Cravings are a universal experience. Whether it is cravings for your mom’s home cooked comfort food, or cravings salty snacks during a late night Netflix binge.
But cravings can often be the factor that make or break your resolve when it comes to sticking to your nutrition goals.
There are two types of food cravings and we are going to discuss both as well as how to identify which kind of craving you are experiencing so you can use that knowledge to make decisions that align with your nutrition goals.
Two Different Types of Food Cravings
There are two different types of food cravings: Physiological and Psychological.
Physiological cravings are the signals your brain gives to your body when you are low on readily available energy sources, aka you are hungry.
These cravings often may be accompanied with other physiological signs or signals of hunger: the rumbling of your stomach or stomach cramps, headaches or light-headedness, a feeling of “shakiness”, and the ever common mood swings that are commonly called “hanger”.
Psychological cravings on the other-hand are reactions to certain circumstances and may not have any correlation to your body’s actual physical needs.
Psychological cravings may be a conditioned response where you have unconsciously trained your brain to respond to certain circumstances with eating.
Our body’s are incredibly habitual. If you go to lunch every day at 12:00 then your body may become conditioned to send hunger signals around noon each day regardless of your eating habits earlier in the day.
Psychological food cravings can also be a response to other hormone changes that are happening in the body. For example, stress can cause the body to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and therefore can result in experiencing cravings and the desire to eat even though your body may not physically need the additional energy.
Lack of sleep can also have this impact on hunger cravings as sleep is the period of time when your body regulates your hormone levels including the hormones associated with hunger cues and satiation (feeling full) cues. If you do not get enough sleep or are chronically under slept then your body is unable to regulate these hormones properly which may result in cravings and the desire to eat even when your body has all the energy it needs.
Most commonly, psychological food cravings will not be accompanied by the same physiological signals such as stomach cramps, headaches, etc.
The hallmark of psychological food cravings is that they often come at times when you would not normally eat a meal, after a stressful circumstance or experience, or in response to emotional distress or disturbance.
How to Identify Which Kind of Food Craving You Have
Generally when a client is struggling with food cravings I have them go through the following question check list to help them determine what kind of craving they are experiencing and then what strategy or action they can take in response.
In order to complete the check list, ask yourself the following questions:
How many hours ago was my last meal. If your last meal was over 3-4 hours ago then it is likely you could be experiencing physiological hunger and need to eat your next meal.
Am I experiencing any physiological signs of hunger? If you are experiencing other hunger signals such as stomach cramps, light-headedness, irritability, and have not eaten a meal in the last 3-4 hours then it is most likely that you are experiencing physiological hunger and should eat your next meal.
When was the last time I drank water and how much water have I consumed today? Thirst signals can often be similar hunger signals and your body may actually be needing water instead of food. When you begin to experience cravings, ask yourself when was the last time you drank water (specifically, not other beverages but water itself) and then ask how much water you have consumed in the day. The recommendation for daily water consumption in adults is up to 3-4 liters (one gallon) per day. If you have eaten a proper meal within the previous 3-4 hours but have not had sufficient water intake then start with having a glass of water.
How am I feeling emotionally? Have I recently experienced an emotionally charged situation? Stress and high emotion situations can trigger the release of stress hormones and disrupt normal hunger hormone release. If you have eaten a proper meal in the previous 3-4 hours and have high emotions while experiencing significant cravings then it is likely you are experiencing psychological cravings NOT physiological cravings.
Am I bored? Psychological food cravings are often manifest in boredom hunger or boredom eating. If you find yourself “bored” and craving specific foods then it is likely you are experiencing psychological cravings and that your body may not actually need more energy. I always recommend to my clients in these circumstances to take a walk, engage in a project, call a friends, or begin an activity that is unrelated to food and that can distract and engage your mind.
Where am I in my cycle? This is a question for my female clients but is a super relevant one as hormonal shifts during particular parts of a woman’s menstrual cycle can result in very strong cravings. Understanding your cycle and its tendencies can be very helpful in identifying and combating psychological cravings.
In the end, the goal is to understand YOUR body, YOUR habits, and how external factors like stress and internal factors like sleep and your cycle can impact your cravings. Being able to identify which kind of cravings you are experiencing can then enable you t make informed decisions around your nutrition so you can stay consistent in your goals.
If you struggle with cravings or struggle to stay consistent with your nutrition goals then nutrition coaching may be a beneficial and educational solution to help you achieve the results you want.
You can learn more about nutrition coaching and how my clients use tailored nutrition to better understand their bodies, identify their body’s signals and use that knowledge to finally take control of their health and achieve their health and fitness goals.