15 Jul Food Cravings 101
Food cravings can really stink. They can be hard to break + leave you wanting some of the most unhealthiest foods….but what if your body is trying to tell you something? I bet you didn’t realize that food cravings can mean so much more than you think! I wanted to dive into some sweet biochemistry about them + what you can aim for instead if you find yourself having certain food cravings!
What Causes Food Cravings?!
There are A LOT of things that could be happening inside the body + this list might seem overwhelming to the point of “I don’t know where to start.” Like with my clients, I want to readjust our focus + ask ourselves “is it something our gut health might be trying to tell us?” I ALWAYS start with the gut – like good ol’ Hippocrates said. The gut is also known as the “second brain” or gut-brain axis, as it holds a nervous system with a network of neurons. In our gut, we hold many different microbes + these microbes grow + thrive on a variety of foods, but can prefer a certain thing.
Actually, a study that was done in a Science journal showed that Bacteroides preferred a fatty type of diet and Prevotella preferred carbohydrates. As the diet changed, these gut microbes that got the food they preferred – dominated. Now, clinically I’ve seen it where people who have yeast overgrowth or parasites crave more sugar/carbohydrate type foods + these are the exact foods that feed that GI issue. Not saying that if you always have sugar cravings there is for sure a GI imbalance, but the it’s definitely something you shouldn’t rule out, it’s very possible and I do see it quite a bit.
I know we’ll talk about habits in a bit, but as we change our diet + what we eat + your cravings will eventually subside and I truly believe a part the reason why that happens is because you’re creating a microbial shift in a good way. Their cravings change, you change. Your palate will start to change + before you know it, fruit will be one of the sweetest things you tasted and refined sugars will be TOO sweet.
Let’s talk neurotransmitters because the microbes inside the gut produce these neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are signals that leave the end of a nerve to go to another nerve as it goes across the synapses between the two. It’s basically the chemical communication in the body. About 80-90% of your serotonin is made in the gut, along with about half of your dopamine. To produce enough neurotransmitters, we have to make sure our gut health is good like I mentioned above.
When we eat certain foods, like sugar, we can activate these neurotransmitters and get the feeling of them, which obviously leads to us wanting it more. Dopamine, which is known as our feel good neurotransmitter that gives us this pleasure and happiness, is increased when we eat sugar + processed foods (as there are food chemicals that are used in processed foods to do this exact thing, so we crave more and buy more and of course more profits for the company).
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that gives us the happy feeling. It’s been studied that being low in this neurotransmitter can leave us with food cravings. Carbohydrates affect serotonin because it increases insulin leaving more tryptophan in the blood that goes towards the production of serotonin. Tryptophan is always competing against other amino acids to cross the blood brain barrier, so when pairing a whole food carbohydrate source with a protein source of food – it helps tryptophan become the star because the other amino acids are shuttled into cells and organs where they need to be and tryptophan can go into serotonin production, which ultimately gives you a serotonin boost that you need reducing the cravings, give you a calming effect, this is why I recommend eating a carbohydrate source during dinner. Serotonin then leads into melatonin production and helps our circadian rhythm cycle.
Stress is also a big reason why people have sugar cravings. I want to pair this with lack of sleep because when we have lack of sleep, we naturally have higher levels of cortisol (obviously because it’s very stressful when we’re running on zero or little sleep). Our appetite and cravings can be intensified as our hunger hormone ghrelin is higher during stressful situations (and lack of sleep) and we almost always want the junky foods and not nourishing wholesome foods.
After chronically being stressed from internal underlying inflammation and infections or external situations, our HPA axis can become pretty “shot” and the communication between the hypothalamus + adrenals don’t work as well. When this happens, people can start craving more salty foods because the adrenals are pushing more sodium through the urine because of an increase in frequency of peeing and the craving is a way to replete the stores.
This actually dives into questioning nutrient deficiencies being some causes of food cravings. You might’ve heard that if you’re deficient in a nutrient, you’ll crave the food that is high in that. Which personally, I’ve sorta seen a connection with on my heavy bleeding periods days + I actually crave more grass-fed beef during that time probably to help replete iron stores. But can’t always rely on this unless you’ve for sure tested. I’ve seen people who crave salty foods, but aren’t sodium deficient.
BUT, I do believe there is a connection between being deficient in nutrients in general and amino acids due to the factors I stated above. Lack of amino acids = lack of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which equal food cravings. Essential minerals that are commonly depleted due to food processing, like magnesium, I have seen improvement with repleting stores + food cravings diminishing. Chromium is another great example because this nutrient is so important with regulating our blood sugars and insulin sensitivity that when we lack this nutrient, we start to have issues with blood sugar regulation and that itself causes food cravings due to riding that blood sugar rollercoaster. You’ll crave fast energy like sugar and processed carbs to bring up your levels + while those foods bring glucose levels up, you’re just on this rollercoaster. The dips + highs are classic future food cravings.
Another thing that I’m not sure people think about that causes food cravings is artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are so common in processed foods + drinks + gum and studies do show how artificial sweeteners, like Sucralose, can contribute to gut microbiota changes in a negative way going back to our gut health. While they don’t spike insulin, I’ve found that it can still cause you to favor a palate of sweetness + still increase your risk of having sugar cravings (even though it doesn’t provide a dopamine response).
I Need Help! What Can I Do to Eliminate Food Cravings?!
I believe that digging into your biochemistry and bioindividuality, there is a reason for food cravings, so it’s all about DIGGING for the answer of “why am I craving this?” Just like the list we mentioned earlier from gut health, neurotransmitters, nutrient deficiencies, there are functional lab tests that you can do that we run in our practice for women all over the U.S. to really see what is going on inside the body + what foods and supplements are going to work for them and their situation. Food cravings is just like any other symptom and we have to dig for the answer and the root cause.
In a pinch though, l-glutamine is an amino acid that has been shown to stop cravings and you can buy it in powder form to add to smoothies + water throughout the day. A deficiency in this amino acid can cause cravings, but also the extra amino acid can help stabilize blood sugars, which we talked about earlier being a cause for cravings.
When a craving hits, drink some water, add a splash of lemon, and just drink. I find that dehydration can be a huge reason behind cravings + honestly just thinking you’re “hungry” in general when you’re really thirsty. It takes a while to break a habit, but it’s possible, but the most important thing you can do to get in front of food cravings is making sure you’re prepped + ready for the week or weekend with good wholesome meals that are ready for you eat, so you don’t have to rely on fast foods or junky foods. Herbal teas are also such a great way to “keep busy” and load yourself up with some good herbal support.
I would also start your day breaking your fast with tons of proteins + fats. This will help stabilize your blood sugar levels and not have you jump on that blood sugar rollercoaster! Breakfast doesn’t have to be the “American breakfast” loaded with muffins, coffee cakes, cereal, waffles, etc. It should be good quality meats, eggs, vegetables, and even a little bit of fruit like berries would be great! This can give you the upper hand to your cravings and start your day off right!
If you’re ready to book an appointment with one of our nutritionists + dietitians, head over to our Work With Us page + see what we do, what we offer, and fill out the form, so you can start digging into your health + support it properly to surely kick food cravings for GOOD!