Decoding hunger cravings: What do they mean?

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Healthy eaters fear cravings as much as the next nightmare. And why not. Have you ever noticed, your body always craves for only the unhealthy stuff! C’mon when is the last time you got a craving for salad greens! Have you ever wondered why? It’s because fatty foods, the kind that you crave for (think: chocolates, French fries, chicken wings) induce maximum dopamine release, or as science calls it reward. Every time you fulfil a craving, your brain’s reward system is alerted, which responds by the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. At a subconscious level, this memory is stored and a pathway is created, which goes something like this:

Crave for the food  get food  dopamine release feel good hence crave more food

Why do cravings occur

As James Clear, in his bestseller book Atomic Habits writes, every craving has a cue. And so, every food you crave for has a cue. Surprisingly, this cue is often physiological in nature and indicative of the lack of a certain nutrient within the body. The problem arises when this pathway of cue –craving reward is repeated long enough to cement itself into a habit. Let’s be honest, unhealthy eating habits don’t just derail our nutrition but are expensive to maintain as well.

Thankfully there’s an easier way out.

In today’s post, I’ll discuss how to approach your cravings in a scientific manner by understanding why a particular type of craving occurs and how to swap what you want to eat with what you should eat that will not leave your body feeling satiated but also answer that craving.

Where do cravings come from:

Let me guess, you’d think they appear from the mind, right? Well, not always. There are two types of cravings- physiological (arising from the body) and psychological (arising from the mind).

Psychological cravings: We have all experienced psychological food cravings. Your stomach is full with food but you can’t stop thinking about stuffing your mouth with cookies. Or, it’s raining and you are craving pizza.

The main types of psychological food cravings are:

Diet-induced: Long periods of restrictive dieting that focus on eliminating entire food groups such as carbs, or vehemently demonize fatty/sugar-rich junk, leaving no room for a cheat treat, often aggravate cravings for these very foods over time.

Pavlovian overeating: Sometimes when an environmental cue triggers food intake and prompts dopamine release, a pattern is created in the brain which leads to repetitive cravings for that food. This environmental cue can be stress (emotional or mental), or even social situations like meeting up with friends.

Emotional eating: This ain’t your ordinary eat a cookie and feel good sort of craving. Here, your craving for food increases with the intensity of emotional stress and you invariably end up eating more. Usually, emotional eaters crave high-reward foods that induce maximum satiety (dopamine), such as ice-cream, candy, chocolate and even chips.

Time-dependent: Have you noticed, your craving for junk foods increases as the day goes by. In the morning, craving for fruits is maximum (insert ref) while towards late afternoon and evening, the craving for high-calorie foods is higher ( It often manifests as a harmless urge to have something spicy with your evening tea, or relish ice-cream post-lunch.

Physiological food cravings

Many a time, food cravings arise from the body. This is when the brain senses the lack of a certain nutrient (say glucose, magnesium or vitamin) and elicits a mental imagery of foods containing these nutrients. Have you noticed that you like to end a heavy meal with something sweet? Or, a bowl of hot soup seems irresistible after a long, tiring day at work. This is also why some people prefer salty, spicy foods while others have a sweet tooth. Their brains are wired to generate cravings that adequately meet the body’s nutritional needs.

Let’s see some specific examples of food cravings, why they occur and how to address them with healthy food substitutes

Sugar cravings

Sugar cravings are most common of all the cravings. In a survey run across 25 healthy women, cravings for chocolate accounted for 49%, while cravings for candy, cakes and puddings made up for 16% of the episodes.

When do they occur: Cravings for sugar occur late afternoon or in the evening. It could be post a heavy meal as well.

Why do they occur: Sugar cravings occur because sugar works like a drug. Research has found that its effects on the brain are similar to cocaine . Once consumed, it elicits feel-good chemicals like dopamine and creates an addiction that leaves you craving for emotional high. You don’t crave sugar, rather you crave the way it makes you feel.  

Common causes of sugar cravings are:

Stress: Research suggests that sugar cravings are part of the body’s stress response system. Prolonged emotional or work-related stress increases cortisol levels, which creates an urge to eat sweets in order to elicit dopamine and serotonin that eventually lower stress

Menstrual cycle: One study reported 66% increase in sugar cravings amongst women during the premenstrual phase.

Sleep deprivation: Sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels- the hormone that controls appetite, and reduces leptin- the hormone that induces satiety and tells you to stop eating. As a result, if you are regularly sleeping less than 6 hours a day, you may experience an increased affinity for added sugars and fats.

