You eat when you’re hungry. When you’re full, you put down your fork.
It sounds simple, right? Not always.
Some of us succumb to cravings even when we’re satiated. In fact, chances are that most of us have experienced cravings at one time or another. A recent study indicated 97% of women and 68% of men report feeling cravings at one time or another.1
But what are cravings? Why do we crave certain foods more than others? And, from a physiological standpoint, how does satiety work? This post will go over the details.
What is satiety?
Satiety is what we experience after eating a meal or snack. Normal satiety involves not only feeling full after sufficient intake, but also experiencing the need to limit consumption until the next time we get hungry.2
The brain is closely linked to satiety. The central nervous system—and more specifically, the hypothalamus—is responsible for letting us know when we’re ready to stop eating.2
Here are some of the factors that can affect the way we regulate our food intake:2
There are other factors that might occur as well.2 For instance, our physical activity levels and the pleasure we experience from eating can also affect satiety.3
And while most people stop eating when they’re satiated, others may continue to indulge long after the body signals it’s full.2 This is where food cravings come in.
What causes cravings?
Just as the brain affects satiety, it also plays an important role in food cravings.3,4
Cravings are the products of signals from the brain regions responsible for pleasure, memory, and rewards. These regions include the hippocampus, insula, and caudate. In many cases, the brain regions responsible for memory—those that associate specific foods with pleasure—are especially active when we crave fatty, sugary, or salty foods.4,5
There are a number of other factors that have also been linked to cravings:
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that cravings can be either selective or nonselective in nature. Selective cravings are for specific foods, like a greasy burger or a slice of rich chocolate cake.4
These types of cravings could also be specific for sugar, salt, or fat.4 If you find yourself lingering in the candy aisle, reaching for that pint of ice cream you keep in the freezer, and pouring yourself cup after cup of your favorite sweetened coffee drink, you likely have a selective craving for sugar.
Non-selective cravings, conversely, don’t target specific foods. Instead, they represent a desire to eat or drink anything—and they could be the result of real hunger or thirst. If you notice these types of cravings, drink plenty of water and make sure you’re getting enough to eat. By doing so, you may be able to address these non-selective cravings relatively quickly.4,5
What are some strategies for overcoming cravings?While there’s no harm in succumbing to the occasional craving, we should all strive to adopt a nutritious diet. We’ll be healthier and happier, and the brain and body will thank us for eating nutrient-dense foods.1,3-5
With that, here are some tips for overcoming unhealthy food cravings:
So socialize with a friend. Take a hike in nature. Sit down with a good book. Do what you can to relax and find joy in your life and not on your plate.
We can replace our cravings with healthier alternatives.4 For example, instead of reaching for a sugar-laden, fruit-flavored carton of yogurt, opt for the plain alternative and sweeten it yourself—in moderation—with fresh fruit, all-natural honey, or pure maple syrup.
So try not to let yourself get too hungry—and focus on nutritious foods. Eating more protein, healthful fats, colorful produce, and whole grains throughout the day will keep your hunger in check without triggering a potential craving.3-5
While these strategies can help us manage our cravings, they aren’t our only options. Again, it’s essential to drink enough water throughout the day.4 And we can always step away from the fridge the next time a craving hits, and engage in a non-food-related, pleasure-inducing activity instead. We might stretch our muscles, spend time with family, or listen to music. Contacting your healthcare practitioner to discuss cravings and changes to diet may also be a good idea.
For more information on nutrition and general wellness topics, please visit the Metagenics blog.