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Wanting vs. liking food

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Food cravings are extremely common. Whether pining for a home-cooked favorite, dreaming of dessert, or suddenly hankering for something very specific, nearly everyone has experienced these feelings at some point.

Food cravings are usually temporary, but sometimes, they can become disruptive or consistent to the point of being problematic.

Many people also experience cravings for specific foods, which can become distracting. Questions like "How can I stop craving junk food," "Why am I craving salty foods," and "Why am I craving sugary foods?" are common.

There are many reasons why the body may experience certain food cravings, and focusing too much on suppressing them may be problematic in its own way. However, some tips and techniques can help reduce food cravings by helping someone establish healthier relationships with food and eating.

4
 minutes read
Last updated on 
February 22, 2022
May 10, 2024
Wanting vs. liking food
In this article

What are food cravings?

"An intense desire to eat a particular type of food" is a basic definition of a food craving. But the experience actually comes from a complex combination of physiological, mental, emotional, and environmental factors.9

Biological reasons for food cravings

From a neurological standpoint, cravings are tied to the brain's reward center. This internal pathway sends out potent hormones and other electrical signals that stimulate pleasurable feelings, often influencing what we like and how we react to things.

This is exactly what happens when we eat certain foods. Potent hormones like dopamine and serotonin are released into the bloodstream, leaving a sense of satisfaction in their wake.2

Specifically, humans are hardwired to crave both savory and sweet foods, especially those high in salt, sugar, and fat.1 This is likely connected to evolution, with these types of foods helping early humans survive at a time when regular meals were far from guaranteed. 

In some cases, when it comes to food cravings, it's actually the "feel good" effect of these foods, rather than the foods themselves, that we're craving.1 This may not always be true, however, especially in cases when someone struggles with disordered eating behaviors.

Emotional reasons for food cravings

Certain foods are called "comfort foods" for a reason. While nostalgia may play a role in some cases, many people crave the same types of foods—usually hyper-palatable—when they're feeling sad, stressed, or otherwise in need of relief.

This once again ties into the effect these foods have on our brains.

Very high-fat and high-sugar foods have been shown to disrupt specific brain signals, reducing hormones that produce stress.1 And other studies have more generally linked diet to mood regulation.2

Someone who regularly eats certain foods when they feel stressed, overwhelmed, or experience other emotions may "learn" to associate them with feeling better, leading to an intense desire to have a particular food.

Environmental reasons for food cravings

Many people struggle to stop food cravings when they are not hungry. In many cases, food cravings emerge not as a response to internal hunger cues or emotional state but as a result of the person's environment.

External food cues, such as the sight and smell of certain foods, have been found to trigger food cravings, even when someone is not physically hungry or in need of food.3 Other studies have found that certain locations, such as cafes or the kitchen, can have a similar effect.4 In intuitive eating practices, this is referred to as “taste hunger,” or the hunger felt when certain foods just sound appealing, and it is considered a valid form of hunger, as opposed to a craving.10

Food cravings can also be tied to psychological conditioning when people are repeatedly exposed to food or the expectation of food at certain times or places.5 One study found that these external, environmental food cues were the biggest cause of food cravings.4

Food cravings and disordered eating

Food cravings are common, natural, and, on their own, not considered disordered eating behavior, so most people shouldn't worry about how to stop food cravings. However, consistent and intense food cravings may play a role in particular eating disorders.

Binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa (BN), in particular, have both been linked to strong desires for certain foods. People with these conditions were found to have more food cravings leading up to binge eating episodes.6

Part of the issue may again be how food cravings are produced in the brain. The reward center that has so much control over craved foods is also tied to areas of the brain that regulate appetite, allowing it to override feelings of satiety. This means people not only receive more pleasure when eating highly palatable foods but often take longer to feel full off of them, which can trigger binge eating behavior.2

Even focusing too much on how to stop food cravings can be potentially problematic. This type of fixation closely mirrors eating disorder psychopathology—or the unhelpful thinking patterns that drive many eating disorders.6 

Fixating on why you’re craving something you “shouldn’t be,” for example, can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. In turn, this can lead to the type of unhealthy dieting behavior that has also been linked to the development of eating disorders, particularly BED.7

Making peace with the foods you crave through practices like intuitive eating and other types of therapy is a valuable way to disrupt these unhelpful patterns and overcome binge eating behaviors.11 

How to stop food cravings: Mindful eating and other tips

Food cravings can be uncomfortable or distracting, but rather than focus on suppressing them, it's likely more helpful to work on building a different—and healthier—relationship with food altogether.