 How to handle sugar cravings

Since sugar cravings arise from a deep-rooted urge for mood-boosting foods, you should consider taking magnesium-rich foods or foods that lower cortisol. Additionally, including probiotic fruits like apple and banana that are high on the satiety index as well can help.

Consider the following:

Magnesium-rich foods: Eggs, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, peanuts

Cortisol-lowering foods: Banana, dark chocolate, green tea, sprouts,

Probiotic/prebiotic foods: Full-fat yogurt

Vitamin C foods: Spinach, citrus fruits, potatoes, strawberries, broccoli

Including these foods into your daily diet will not only keep sugar cravings at bay but also promote gut health which is the number 1 determinant of your mood.

Chocolate cravings during period

More than 60% women report chocolate cravings during the perimenstrual (before and after menstrual cycle) phase. It’s easy to understand why. During this time, the female sex hormone progesterone is at its lowest. Progesterone is a critical regulator of mood. When it dips low, women experience terrible mood swings and seek to foods that boost mood, such as chocolate.

Chocolate is rich in flavonoids such as epicatechin (also found in green tea) that has positive effects on cognition and mood. Further, it has been found to promote endorphin release during emotional and physiological stress

While dark chocolate is definitely a great way to compensate for low progesterone levels during menstrual cycle, it’s also advisable to consume omega-3-rich foods such as fatty fish (salmon, cod, mackerel), walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.

Cravings for salty, savory foods

A craving for salty, savory foods is often a sign that your stomach’s digestive fire has died down because any leftover food has been digested. Ayurveda says that when the sun begins to set, the stomach’s fire also begins to die down. This is why you experience such cravings mostly in the evening, when the sun is close to setting.

However, an empty stomach doesn’t necessary imply the need for food.

Craving for salty foods are often prevalent among people with low blood pressure. This is because their body recognizes the lack of sodium and responds by creating cravings for high-sodium foods. That is why you crave packaged snacks like biscuits, salted potato chips and French fries because they are all high in sodium.

What to eat: People who regularly experience craving for salty food should consider drinking water all day to hydrate themselves adequately. Sometimes, the body gets confused between hunger and thirst and you are misled to believe you’re hungry when in fact it’s simply thirst and can be quelled by a glass of water.

Secondly, it’s a good idea to keep salted homemade snacks handy, such as sprouted salads, chickpea salads, or water-rich fruits that replenish electrolyte balance like watermelon and cucumber. Additionally, roasted almonds, peanuts, granola snack bars (sugar-free) are high in satiety and instantly dowse these cravings.

Cravings for oily, fatty foods

If you’re someone who regularly craves greasy foods rich in trans-fats like French fries, pizza or chicken wings, then you may probably be currently on a low-protein, low-fat diet. Such cravings are common amongst people who have turned vegan or vegetarian for a brief period of time and have stopped getting their protein from lean meat sources.

A high protein, high fat diet induces leptin hormone, which creates a feeling of satiety in the brain and also maintains energy balance. Craving for greasy foods on a regular basis may indicate an underlying dissatisfaction with the current meal plan.

The following foods are recommended for such people:

Cottage cheese, eggs, parmesan, whole grain pasta, nuts and nut butters, salad greens, tofu, lean meat

Simple diet tweaks such as adding a tablespoon of ghee/coconut oil into your morning black coffee, and eating a piece of jaggery after your lunch can go a long way to alleviate unwarranted cravings for greasy junk foods.

All in all, a high-protein meal that includes plant and/or animal protein and nuts and good fats like omega-3-fatty acids works best.

Carbohydrate cravings

Carbohydrate cravings occur mostly at night. It could be as harmless as wanting to unwind after a long, tiring day with a homecooked meal, to a nagging desire for ice-cream. Carbohydrate cravings are your body’s way of asking for comfort. They are easiest to tackle.

However, instead of having a dinner of refined white sauce pasta or even worse, packaged noodles, we have a few recommendations to answer carbohydrate cravings:

Mashed potatoes or roasted sweet potatoes

Lentil soup with peas and carrots

Kidney bean salad

Amaranth porridge

Cauliflower rice



Craving for soda/carbonated beverages

We all love washing down a heavy meal with a glass of soda. You think your body yearns for the fizz but it doesn’t. What it wants is calcium and potassium. Yes, a constant urge to sip on soda can imply low levels of these micronutrients.

Consider supplementing calcium in your diet with green smoothies containing kale and spinach, coconut water and sugarcane juice. These are rich in potassium too, and replenish lost minerals from the body as well.

If anything, drink water throughout the day and switch soda for lemon water with your meals for improved digestion. Now that is something your body needs and will thank you for!

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