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What’s causing your food cravings?


by Skye Swaney

There’s nothing quite like the intensity of a craving to derail even the best of healthy eating intentions. Whether it’s chips, chocolate or a burger and fries, many people cite food cravings as one of the main reasons they struggle to stick to a healthy diet.

While they are undeniably frustrating, understanding the reasons behind your food cravings can be the key to preventing them from steering you off course and head first into a tub of salted caramel ice cream.

Hunger vs cravings

Firstly, it’s important to recognise the difference between cravings and hunger. Cravings are driven by an intense desire for a particular food and are generally only satisfied by consuming that particular food, while hunger will be satisfied by consuming any number of foods.

Do I get cravings because I’m deficient in something?

Contrary to popular belief, most cravings are not a result of a nutrient deficiency. It’s a nice idea but, except in very rare conditions, this generally isn’t the case. The fact that we tend to crave high fat, high sugar, highly processed foods which our bodies can do without, rather than the more nutritious foods our bodies need is proof enough that this theory doesn’t hold up.

Craving conditioning

Do you repeatedly crave chocolate after lunch? Always want a biscuit with your cup of tea? Often cravings are simply a conditioned response, that is, if we are used to having something at a particular time, our bodies and minds come to expect it – and if they don’t get it, we get a craving. Unfortunately, conditioning can lead to habits which are difficult to break. Going cold turkey is one option and cravings should start to subside after a few days. Alternatively, changing your routine can help to break the association – try going for a walk after lunch or having a piece of fruit with your cup of tea instead of a biscuit.

Carbohydrate cravings

Most food cravings are for carbohydrates – in particular, sugar. One of the reasons for this is because eating foods high in carbohydrates produce serotonin, which makes us feel good. For women, this is thought to be responsible for the dreaded PMS cravings, when hormonal changes can cause lowered serotonin levels.

Sugar cravings can also be a sign of low blood glucose levels. This can result from not eating enough carbohydrates such as white bread, cake, biscuits and sweets elevate our blood sugar levels short term, but they’ll soon come crashing back down again leaving us tired, lethargic and craving more carbs!

Cravings and restrictive eating

Cravings are often a side effect of an overly restrictive diet. Basically, your body is feeling deprived and is shouting loudly about its need for food so that you can’t ignore it. This is particularly the case if you restrict a certain food or food group – if there’s one sure way to set yourself up for a craving, it’s by telling yourself that you can’t have a particular food.

Instead, focus on moderation, base your diet on minimally processed foods as close to their natural state as possible but make sure you allow a few indulgences here and there too.


Include smart carbs

Add a modest portion a minimally processed low GI carbohydrates such as whole grains, legume or starchy vegetable to each of your meals. These types of carbohydrates help keep blood sugar levels steady and keep you fuller for longer.

Have regular meals

Getting too hungry can lead to cravings for high fat, high sugar foods. Eating regularly ensures that you’re in better position to make healthy choices.

Hunger + cravings = a lethal combination

If you’re craving high fat, high sugar foods and you’re hungry, eat a healthy meal first. You’ll likely find that the craving has gone once your hunger has been satisfied.

Avoid banning any foods from your diet (unless you need to for medical reasons)

Banning foods only makes us want them more. Instead, focus on embracing moderation.

Include protein at each meal

Protein fills us up and helps to regulate our blood sugar levels – hence it features prominently on the Dr Joanna Plate. Seafood, meat, eggs, legumes, tofu and dairy are all great sources of protein.

If you’re craving sugar, have a piece of fruit instead

Fruit offers the sweetness our taste buds are looking for but also the benefits of fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Distance yourself

Sitting next to a packet of biscuits if you have a sweet tooth is like a red rag to a bull. Put them out of sight or get up and go for a walk.

Get plenty of sleep

Not getting enough sleep can lead to cravings for high fat, high sugar foods, so make sure you’re getting 7-8 hours per night.


And finally, remember that this is what happens regularly that really counts – what you do eat is just as important as what you don’t – and quantity matters. While honouring your lolly craving on a daily basis is not a great idea, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally giving into a craving and enjoying a small amount of your favorite food.


This article was originally published on Dr. Joanna McMillan’s site

Dr Joanna McMillan

Joanna has a PhD in Nutritional Science, is one of Australia's best known health experts and founder of Get Lean. She is also the author of several books, has a weekly column in Sunday Life and writes for several magazines and online blogs. She is also a proud ambassador for Diabetes Australia, The Skin & Cancer Foundation, FoodBank NSW/ACT & Muscular Dystrophy.

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