Mindful eating presents a more natural and sustainable model for how to stop craving food. The eating philosophy centers around staying present while eating to help eliminate the type of "mindless" munching so frequently associated with frequently craved food.

Some tips on how to eat more mindfully include:8

  • Focusing just on the act of eating without doing anything else at the same time, such as watching TV, listening to the radio, or reading
  • Paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations while eating
  • Avoiding judging your thoughts and feelings before, during, and after eating
  • Focusing on gratitude for where your meal came from and how it is nourishing your body
  • Appreciating the people you are sharing the meal with—eating can be a joyful, communal practice
  • Paying attention to the aroma, texture, color, and taste of your food as you cook, serve, and eat it

These tips may not come naturally at first, and that’s okay. Learning healthy eating habits will take time. However, changing how you view food and eating can help you navigate food cravings with more self-compassion and build a healthier relationship with food and yourself.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Cravings. (n.d.). Harvard School of Public Health. Accessed February 2024.
  2. de Macedo, I. C., de Freitas, J. S., & da Silva Torres, I. L. (2016). The Influence of Palatable Diets in Reward System Activation: A Mini Review. Advances in Pharmacological Sciences, 2016, 7238679.
  3. Benbaibeche, H., Saidi, H., Bounihi, A., Koceir, E.A. (2023). Emotional and external eating styles associated with obesity. Journal of Eating Disorders, 11, 67.
  4. Ferrer-Garcia, M., Gutiérrez-Maldonado, J., Pla-Sanjuanelo, J., Vilalta-Abella, F., Andreu-Gracia, A., Dakanalis, A., Fernandez-Aranda, F., Fusté-Escolano, A., Ribas-Sabaté, J., Riva, G., Saldaña, C., & Sánchez, I. (2015). External Eating as a Predictor of Cue-reactivity to Food-related Virtual Environments. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, 219, 117–122.
  5. Rodríguez-Martín, B. C., & Meule, A. (2015). Food craving: new contributions on its assessment, moderators, and consequences. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 21.
  6. Chao, A. M., Grilo, C. M., & Sinha, R. (2016). Food cravings, binge eating, and eating disorder psychopathology: Exploring the moderating roles of gender and race. Eating behaviors, 21, 41–47.
  7. Memon, A. N., Gowda, A. S., Rallabhandi, B., Bidika, E., Fayyaz, H., Salib, M., & Cancarevic, I. (2020). Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good? Cureus, 12(9), e10275.
  8. Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. (2016). 8 Steps to Mindful Eating. 
  9. Meule A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current Nutrition Reports, 9(3), 251–257.
  10. Hartley, R. (2017). Four Types of Hunger in Intuitive Eating: Physical Hunger, Emotional Hunger, Taste Hunger and Practical Hunger. Rachel Hartley Nutrition. Accessed March 2024.
  11. Anderson, L. M., Hall, L. M. J., Crosby, R. D., Crow, S. J., Berg, K. C., Durkin, N. E., Engel, S. G., & Peterson, C. B. (2022). "Feeling fat," disgust, guilt, and shame: Preliminary evaluation of a mediation model of binge-eating in adults with higher-weight bodies. Body Image, 42, 32–42.
  12. Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(Suppl 2), 55–69.

FAQs

Are there tips for how to stop craving junk food?

It's extremely common to experience junk food cravings, especially if you're feeling stressed or upset. In these cases, you may utilize a tool like the hunger fullness scale.

The concept rates feelings of hunger on a scale from 1-10, which can give people a better idea of how hungry they are and give them a moment to think about whether they're actually physically hungry or just reacting to emotional or environmental stimuli.

It’s also important to consider how we think about certain foods. Restricting something because it’s “junk food” or even labeling something as “junk food” can trigger cravings, tying the idea to “forbidden” foods or the guilt associated with eating them, which are often part of disordered eating patterns.

Why am I craving salty foods?

There are many reasons why you may crave salty foods.

Sometimes, your body may need more salt, and this biological imperative triggers cravings. Often, though, people crave salty foods because the brain's reward center reacts to them.

Why am I craving sugary foods?

The brain's reward center tends to release certain "feel good" hormones into the bloodstream after receiving hyper-palatable foods, including those high in sugar. Many crave sugary foods because they've "learned" to associate them with this neurological reaction.

It’s also possible to crave sugary foods if you have a restrictive diet, particularly if you’re restricting carbs, as sugar may provide the body with a source of energy it’s not getting from other foods in these cases.12

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Further reading

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