The Science-Backed Reasons Behind Cravings And How To Rewire Them

Food cravings can happen for seemingly no reason. Kent Berridge, a psychology and neuroscience professor, says that the brain is hardwired to respond to food whenever it’s available. It’s a survival technique.

But that only makes cravings harder to rewire. If you think that cravings are only a result of nutrient deficiencies or hunger, you’d be wrong. From chips to chocolate to cheese, food desires can be difficult to handle. Learn scientific causes of cravings and how you can rewire yours.

Cravings Aren’t Nutrition Deficiencies

A girl eats ice cream outside of a McDonald's.
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Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A common misconception is that cravings are “nutrient deficiencies.” For instance, if you’re craving potato chips, you may not have enough salt in your body. But that isn’t always the case, says registered dietitian Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Sheth told Shape that we experience cravings for many reasons. It could be that we associate foods with specific emotions, or that your body remembers the taste of a certain food.

We Associate Sweets With Sadness

A couple eats pizza happily.
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Massimo Sestini/Mondadori via Getty Images

If you’ve ever craved sweets while feeling down, you’re not alone. Many people associate certain tastes with specific emotions. In 2015, research in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that sweet cravings often arise from low levels of cortisol. Cortisol regulates emotional stress.

Essentially, low levels of cortisol can make people feel stressed or sad. When we eat sugar, we receive a cortisol spike. As a result, many people suddenly crave sweets when they feel overwhelmed.

How To Eat Fewer Sweets

Two girls eat cotton candy.
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Artyom GeodakyanTASS via Getty Images

Many people crave sweets when they feel distressed. Research in the journal Appetite found that stressed women are more likely to eat sweets. If you frequently crave sweets, you may want to lower your stress levels.

Otherwise, you can increase the protein in your diet. In 2010, researchers adjusted participants’ diets to include 25% protein. That change cut their sugar cravings by 60%. When people feel fuller, they are less likely to crave sugary snacks.

Replace Sweet With Sweet

Apples and oranges lie in canteens.
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Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

When sugar cravings hit, they can be mistaken for basic hunger, says registered dietitian and nutritionist Kristin Koskinen. Our glucose levels fall when we’re hungry, and our bodies may register that as a craving. In response, Koskinen says replace a sweet snack with something else.

Fresh or dried fruit can briefly satisfy a sugar craving, as can a protein bar. After eating, evaluate whether you’re craving sweets or for a meal. And if all else fails, suck on hard candy–it’s fewer calories!

Why People Crave Crunchy Foods

Bags of Lays chips are stocked on a shelf at a supermarket.
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James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

Have you ever noticed that crunchy foods–chips, pretzels, and cookies–are often the subject of cravings? There is science behind this. According to astrophysicist Charles Spence, many people appreciate the sound of chewing. It can be a satisfying way to release angst.

After studying the phenomenon, Spence came up with two explanations. One is that crunchy foods contain fat. The brain likes fat, but it can’t detect it through the mouth; loud crunching indicates that the brain is receiving fat.

The Secret Of Salt Cravings

Salty pretzels sit in a basket.
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Believe it or not, research has found many reasons behind salt cravings, from medical conditions to PMS. One of the most common reasons is excessive sweating. According to a 2008 study, when people sweat, they lose sodium. That’s why people often crave salty snacks after a workout.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology located specific neurons in the brain that trigger sodium cravings. Even if you eat more sodium, it takes a while for the brain to register it. So you could crave more sodium than you need.

How To Curb Salt Cravings

A chef generously salts a quartered lemon.
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Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

If you’re craving salt, you can find another savory flavor to replace it. Spices such as paprika, basil, turmeric, or cayenne can curb the craving. If you have sweat a lot, have an electrolyte-filled drink to replace the sodium.

Dr. Pooja Amy Shah, an integrative medicine physician, says that salt cravings stem from a habit. The more salt your diet contains, the more you’ll crave it. By replacing the salt, your craving should subside in a few weeks.

Why Cheese Is A Comfort Food

A woman pulls a slice of cheese pizza from a pie.
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Raymond Hall/GC Images

According to a research survey by the University of Michigan, more people crave cheese than any other food. But why? Researchers have a few explanations. One is that cheese contains l-tryptophan, an amino acid that releases dopamine. The hormone change makes people feel happier.

In 2016, researchers from the University of Cambridge suggested that cheese cravings could be genetic. During their study, participants with the MC4R defect were more likely to crave cheese regardless of their weight or diet.

Craving Carbs

A lady enjoys eating Pierogi, a national dish of Poland.
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

People who crave bread, even if they eat it regularly, may wonder why. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that carbs could trigger the craving. According to David Ludwig, one of the study’s lead authors, people who ate refined carbs experienced cravings just hours afterward.

This study only found a craving for refined carbs; participants were far less likely to crave whole wheat. Christopher Gardner, a Stanford nutrition scientist, says that refined carbs have more sugar, which makes us feel happier. That’s why we crave white bread more than wheat bread.

Tired Or Blue? Either Way, It’s Coffee Time

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Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images

Coffee cravings could have more to do with a daily habit than a nutrition deficit. A study in the Journal of Caffeine Research found that 70% of coffee-drinkers experience withdrawal symptoms (such as headaches) when they don’t get enough caffeine. The body may crave coffee to remove these symptoms.

