Do you eat when you’re stressed, bored, upset, lonely, excited, happy or experiencing any emotion at all? If you feel out of control around food, think about it obsessively and cannot stop with one slice, it may be a challenge to figure out exactly what your triggers are.
Sometimes the triggers of sweet cravings (or any food cravings at all) are easier to understand. Other times it feels like cravings come from nowhere and hijack your day, leaving you disappointed and puzzled.
If so, you’re in the right place. Let’s talk about different types of cravings and what you can do about each one of them. You can’t change it if you don’t know where it’s coming from!
You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to decode cravings when you learn to read the in-built mechanisms of your body. AKA: your hunger, satiety and other signals your body is constantly sending you.
Why do we have food cravings?
Food cravings can be a puzzling and sometimes frustrating experience. Whether it's that insatiable desire for something sweet, salty, or savory, we've all experienced the overwhelming urge to indulge in certain types of food. But why do these cravings appear in the first place?
In research, food cravings is defined as "an urge, want or desire for a particular food".
The way I always explain food cravings to my students is that a food craving is like a yellow card: it gives us a sign, an alarm bell that there is an imbalance in the body, emotions or mind. And the balance can be tipped over both ways.
Whether it is too much or too little of something, it requires you to become aware of yourself, your body, your lifestyle and try and figure out what is missing.
Food and sugar cravings could be linked to actual nutritional deficiencies, such as magnesium, iron or zinc. However, it could also be linked with increased or chronic stress, as well as a time of difficult emotions.
There may also be a lack that's driving the food cravings. You may be lacking social contact, time for yourself, sleep, hydration or regular meals. So you can see there's a gazillion of reasons that could lead towards cravings, binging and overeating.
Accordingly, it is important to identify which type of craving you are experiencing in order to address it effectively.
The most common 3 types of cravings
Check out the main types of cravings that may trigger bingeing and overeating and find out what can be helpful at tackling them and regaining balance around food.
1. Physical cravings
Physical cravings mean that the signals you are getting are coming from genuine needs for fuel for your body.
Physical cravings will often come accompanied by a range of strong physical cues, that are easy to notice, even if you’re a little bit out of practice when it comes to listening to your body.
These include growling stomach, dip in energy and moods or even becoming ‘hangry’. The hunger grows slowly and is satisfied with by having a balanced meal. And often this will start after a significant time after a meal has passed.
However, if you deliberately have skipped meals, restricted calories or simply didn’t have enough nutrition, the binges will feel like you’re on an ‘autopilot’ and are unable to stop, especially with sweets and processed foods.
The shame and guilt that comes after may trick you into thinking that you have a ‘weak willpower’ or that you failed again, but chances are that you are simply out of balance physically.
If you’ve been surfing the waves of restriction and bingeing, this type of craving may not be so clear for you to read and recognise, as your body has been out of balance for so long. Not to worry, recognising that your body needs to get into physical balance first for you to read the cues accurately is step number one.
Physical cravings: What do I do?
Focus on regular eating and avoid restriction at all costs. Your body needs to regain regularity, balance hormones and learn how to trust you again to listen to its signals. Take time to learn about balancing blood sugar levels, as it can be a true game-changer for physical cravings.
Start with meal planning, organising your meals and snacks and avoid leaving it to chance. Preparation is key.
Focus on eating your meals mindfully, as your body will process and absorb the essential nutrients more easily. It will also keep you more satiated for longer. Plus, when you eat mindfully you’ll have less of the stress hormone cortisol at the time and have smoother digestion.
2. Emotional cravings
Emotional cravings are the cravings that are easiest to understand as often they are tied to a strong emotion, be it anxiety, anger, sadness or boredom. Out of all three types of cravings, emotional cravings are the most common and the most overwhelming.
Often people, who experience emotional cravings also describe their experience as emotional eating, which feels very overwhelming and out of control.
You will experience specific cravings like chocolate, crisps or just ‘something sweet’ and having an apple instead simply won’t satisfy the urge. The feelings can come on suddenly, even if you have just had a meal. With emotional cravings, no physical signals are coming from your body. And often it feels like you cannot focus on anything else, just the food you crave.
What is interesting is that these cravings are not ‘real’ food cravings. So it is possible to wait it out, distract and delay for 20 min and realise that they’re gone!
Emotional cravings: What do I do?
Firstly, it's important to acknowledge and validate your emotions. Understand that emotional cravings are a way for your brain to seek comfort or distraction from negative emotions.
Find alternative activities or coping mechanisms to deal with your emotions instead of turning to food. This can include journaling, talking to a friend, going for a walk, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy.
