Cravings — they’re not just the title of Chrissy Teigen’s best-selling cookbook. They’re very real, but different from hunger in that they’re more specific. It’s not just that your tummy is gurgling in your board meeting, it’s that you’re picturing a very specific chicken sandwich smothered in artichoke dip. Or maybe brownies and BBQ sauce-soaked ribs. Screw it, maybe you even have the urge to buy a can of whipped cream that you’ll devour straight from the nozzle.
These cravings happen to most all of us. They’re a normal part of life — and, sometimes, they’re a health signal from your body that something is up.
Evelyn Tribole — MS, RD, pioneer of the self-care eating model “intuitive eating” and coauthor of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works — explains that urges to eat specific food groups may be your body’s way of telling you about nutritional deficiencies. For example, if you’re craving carb-heavy treats or sweets like scones, you might not be getting enough to eat, she says.
But it’s not quite that simple. There’s also a psychological component to cravings. “Our biology and psychology are intricately wired together,” Tribole says. A 2010 review on the subject in Current Directions in Psychological Science noted that research suggests that mental imagery plays a factor, with one study finding that the strength of cravings has to do with how vividly you can imagine the food you have a hankering for.
Tribole herself says she doesn’t like to “pathologize” cravings, but rather encourages people to get curious about why they’re happening. “When you feel a craving, ask yourself: What am I feeling and what do I need?” Tribole suggests. Then you can take that information and respond by listening to your body, often times by indulging the craving to satisfy your body's needs.
If your food cravings are impacting your life in a negative way, you might want to talk to a nutritionist or doctor about them. But if you’re just curious about cravings, we asked nutritionists about some common causes, from dehydration to dieting.
For most people, cravings tend to be tied to heartier foods. "I’ve never run into a patient who’s told me: I can’t stop craving kale or broccoli.” Tribole laughs. She says you might be more likely to crave sweets if you’re not getting enough carbohydrates, which often happens to people who are dieting and depriving themselves of certain things on a nutritional level.
“Our brain relies on carbohydrates,” says Tribole. “They’re the preferred fuel of the brain…. If you’re having these cravings and if you find yourself thinking about food 24/7, that’s a sign you’re not getting enough to eat. It’s your body trying to survive. ”
Holistic nutritionist Kelly LeVeque — who’s worked with celebs like Jessica Alba — says hormones also can impact the foods we yearn for. “Cortisol plays a big part in food cravings — it's the hormone produced by the adrenals when our body senses stress,” she says. In small doses, it's fine, but chronically elevated levels of cortisol may lead to longings for specific foods like scrumptious crumb cakes.
“Stress, which most of us experience on a day-to-day basis, can cause cravings that have us in dire search of highly palatable foods like cookies, pizza, and chips,” she says.” We crave these foods because when we eat them we release the "reward hormone" dopamine.”
When it comes to food cravings, LaVeque says, it can be good to focus on nourishing your body "with anti-inflammatory and blood sugar–balancing meals, without focusing on the perfection and strict rules, since those cause even more stress.”
“Instead, focus on getting to bed an hour early at night, text a friend to schedule a workout, and at your next meal focus on filling up on blood sugar balancing foods like protein, fat, fiber and greens,” she says.
There are tons of theories out there about why pregnant women crave certain foods. Some hinge on hormonal changes, and other suggest that they’re about nutritional deficits, according to a 2014 review in Frontiers in Psychology. Whatever the reason, pregnancy cravings are certainly common, and may lead you to crave anything from pickles to ice cream.
If you find yourself spooning frosting out of the Betty Crocker jar, it could be because you’re dehydrated. Some research suggests being dehydrated triggers cravings foods, according to Cleveland Clinic.
You’re on your period.
Tribole notes that period cravings are common, and notes that the body has more energy needs leading up to menstruation, which might cause the body to need more fuel and crave certain things. “I would have sworn cravings would be specific to chocolate during this time, but research shows that women will crave a wide variety of different kinds of foods during this time,” she says.
They’re emotional cravings.
Tribole notes that some cravings are tied to emotional factors. “Maybe you’ve been going 24/7 working hard and you need a break,” she says. “You start thinking about the vending machine, and it’s the only way your mind is willing to give you a break.”
It’s a special time of year.
Tribole says it’s not unreasonable for people to yearn for pumpkin ice cream in the fall, or sugar cookies during the holidays. “Sometimes a seasonal thing, and sometimes it’s just about food,” she says.
Ultimately, Tribole says, sometimes cravings are just cravings. “Sometimes it’s about listening to body — what tastes, good, what sounds good — and letting go of food rules gradually, “she says. “And sometimes a food just sounds good.”