Perhaps people crave coffee for the energy boost. Research in Practical Neurology found that coffee increases alertness and lifts peoples’ moods. A cup of Joe can be the emotion-lifter that people want during a “low” day.

The Consequences Of Late-Night Snacking

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@lordmaui/Unsplash
@lordmaui/Unsplash

The habit of late-night snacking has health consequences. Along with adding more calories, eating late can disrupt your digestion and sleep schedule. Behavioral therapist Robin Frutchey explains that cravings can result from a lack of sleep.

When people lack sleep, hunger-controlling hormones–including cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin–become imbalanced. Research in the journal Obesity confirmed that many people crave salty, sugary, and carb-filled foods late at night. Blame your internal clock, and try not to stay up too late.

How To Stop Eating Late At Night

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@tjdragotta/Unsplash
@tjdragotta/Unsplash

If you often become hungry late at night, adjust your eating schedule. Steven Shea, the director of the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology at Oregon Health & Science University, advises eating bigger meals during the day.

“It’s probably better to eat your larger, higher-calorie meals earlier in the day,” Shea says. One of the main culprits of eating last is not having breakfast. Research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high-protein meals make people less likely to snack late at night.

The Need For Red Meat

Raw pork steaks are mixed with garlic, onions, and parsley.
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Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

Researchers still speculate about why people crave red meat. Australian researchers found that red meat has a socioeconomic status. Participants who perceived themselves as having a low-status were more likely to crave red meat, which they viewed as high-status.

Registered dietitian and nutritionist Elizabeth Shaw says that the craving could also be an iron deficiency. Too little iron can also result in fatigue or sleepiness, which would prompt your body to eat more iron-filled protein.

When In Doubt, Chew Gum

A woman blows a bubble with gum.
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

If you need to reduce cravings for a short amount of time, chew gum. A 2011 study in Appetite found that chewing gum reduces sugary and salty cravings. Participants also felt less hungry than those who did not chew gum.

During another study, participants who chewed gum ate fewer snacks overall. Specifically, their sugary snack intake decreased by 60 calories on average. Try not to chew too much, though. Sugar-free gum can have a laxative effect.

Period Cravings And Chocolate

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The internet is filled with jokes about women craving chocolate while they’re on their period. But is this assumption true? According to registered dietitian and nutrition professor Lisa Young, it is. Chocolate cravings may be a result of a magnesium deficiency.

When women experience a magnesium deficit, they may crave chocolate to get it back. But there may be other reasons for the craving. According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, women are more likely to crave sweets than men, possibly due to hormone changes.

Keep Dark Chocolate On Hand

A chef shaves a bar of dark chocolate.
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Gordon Chibroski/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Healthy comfort food exists, and one of the most popular options is dark chocolate. When chocolate has over 70% cocoa, it provides more antioxidants and nutrients than milk chocolate. A small portion can cut your cravings, says registered dietitian Kristan Kirkpatrick.

A little dark chocolate can also help you feel better. A study in Depression and Anxiety found that people who eat dark chocolate are 57% less likely to experience depressive symptoms. It’s a healthy and sweet comfort food.

Eating On A Bad Mood

A woman appears distressed with a cup fo instant ramen in front of her.
@antorpaul/Unsplash
@antorpaul/Unsplash

If you indulge in sweets during a bad mood, create a backup plan. Psychologist Sarah Allen describes emotional eating as a “task” that people who are stressed and bored perform to feel better. Plan some other activities that you can do to recreate that feeling.

That said, you don’t have to demonize cravings. An occasional chocolate binge and chip bag won’t hurt. Registered dietitian Keri Glassman says that eating a small amount of the food you want will alleviate the craving more than substitute foods.

Psyched For Soda?

Bottles of Sprite stand on display.
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Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many people struggle to stop drinking soda when they develop a craving. One serving of Coke provides 30 mg of caffeine and 44 grams of sugar, both of which trigger future cravings. But the desire for soda may be more than sugar and caffeine; it could also be a calcium deficiency.

According to research in Front Endocrinol, soda gradually leaks calcium from your bones. You then crave soda for its minor calcium content, and then you lose more calcium, which makes your body dependent on it.

Prevent PMS Cravings

A woman clutches her stomach in pain.
nastya_gepp/Pixabay
nastya_gepp/Pixabay

During the menstrual cycle, cravings could result from hormone changes and vitamin deficiencies. Although you can’t control your hormones, you can eat more nutrients. According to UPMC Health, women on their periods need more B vitamins and magnesium.

Eat leafy greens, peanut butter, almonds, whole grains, and seeds to get your fill. Clinical psychologist Kelly Klump adds that people are more likely to give in to cravings when they’re hungry. Try to eat regularly so that you’re never starving.

How To Transition Away From Soda

McDonald's soda cup lies on its side.
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Dr. Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, offers some tips for those who struggle with soda addiction. Cut down gradually by replacing one drink a day with sparkling water or lemon water. Over time, you’ll get used to the new taste.

If you often drink regular soda, switch to diet. “They’re not that great for you, but in terms of obesity, I’d rather see you drinking diet than sugared,” says Alison Field, a Harvard obesity researcher.