopamine production. Dopamine is a hormone that forces the drive to do something and not being lazy. Dopamine is also responsible for a good mood, positive energy, as well as feeling content and balanced.

Chocolate and fast food lead to a temporary increase in dopamine. This is very misleading because it can quickly develop into a habit of reaching for unhealthy foods during times of stress. Unhealthy and particularly sugary foods temporarily reduce perceived stress by releasing dopamine. However, the effect is short-lived. It would be much better to keep dopamine levels in the body consistently high, for example through:

  • exercising

  • activities that bring you joy

  • music

  • meditation

  • sunlight

  • adequate sleep

3. Lack of Sleep

When we suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, many processes in our body can get disrupted, including the hunger and satiety mechanism.

For some time now, it has been known that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and obesity. The hormones leptin and ghrelin are responsible for this. Ghrelin is the hormone that signals when we are hungry, and leptin signals when we are full. When sleep-deprived, the production of these hormones is out of balance and does not function properly. Therefore, we feel much hungrier under sleep deprivation, even if we have already consumed enough energy.

Our body is very clever in this regard because it tries to compensate for the lack of energy due to sleep deprivation by increasing energy intake in the form of food. However, this does not work because the increased calorie intake does not make us more alert.

So, be sure to prioritize adequate sleep and good sleep quality. If necessary, short naps during the day can also be helpful.


4. Emotional and Psychological Reasons

Negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and dissatisfaction can be another reason for cravings. In this case, our body lacks certain hormones and experiences. Moreover, strong negative emotions can lead to us only perceiving a limited extent of the signals our body sends us.

A distinction is made between emotional and physical hunger. With emotional hunger, you do not lack actual food but positive emotions, which are attempted to be compensated for by consuming unhealthy foods recklessly.

If you notice that you are an emotional eater, first and foremost, it is an important step to be mindful of and acknowledge this fact. It is a problem that can be solved if you are willing to address it. And it is not difficult to get this problem under control. With emotional eating, the psyche is usually stronger than the physical signals. Therefore, it is important for you to recognize which emotions trigger you to eat the wrong things. Mindfulness can primarily help you in this regard.

Differences in Physical and Emotional Hunger

You can recognize emotional hunger by the following signs:

Physical Hunger

Emotional hunger

Comes gradually and slowly

Comes suddenly or due to a trigger

Physically felt in the stomach area or throat

Targeted towards fast food or sweets

Usually not targeted towards specific foods

Feeling of never getting full and always being able to eat more, despite a full stomach

Hunger goes away after eating

Afterwards, often feelings of shame and guilt

5. Hormones

Especially in women, various hormonal changes occur during menstrual cycle phases, which can influence our appetite and hunger. In certain phases, hormonal imbalance may cause a drop in insulin levels, resulting in increased cravings for sugary foods. At this point, it is particularly important to provide the body with sufficient energy and not to be in too severe a calorie deficit. This energy should come from healthy sources, especially from foods high in fiber and high in volume.

If significant cravings persist, which can sometimes be unavoidable and natural, an attempt can be made to satisfy these cravings with a healthy alternative, such as dark chocolate or sugar-free snacks that are still very sweet, for example, made from bananas, dates, or dried fruits. Everyone should find their own best solution. The internet is full of healthy baking recipes for sugar-free cookies and cakes that can satisfy this hormonal craving for sweetness without negatively affecting health and well-being.

6. Pregnancy

For the sake of completeness, the topic of pregnancy should also be addressed here. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, there may be cravings due to growth spurts of the child or high energy consumption during breastfeeding. Cravings should not be ignored in these cases but interpreted as a natural signal from the body. The body should definitely be given what it craves to ensure unrestricted energy supply for the child.

7. Medical Causes

Illnesses can also be the reason for cravings. Since I am not a doctor, I want to emphasize here the importance of seeking help from a medical professional. Possible causes may include:

  • Diabetes Mellitus

  • Hyperthyroidism

  • Certain Liver diseases

  • Parasitic infections (Worms, etc.)

  • Eating disorders such as Binge Eating Disorder or Bulimia

  • Medication intake, especially psychotropic drugs

If deeper health issues are suspected to be behind the cravings, a visit to the doctor is essential. General practitioners, diabetologists, endocrinologists, and nutritional psychologists can all provide assistance in this regard.

meal prep

How to Prevent Food Cravings

  • Incorporate diet breaks in the form of Refeed Days or Refeed Weeks

  • Avoid excessive calorie deficits (300-400 calories maximum, or 10-15%)

  • Ensure natural, high dopamine levels through activities such as exercise, meditation, music, sunlight, and enjoyable activities

  • Use stress reduction techniques like meditation, journaling or other activities to reduce stress levels

  • Ensure an adequate amount of sleep, possibly incorporating short naps

  • Recognize your emotional triggers and cultivate mindfulness, for example, by keeping a diary or emotion log

  • Practice mindful eating, don't eat when in a rush

  • Integrate enough fiber and protein into your diet

  • Work on a positive body image and a healthy relationship with food

  • Find healthy alternatives, such as dark chocolate, nuts, etc.

  • Try meal prepping and avoid having trigger foods at home

  • Be prepared when you eat out, plan ahead and avoid to go too long without food

In my 1:1 Coaching, I often use nutrition, emotion, and mood protocols with my clients, which can help prevent cravings. If you are interested in 1:1 Coaching, please feel free to contact me and book a call here. I am more than happy to support you on your journey to a healthier eating behavior.

Achieve your fitness goals now through personalized guidance from your online nutritional and fitness coach!


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Sources Of Information:

  • Forbes LE, Graham JE, Berglund C, Bell RC. Dietary Change during Pregnancy and Women's Reasons for Change. Nutrients. 2018 Aug 8;10(8):1032. doi: 10.3390/nu10081032. PMID: 30096771; PMCID: PMC6115730.

  • Cleobury L, Tapper K. Reasons for eating 'unhealthy' snacks in overweight and obese males and females. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2014 Aug;27(4):333-41. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12169. Epub 2013 Oct 18. PMID: 24134077.

  • Rogers PJ, Smit HJ. Food craving and food "addiction": a critical review of the evidence from a biopsychosocial perspective. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2000 May;66(1):3-14. doi: 10.1016/s0091-3057(00)00197-0. PMID: 10837838.

  • Dicker-Oren SD, Gelkopf M, Greene T. The dynamic network associations of food craving, restrained eating, hunger and negative emotions. Appetite. 2022 Aug 1;175:106019. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2022.106019. Epub 2022 Apr 29. PMID: 35500722.

  • Gorczyca AM, Sjaarda LA, Mitchell EM, Perkins NJ, Schliep KC, Wactawski-Wende J, Mumford SL. Changes in macronutrient, micronutrient, and food group intakes throughout the menstrual cycle in healthy, premenopausal women. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Apr;55(3):1181-8. doi: 10.1007/s00394-015-0931-0. Epub 2015 Jun 5. PMID: 26043860; PMCID: PMC6257992.


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