Food cravings are very common. They’re difficult to ignore and typically manifest through an intense or urgent desire for a specific type of food — though the food desired will vary from person to person. Food cravings can be brought on by a variety of factors — be it physical or mental. In certain cases, they may also be a sign of an underlying condition and should not be ignored.
This article dives into what your food cravings may mean, as well as the possible reasons behind them.
Possible causes for your cravings
Food cravings can be caused by several factors, which can usually be split into two main categories: physical and mental. Being aware of them may help you identify which factors specifically trigger your cravings.
- Leptin and ghrelin imbalances. An imbalance in these hunger and fullness hormones may cause certain people to experience more food cravings than others (1).
- Pregnancy. Hormonal changes in pregnancy may influence your smell and taste receptors, in turn, causing you to experience more intensified cravings (2).
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The changes in the hormones estrogen and progesterone that occur right before your period may intensify cravings, especially for carb-rich foods (3, 4).
- Lack of sleep. Too little or poor quality sleep can disturb your levels of the hormones responsible for regulating hunger, fullness, and sleep-wake cycles, possibly intensifying food cravings, especially in the evenings (5, 6).
- A nutrient-poor diet. Nutrients like protein and fiber can help you feel full. A diet that’s low in these nutrients may cause you to feel hungry or experience cravings, even if you have otherwise eaten enough calories (7, 8).
- Poor hydration. Ingesting too little fluids can intensify feelings of hunger or cravings in some people (9).
- Your gut flora. There is some evidence that the type of bacteria present in your gut may influence the frequency and type of cravings you may have. However, more research is needed to confirm this link (10).
- Physical activity. An increase in your level of physical activity, even if just by walking more, may help reduce food cravings. Similarly, moving less than you usually do may cause you to experience more food cravings (11).
- Highly processed foods. There is some evidence that highly processed foods rich in added fat and sugar may cause addiction-like symptoms, in turn, possibly increasing cravings (12).
- Frequency at which you eat the craved foods. Eating a craved food less frequently may be more effective at reducing your craving for that particular food than eating a small portion of that food whenever you crave it (11, 13, 14).
- Stress. Stress can increase your levels of the hormone cortisol. High cortisol levels may be linked to hunger, cravings, and a higher likelihood of stress- or binge-eating behaviors (1).
- Your personality. Some evidence suggests that people who are more impulsive or have higher scores on measures of addictive personality may also have a higher likelihood of experiencing food cravings (12, 15).
- Eating context. Your brain can associate eating a specific food to a specific context — for instance, popcorn and a movie. This may cause you to crave that particular food the next time the same context comes around.
- Your mood. Certain moods may trigger cravings for specific foods. For example, negative moods appear to often spark cravings for comfort foods (16).
Food cravings can be brought on by a variety of factors — both physical and mental. Being aware of them may help you identify what triggers your food cravings and ultimately help you reduce them.
Are cravings a sign of nutrient deficiencies?
There is a popular belief that cravings are a sign that your body is lacking certain nutrients. Yet, in most cases, this theory is not currently supported by science for a few reasons.
For instance, salt cravings may, in some cases, be caused by a sodium deficiency. However, most people who crave salty foods are not deficient in this nutrient (17). Moreover, based on this nutrient deficiency theory, you would expect that most cravings would be for nutrient-rich, minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or legumes.
Yet in reality, most cravings tend to be for foods with low nutritional value, such as highly processed foods rich in added fat, sugar, or salt (16). In addition, research suggests that men and women tend to crave different foods. For instance, women are more likely to crave sweet-tasting foods, while men are likelier to crave savory ones (4).
But there’s little evidence that women would be lacking nutrients more likely to be found in sweet foods and men would be lacking ones likelier found in savory ones. Finally, research suggests that the less frequently you eat certain foods, the less likely you are to crave them. However, if cravings were initiated by a low intake of these foods, you would expect the exact opposite effect to happen (11, 13, 14).
There’s currently little evidence to support the idea that food cravings are caused by an insufficient intake of nutrients contained in said food.
What if I crave nonfood items?
Although craving food items is unlikely to be a sign of nutrient deficiencies, craving nonfood items might be. One example of this is pica, a condition that can cause people to crave nonfood items, such as ice, dirt, or laundry detergent.
Pica occurs most commonly in children and pregnant women, and its exact cause has not yet been identified. However, studies suggest that people with pica often have low iron, calcium, or zinc levels. Moreover, their cravings for nonfood items often resolve when the lacking nutrients are supplemented (18, 19, 20, 21).
That said, not all cases of pica are resolved through supplementation. Therefore, more research is needed to determine the exact role that nutrient deficiencies play in pica (22).
Craving nonfood items, such as ice, dirt, or laundry detergent, may be a sign of low levels of iron, zinc, or calcium. Still, more research is needed to confirm this link.
Food cravings can be caused by a variety of physical or mental factors. They may be a sign of hormonal imbalances, a suboptimal diet, high stress levels, or a lack of sleep or physical activity.
Food cravings are seldom a sign that you’re lacking the nutrients found in that food. However, craving nonfood items, such as dirt, ice, or laundry detergent, may sometimes be caused by a diet that’s too low in certain nutrients.
If you’re currently craving nonfood items, speak to your healthcare provider to rule out nutrient deficiencies as a cause.