Also, if it is bearable, try to sit with the emotion and let it pass without rushing. Because it always does pass.
Additionally, if you notice a trigger pattern for these negative emotions and cravings, come up with a few distractions that can be helpful. Do those tasks of the day that require your full attention and focus, brush your teeth, do something physical like sun salutations or immerse yourself in crafts.
The key here is to do an activity that truly takes up all of your attention.
3. Habitual cravings
These are very similar to emotional cravings, yet they do not need a particular emotion to trigger the behaviour.
In the past, there may have been a trigger emotion or point that created a habit, but now it may just be ‘something you do’. It becomes a habit, led by learned behaviours.
For example, perhaps one Friday you were sick and had to miss a friend’s party. Feeling lonely and socially deprived triggered you to order an extra-large pizza ‘to make yourself feel better’ and watch Netflix.
Now it’s been months or even years, yet you find yourself habitually ordering a pizza or other comfort food every Friday. It maybe even feels like ‘part of how you are’.
Or perhaps you convinced yourself that whatever you eat, you must always finish with a sweet food, no matter how full you are?
Habitual cravings: What do I do?
Check-in with yourself- are these behaviours coming from listening to your body or listening to your mind? Are they filling a void that the lack of that particular food at that particular time would cause?
The good news is that if you managed to create a habit, you will also be able to change it to a healthier alternative. Think of what could be equally as satisfying in those situations? Start playing with your cat for 5 minutes after dinner, go for a short walk or do crafts.
Create a new tradition and host a board game night or have a foot soak with essential oils every Friday night and watch the cravings become a distant memory.
What is the type of food craving trying to tell you?
If cravings have been part of your life for some time, chances are you tried various methods of distraction and delay, but nothing worked. Perhaps you’ve been working on emotional cravings and habitual triggers for a while, but nothing still seems to shift.
These tools and techniques are only effective and work well if you are physically balanced. When your physical hunger is out of balance, distracting from any cravings will feel like climbing a mountain filled with disappointment and impatience.
So start with getting yourself nourished and balanced first.
What are other specific food cravings about?
Persistent specific food cravings can also indicate a nutrient deficiency in your body. So it becomes essential to strat paying attention to your cravings. Especially, if there are repeating patterns that arise.
Le's take a look at some of the most common specific food cravings:
Ah, the irresistible temptation that can leave you longing for that perfect combination of flavor and crunch. Whether it's a bag of potato chips, a bowl of pretzels, or a plate of crispy french fries, the craving for salty foods has its own unique appeal.
Craving salty snacks and foods can be a pure craving for flavour, however, it can also fall under all three types of cravings. If you are highly or chronically stressed and fatigued, salty food cravings might mean your adrenal glands need support.
When we consume sugary foods, our bodies quickly convert them into glucose, providing us with an immediate energy boost. This instant gratification often leads to a craving for more sugary foods, as our bodies become accustomed to the dopamine hit of sugar. It also gets used to the comforting feeling and pleasure, which can help distract from stress, anxiety or unwanted emotions.
Additionally, cravings for sugary foods can be linked to blood sugar dysregulation. When the blood sugar "crashes", you might be on the hunt for foods that will be the quickest to bring it back up.
Often associated with hormonal and period cravings, as one of the foods for comfort around the time of the month. Interestingly, chocolate cravings can also signal magnesium deficiency, so it may be a good idea to eat magnesium-rich foods or supplement. Also, when you crave chocolate, opt-in for magnesium-rich dark chocolate. That way you may have less dairy and sugar and reduce further cravings.
"Junk Food" Cravings
Fast foods or ultra-processed foods are packed with additives, flavourings and colourings that increase the palatability of foods. Additionally, these are foods that are fast for the body to process, so it may arise when your blood sugar levels are low and want a quick pick-me-up.
These cravings are often triggered by the brain's reward system. It associates these highly palatable foods with pleasure and comfort. Yet, the continued search for the feeling creates a lack of pleasure with non-processed foods. This can create habitual and emotional cravings.
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Getting to the bottom of the types of cravings you experience
Cravings are an intriguing aspect of human behavior that often leave us pondering why we desire certain things. Whether it's a sudden urge for a chocolate bar or an intense longing for a slice of pizza, cravings can play a significant role in our lives.
Understanding these types can help us gain insights into our desires and potentially make healthier choices when it comes to satisfying our cravings. Better choices not just for the body, but also to reduce the emotional and habitual cravings.
Struggling with one or all types of cravings and would like to find out how to overcome them for good? Then book the 90 min Food Peace Roadmap session with Milda and find out how to eliminate cravings and reach food freedom for good.