Cravings are normal and largely unavoidable.
But if you experience them frequently enough that they’re disruptive to your wellbeing, or derail any efforts to follow a nutrient-dense diet, they are probably worth addressing.
So, why do they occur?
Well, cravings work alongside neurological mechanisms concerning motivation, particularly involving the neurotransmitter dopamine.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are hard-wired to survive and reproduce, so we need our brains to motivate us to seek food and reward us when we are successful in doing so. Dopamine acts as the learning chemical here- it's released to drive our motivation to seek certain foods again and again. If we experience eating a certain food that feels rewarding (in terms of taste and satiation or fullness), a dopamine surge is released to make the experience feel good, but also to reinforce the behaviour happening in future.
This is particularly true for chocolate; in studies it is nearly always reported as the most frequently craved food.
Cravings aren’t caused by any one thing- they’re a combination of cognitive influences, conditional/habitual responses, emotional needs or avoidance, mood, fatigue, hormonal changes, and reaction to food cues (smell, texture, taste or even pictures of food causes a physiological response such as increase salivation and arousal in the ventral striatum portion of the brain).
One thing you can do is learn to differentiate between hunger and cravings.
Sometimes tricky as they aren’t always black and white and the sensations you experience may overlap.
But often, cravings tend to be more rapid and linked to a particular food. You won’t always be experiencing the physical signs of hunger, like a growling tummy.
Below are some of the typical ways we can differentiate between hunger and cravings.
Differentiating between hunger and cravings can also help you to recognise and respond to your hunger signals effectively, so that you don’t deny yourself food when you actually need it.
Part of the issue is also our psychological response to giving into cravings. We can end up in a nasty cycle of self belief where we label ourselves as weak-willed or not to be trusted around certain foods. As you may have noticed, these belief systems can do more harm than good.
Instead of fighting against cravings, you can learn how to willingly experience them. This means acceptance of the associated discomfort and distress and learning to cope with emotions that commonly contribute to food being used for comfort or avoidance.
One of the ways we can do this is through a technique called Urge Surfing. It’s a form of mindfulness, where you can practice being comfortable with observing your cravings, calming down their urgency and letting them pass. More often than not, you’ll find that the craving will subside.
Cravings are normal, and it's totally ok to give into them sometimes. In fact, trying to completely avoid certain foods may work against you- it may only further fuel your desire to consume them, which can result in binge eating.
Instead, learning to recognise times when you might be stuck in a habit or using food to avoid/mask emotions can help to reduce the power of cravings and increase your ability to ride them out, rather than acting on them.