8 causes of food cravings and why it’s time to stop suppressing them

Nearly 100 percent of women and 70 percent of men say they experience strong food cravings during the past year. If you’ve ever struggled to overcome a food craving, there’s some good news: it may be time to stop fighting them.

Food cravings are our body’s way of telling us it is missing something. They are important messages that help us maintain balance within. Although they sometimes have little to do with hunger, they have a lot to do with our overall mental and physical health.

But what if you crave donuts 5 times a day, or really want to eat the entire 16-serving bag of chips? Don’t dig in just yet, but do consider listening to your body instead of squashing its request.

Understanding food cravings

The first step to overcoming food cravings is to understand them. For years, scientists believed that food cravings were caused solely by gaps in our diet. For instance, people who lack iron often have a desire to chew ice. However, if this were always the case, shouldn’t we all be running out at 3 p.m. to satisfy an afternoon craving for spinach and leafy greens?

A growing body of new research suggests that our cravings are a bit more complex than researchers originally thought. In addition to being a sign that we are short on specific nutritional needs, our cravings may also tell us a lot about what we are missing emotionally. For instance, if you used to love strawberry ice cream when you were a child, you may be missing the comfort of family. They could also be a sign of another underlying issue, such as low serotonin levels or gastrointestinal issues.

8 causes of food cravings

Your salt craving may be a sign that you are not getting enough nutrients.

Your salt craving may be a sign that you are not getting enough nutrients.

To fully understand what’s behind our cravings and indulge in them in a way that is beneficial to our health, taking a holistic look at what they might be trying to tell us can help.

According to the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, there are 8 common causes of food cravings.


Hunger is often a sneaky sign that we are dehydrated. Why? Although it seems like hunger and thirst should be recognized differently, they both trigger the same type of signals to our brains. The portion of our brain that is responsible for controlling hunger and thirst, the hypothalamus, responds similarly when we are thirsty or when we are in need of a snack.

Lack of “primary food”

In his book, The Power of Primary Food, founder and director of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition explains how our health is not just related to the food we eat, but the elements of our lives around us that truly nourish us. For instance, you can eat five servings of kale a day and never touch a piece of processed food. But if you are unhappy in your job or are unfulfilled by your relationships, your feelings may manifest in emotional eating and specific cravings.

Cultural background

Research shows that we are more likely to crave foods that either we grew up with, are marketed to our culture, or our ancestors frequently ate. In Spain, for instance, women don’t report craving chocolate nearly as much as women in the U.S. do. In Egypt, neither men nor women report chocolate cravings, but rather cravings for more savory foods. If you grew up in an Italian family, for instance, it’s likely you will crave Italian food when something is out of balance. If you grew up eating orange creamsicles every night, ice cream cravings could be a sign that you are stressed and seeking comfort.


Especially for women, a shift in hormones could cause strong food cravings. During different phases of menstruation, women have different nutritional needs that are higher at some points and lower at others.

At the same time, men could also face hormonal shifts due to several factors, including a lack of sleep. If our hunger hormones are out of balance, our bodies will try to look for specific foods to compensate.

Yin/Yang imbalance

Eating foods that are extremely “yin” and uplifting, such as sugar, or “yang” and grounding, such as salt, can cause us to crave more of the opposite.

Some examples of this include:

  • Enjoying a cocktail (yin) with some salty nuts (yang) at a bar
  • Eating a cheeseburger and pickles (yang) with ice cream (yin)
  • Eating all raw food (yin) and craving a cooked meal (yang)

Lack of nutrients

If you are short on a specific set of nutrients, your body will often try to compensate by craving something that will give it what it needs. However, unfortunately it may not always be as black and white as craving oranges when we need Vitamin C. Your lack of nutrients could manifest as:

  • Cravings for salty foods, as salt helps increase electrolytes and replenishes minerals.
  • Cravings for sugary foods when you need energy. Instead, try to have some carbohydrates combined with protein.
  • Cravings for carbohydrates after a long run or workout.


Sometimes cravings may be seasonal.

  • Summer: You may crave cooling foods, such as ice cream or raw food.
  • Spring: You may crave citrus.
  • Fall: You may crave grounding foods, such as potatoes, root vegetables or grains.
  • Winter: You may crave warming foods, such as soups.


Some researchers believe that when things are going well, we challenge ourselves as a form of self-sabotage. This could also be caused by self-deprivation. If you’ve spent three months avoiding pizza and a slice finds you at a weak moment, of course, you may crave the slice of pizza.

How to overcome food cravings

  • Drink a full glass of water, and then consider if you still have the craving.
  • Determine if any of the above causes are responsible for your cravings.
  • Try to make healthy swaps. For instance, if you are craving something sweet, plan to make roasted root vegetables for dinner that will give you the sugar you need in a nutritious way.
  • If you have a recurring craving, chance are it is related to your “primary foods” or another underlying cause. Take a holistic look at your life to determine if there is a large gap that your body is trying to fill with nutrition.
  • Be prepared. Research menus, bring snacks and avoid places that will cause you to address your craving in a way that is detrimental to your health.
Be prepared. Try to understand what’s causing your cravings before you go out to eat. Look at the menu ahead of time so you are prepared to make a smart choice that fits your nutritional needs.

Be prepared. Try to understand what’s causing your cravings before you go out to eat. Look at the menu ahead of time so you are prepared to make a smart choice that fits your nutritional needs.

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What’s your strangest food craving?

What is your strangest food craving and how do you overcome it? We’d love to hear in the comments below