What Are Cravings?

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What Are Cravings?

Cravings

Cravings are the feeling you get when you have an extreme desire for something, usually a particular food. Cravings are a more intense feeling than simply desiring to eat your favorite food. They are urgent and intense emotions that might not be curbed until you indulge the craving by consuming the food you want.

Cravings are typically uncontrollable, and many people might not feel a sense of reprieve until they eat the object of their cravings. While people can crave different things, craving is a term that’s typically used with food. 

Sometimes, people get cravings for healthy foods. However, many tend to crave foods that are typically less nutritious. Very salty, sweet, or fatty foods such as certain processed snacks, fast food, and carbonated drinks are high up on the list of foods that people crave. Consuming these types of foods on a regular basis can lead to many health problems, most commonly obesity

Cravings are a feeling many people are familiar with. They are typically harmless, but if you don’t keep your cravings in check, they can impact your physical and mental health. Many people associate indulgence in less nutritious food cravings with weight gain and obesity. While these are possible outcomes, there are other effects of consistently eating less nutritious foods, such as having less energy, having trouble concentrating, feeling sad or having low moods, and more.

Signs of Cravings 

The most telling sign of a food craving is having an intense and unshakeable urge to consume a particular food. Eating or drinking anything else besides the food you crave during this period will do nothing to satisfy your craving.

Other signs include: 

  • Craving/wanting a very specific food or drink
  • Being unsatisfied by any other foods that aren’t the food you crave 
  • Feeling distracted or irritable until you indulge your craving 

Identifying Cravings 

Cravings are not a medical condition. As such, there is no medical guide to diagnosing cravings.

If you have food cravings, medical complications are unlikely to arise as an immediate result. However, if you regularly indulge your cravings for less nutritious foods, or you tend to overeat these foods, there may be medical consequences over time such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity.

If you have cravings that aren’t related to food, you might have a condition called pica. Pica causes a person to crave inedible things such as sand or chalk. For a diagnosis of pica to be made, the following requirement must be met: 

  • You have gotten to an age or have the developmental capacity to know not to eat non-food items
  • You have been eating items with no nutritional content for at least one month
  • No social or cultural factor explains why you are eating non-food items
  • You have no underlying medical conditions that are causing you to eat non-food items

Causes of Cravings 

It’s not clear what causes cravings. People crave different types of foods for various reasons.

Hormonal Shifts

In people with uteruses, hormonal changes play a big part in food cravings. Throughout your menstrual cycle, you are likely to notice varying food cravings. For instance, some people crave sugary foods when they are on their periods but don’t particularly care for them when they are not. 

Pregnancy

Cravings are also common in pregnant people throughout their pregnancy. Sometimes, pregnant people experience cravings for healthy foods. In some instances, they might experience non-food-related cravings (e.g., pica).

Chemical Imbalances in the Brain

An imbalance of the chemical messengers in your brain has also been linked to food cravings. Hormones like serotonin and leptin have been identified to play a role in causing food cravings. These hormones are typically responsible for pleasure and reward.

Types of Cravings 

Food cravings can be classified in many different ways. One way to categorize them is into tonic and cue-induced cravings. You can also classify them into state and trait cravings.

Tonic Cravings and Cue-Induced Cravings

Cravings can be classified into tonic cravings and cue-induced cravings. Tonic cravings are typically triggered by abstaining from certain foods. For example, if you are on a diet, you might find yourself craving foods that your diet restricts you from eating, such as foods high in sugar or salt.

A tonic craving might sometimes be confused with hunger, as it’s typically experienced by people restricting their diets. Still, it’s possible to experience a tonic craving even after eating a full meal. The desire will occur as long as you don’t consume a meal that you crave. 

On the other hand, cue-induced craving is typically triggered by external stimuli. For instance, seeing a commercial for a particular type of soda could cause you to begin craving the drink suddenly.

The external stimuli aren’t always visual; they could also be olfactory through your sense of smell. Passing by a neighbor’s house and catching a whiff of freshly baked cookies could cause you also to crave newly baked cookies.

State Cravings vs. Trait Cravings

State cravings involve your desire for a particular food at a specific moment. You will likely feel this craving whether or not external stimuli trigger you.

On the other hand, trait craving is a general desire for food. It could be for savory or sugary foods or just food in general. Trait cravings differ from hunger because when you're hungry, your body needs the food. With trait cravings, your body doesn’t necessarily need the food. 

Men and Women May Have Different Cravings

Some research suggests that it’s more common for men to crave savory foods such as meats and eggs while women crave sugary foods such as chocolates and ice cream.

Another study shows that 92% of people who develop cravings for chocolate are women, which corroborates the idea that women are more likely to crave sugary foods. However, this isn’t always the case. Some women are more likely to crave savory foods than sugary foods, and some men are more likely to crave sugary foods than savory ones. 

Coping With Cravings 

Cravings are not necessarily a harmful thing. However, indulging in your every craving can impact your health, so it’s essential to equip yourself with techniques to help you keep them in check. Some great tips to help you cope with cravings include: 

  • Staying hydrated: Dehydration can sometimes trigger specific cravings. When you start to feel a craving, try drinking plenty of water before you indulge, and it might just make the urge go away. 
  • Move around: This trick is particularly effective for people who experience cue-induced cravings. Moving away from a place that’s causing you to crave a particular food can end your craving.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Eating a balanced diet means feeding your body with all of the foods it needs, which can help keep cravings in check. It's best to avoid skipping meals. Cravings are often the result of your body being deprived of food.
  • Chew some gum: Research shows that chewing gum can help to reduce snack cravings in people who have cravings for sweet and salty snacks. 
  • Find a replacement: It can be difficult to go cold turkey on the foods you crave. Instead, you can ease out of them by replacing your cravings for less nutritious foods with healthier options. For instance, if you crave soda, you can replace it with sparkling water, which has a similar feel but is sugar-free. 

A Word From Verywell

Though cravings are quite common, they can still be difficult to deal with on your own. If you are struggling with cravings, there is help available. You may want to consult with a registered dietician or a mental health professional, who can teach you coping mechanisms to address cravings. It's challenging to change habits, but it is very possible—you can succeed in managing your cravings with sustainable practices.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.