A food craving is an intense desire for a specific food. This desire can seem uncontrollable, and a person may feel as though they cannot satisfy their hunger until they get that particular food.

Food cravings are extremely common, with more than 90% of people experiencing them.

Every person experiences cravings differently, but they are typically transient and often for processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthful fats.

Research suggests that males are more likely to crave savory foods, whereas females are more likely to crave high fat, sweet foods.

Food cravings can lead a person to eat foods that have adverse health effects, and they can disrupt efforts to follow a healthful diet. This article looks at the causes of food cravings and explains what simple steps people can take to handle them.

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People might experience food cravings seemingly out of nowhere, or they may be related to seeing, smelling, or hearing about a specific food. For instance, seeing an advertisement for chocolate might trigger a craving for it.

The brain regions responsible for memory, pleasure, and reward play a role in food cravings. An imbalance of hormones, such as leptin and serotonin, could also lead to food cravings.

Cravings also involve the appetite centers of the brain, even though they tend to be separate from hunger.

Various factors can affect a person’s food cravings. In people who menstruate, hormonal fluctuations across the menstrual cycle can create food cravings.

People can experience especially strong cravings during pregnancy due to hormonal changes. A person may also experience pica, which is a craving for nonfood items, such as chalk, dirt, coins, or ice chips.

Emotions can also contribute to food cravings, such as in cases of comfort eating. It is also possible that some food cravings may be related to specific foods because the body needs particular nutrients.

There are two types of food cravings: selective and nonselective.

Selective cravings are cravings for specific foods, such as a person’s favorite chocolate bar, a particular burger from their favorite restaurant, or a bag of potato chips of a certain flavor.

Nonselective hunger is the desire to eat anything. It may be the result of real hunger and hunger pangs, but it can also be a sign of thirst. Drinking water may help with intense nonselective cravings.

There are a variety of ways to reduce unwanted food cravings. People can try the following techniques:

Reduce stress levels

Stress and emotional eating can influence a variety of health issues. Feeling stressed may promote emotional eating and cravings for comfort foods.

For example, a 2015 study found that chronic stress was related to more food cravings and that this led to a higher body mass index (BMI) in participants.

Stress may also cause weight gain even without food cravings. Stress results in higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which may promote abdominal fat.

Read about natural ways to reduce stress and anxiety here.

Drink plenty of water

Hunger and thirst can produce very similar sensations, potentially leading people to confuse the feeling of thirst for hunger.

Some people may find that their food cravings reduce when they stay hydrated throughout the day.

Drinking plenty of water offers many health benefits. Learn more here.

Get enough sleep

A 2013 study found that not getting enough sleep could alter the body’s hormonal balance. This imbalance may contribute to overeating and weight gain.

The researchers noted that switching from controlled sleep deprivation to an adequate sleep schedule caused the participants to lose weight, indicating that the increase in sleep quantity brought their hormones back into balance.

Eat enough protein

A healthful diet should contain plenty of lean sources of protein, as they may help reduce cravings.

For example, the results of a 2020 review of animal studies suggest that eating protein can suppress appetite and reduce ghrelin, a hormone related to appetite.

Chew gum

Chewing gum keeps the mouth busy and may help reduce both sweet and salty cravings.

A 2011 study found a small but significant difference in sweet and salty snack consumption between people who chewed gum and those who did not.

Those who chewed gum rated themselves less hungry, had fewer cravings for snacks, and felt fuller than those who did not chew gum.

Change the scenery

Some food cravings may be due to long-term habits, which can be difficult to replace. For instance, if someone gets fast food on their way home from work every day, this journey may cause cravings.

In situations such as these, people can try to form new habits. Doing this might be as straightforward as trying a new route home from work or stopping at the park for a quick walk instead of stopping to pick up fast food.

For cravings at home, it may help to take a walk around the block, take a shower, or even call a friend. These activities may help distract a person from their craving for long enough for it to subside.

Avoid hunger

Strong feelings of hunger may lead a person to crave more calorie-dense foods, such as processed or fried foods. Eating when hunger begins can help curb these cravings.

Maintaining a regular eating pattern, such as eating several small meals throughout the day, may help some people avoid hunger-induced cravings.

When a craving for an unhealthful food arises, it may help to eat a more healthful alternative instead. Below are some of the most common snacks that people crave and suggestions of alternatives:

  • Potato chips: Try replacing chips with a salty snack that is higher in healthful fats and protein, such as salted cashews or peanuts. However, bear in mind that nuts without salt are a more healthful option, as too much salt can be harmful. Air-popped popcorn is another healthful replacement for potato chips.
  • Chocolate: Opt for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa so that it is rich in antioxidants. As dark chocolate has a more intense flavor than milk chocolate, people may feel satisfied with a smaller portion.
  • Candy or pastries: When craving sugary foods, try replacing them with sweet fruit, such as peaches, cherries, or melon. Keeping dried fruits, such as prunes or raisins, on hand may also be helpful for cravings on the go.
  • Soda: Sparkling water with a squeeze of fruit juice or a slice of orange can replace a craving for soda. It provides a similar feeling to soda but has fewer calories and less sugar.
  • Cheese: Try replacing full fat cheese with low fat, low sodium versions for a more healthful option. Nutritional yeast, a nutty, savory food, can lend a cheesy flavor to foods. Nutritional yeast is rich in B-complex vitamins and folic acid, and it often contains vitamin B12.

Most people experience food cravings from time to time. These cravings can cause them to snack on unhealthful foods, which can lead to weight gain.

Various methods, such as reducing stress and staying hydrated, can help people minimize their cravings. Substituting healthful foods for unhealthful ones can also help.