This Is Why You Have Food Cravings

Here are the three most common causes of cravings and how to overcome them.

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Have you ever wondered why you crave certain foods, even when you’re not hungry? There are a few possibilities to explain your food cravings. Here are the three most common causes of food cravings, along with tips to fight them:

Simple conditioning

The first possible cause for your cravings is classical conditioning. Much like how the sound of a bell triggered Pavlov’s dogs to salivate, certain activities, people and places can trigger you to crave certain foods. In fact, I’m a victim of this type of craving. I like to watch movies with my family on Thursday nights, and movie night also happens to be when I'm most likely to say, “You know what? I feel like eating pizza!” In reality, my body does not have a physiological need for pizza every Thursday at 8 p.m. For whatever reason, I have conditioned myself to crave pizza on movie night. To be honest, I'm not sure why I started associating movie night with pizza, but because I am aware of it, I have been able to break this unhealthy habit.

[Read: How to Choose a Healthy Slice of Pizza.]

It’s as simple as that. Once you figure out what triggers your craving, you will be better able to combat it. Just to clarify, when I say “simple” I am really referring to the concept. Actually breaking the habit can be tough. To break a habit based on conditioned food cravings, you have to do two things. First, figure out when the food cravings tend to occur so you can see if there’s a pattern. Second, determine what specific foods you crave at those times. Can you think of any life experiences in which a food is connected to a specific food? Are there any emotions connected to the food? Do you feel sad? Do you feel upset, anxious, happy or afraid? Once you know the “why” behind your food cravings, you can begin to actively fight them. Remind yourself, “My body doesn’t need this food. I have conditioned myself to crave this food, and I can condition myself to stop.”

A Physiological Craving

Sometimes we get food cravings for physiological reasons. For example, I began to notice a craving for salt every time I was very stressed and every time I did an intense workout. After doing some research and getting a few testing done, I found I have this craving for salty foods because my adrenal function is on the low side. The adrenal glands are responsible for sodium retention and regulation in the body. Since my adrenal function is low, it does not retain and regulate my sodium levels properly, and this is exacerbated when I am stressed and when I exercise. Since I lose so much sodium in my sweat when I work out intensely, it makes sense I crave salt afterward. Now that I know this, I make sure I have healthy options available after my workouts to satisfy my salt craving. I bring things like vegetable chips so I don’t turn to a bag of potato chips or French fries instead.

Stress has a similar effect as exercise in that it impairs the adrenal glands’ ability to regulate sodium levels, which causes salt cravings. When you can identify scenarios like this, you can get tested to determine if you are deficient in certain vitamins or minerals.

[Read: Salt in the Sweet Spot.]

Addiction

If you don’t think your food craving is a result of classical conditioning or a vitamin or mineral deficiency, there’s a chance you’re addicted to the foods you crave. While you can be addicted to any food, sugar seems to be the food most people struggle with.

Certain foods, like sugar, stimulate the reward center of your brain in much the same way drugs such as cocaine and heroin do. These foods cause your body to release endorphins, which are your “feel good” hormones, every time you eat them. The method to kick a food addiction isn’t hard, but it requires a massive amount of passion and commitment. The first thing you need to do is detox your body of the food you are addicted to. In other words: You need stop eating those foods. This isn’t easy, because you will go through a withdrawal process, but it’s critical you stick to it if you want to kick the habit. The good thing is that you only have to do this for about two weeks. After the detox period, you can begin to introduce the food back into your diet very slowly.

[Read: How to Overcome Your Sugar Addiction.]

As you can see, there isn’t a simple answer to why you have food cravings. And everyone is different – cravings can be caused by one factor or multiple reasons. That’s why I like to tell people to become their own scientists. If you learn the basics of how your body works, it will be easier for you to make better food choices and kick food cravings for good.