6 Root Causes of Food Cravings
Food cravings. Whether you’ve just started eating clean, or you’re further down the track – food cravings can strike at any point in our journey. But where do they come from?
Often, when we succumb to a craving for something less-than-healthy our first instinct is to blame ourselves.
Maybe I just lack willpower?
Maybe I’m just ‘weak’ around food?
Why do I have no self control?!
What we must emphasise here is that strong food cravings are rarely related to a lack of willpower alone. And while having self-discipline around food is certainly important – the truth is, our cravings are influenced by a number of complex biological, environmental and emotional factors.
To truly overcome our food cravings, we must seek out and address the root cause. Below we’ll discuss a few of the possible causes of your food cravings!
Food Cravings: An Ancestral Perspective
Take a moment to consider our evolution. As humans, we are biologically wired + naturally inclined to seek out calorie dense foods from our environment. This drive was important for ensuring our survival during our hunter-gatherer days, when food was scarce and hard to come by. High-fat organ meats, starchy tubers and fruit would have been prized as a source of energy and nutrition.
Fast forward to today – and we have an abundance of calorie dense, processed foods readily available to us. The trouble is, our brain and biological wiring have not changed significantly to account for this new environment. Without the scarcity that was once a limiting factor, we can EASILY over-eat.
What’s more, modern processed foods that are nothing like what we could find in nature. Being both high in fat and refined sugar, processed foods overstimulate our tastebuds and can be absorbed very quickly – giving our brain the ultimate fat + sugar hit!
#1 – Addiction + Withdrawal
Does the thought of giving up bread or cheese cause you enormous distress?
It might come as a surprise to learn that some of our favourite foods have addictive qualities – namely wheat and dairy, and to a lesser extent rice and corn. During their digestion, gluten (from wheat) and casein (from milk) are broken down in the gut to form what we call exorphins. These are opioid peptides that closely resemble morphine (1).
When exorphins are able to cross the gut and blood-brain-barrier, they attach to opioid receptors throughout the body. These are the same receptors that typically bind endorphins (the molecules that give us a euphoric high).
In the brain, exorphins exert psychological effects and become addictive – literally! This is a BIG reason why so many of us simply cannot fathom giving up cheese and bread… and why removal of these foods can create intense cravings and withdrawal. When you think about it, meat, sweet potatoes and fruit just doesn’t have the same addictive appeal!
Related: 5 Reasons to Live Gluten Free
So why are these foods SO addictive? One reason why milk and other dairy products are thought to contain these exorphins is to encourage the calf to feed from its mother.
Fun fact: it has also been suggested the addictive properties of wheat may have been a driving factor in the adoption of agriculture!
#2 – Gut Dysbiosis
It’s been said that the bacteria in our bodies outnumber our human cells by 10:1. It beckons the question… are we the one’s in control, or are we just bacteria having a human experience?!
But in all seriousness, a growing body of evidence is suggesting that the bacteria that inhabit our gut (known as our microbiome) can actually influence our brain. This two-way communication is known as the gut-brain axis, and is one way that our microbiome may be able to influence our eating habits. This occurs through a number of different mechanisms, but some ways in which our bacteria may influence our brain include:
- By “hijacking” the vagus nerve that connects the enteric nervous system (in the gut) to the brain, and
- By producing neurochemicals that affect our mood such as dopamine, noradrenaline, tryptophan (precursor to serotonin), histamine, GABA + more! (2)
So what’s the connection between our gut microbes and food cravings?
Let’s put it this way – our microbiome is composed of a number of different strains of bacteria, that are constantly competing with each other to flourish and grow. Each of these strains thrive on different food sources and nutrients. Some may prefer certain types of sugars, carbs or dietary fiber. Now, some scientists are thinking that these bacteria may actually be able to manipulate our eating behaviours (via the gut-brain axis) by causing you to crave the foods they desire.
This just may be why many people with intestinal dysbiosis (such as Candida overgrowth) report experiencing strong sugar cravings.
Related: The Top 5 Gut Healing Foods
#3 – Adrenal Fatigue
Craving a savoury bag of potato chips? It could be that you are actually craving salt!
It is not uncommon for many people suffering adrenal fatigue (especially the advanced stages) to report strong cravings for salt. As you may have heard, our adrenal glands help us to respond to stress by secreting a number of hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The adrenals are also involved in regulating our body’s fluid and mineral concentrations – including blood-sodium levels.
One way that our adrenals can become overworked is from chronic stress. This forces the adrenals to continuously pump and and maintain high levels of cortisol. Over time, the adrenals can become ‘fatigued’ and we experience symptoms such as lack of energy, poor sleep, low blood pressure and you guessed it… salt cravings!
This is why is it so important that we support our adrenals and manage our stress as much as possible!
#4 – Blood Sugar Imbalances
If you find yourself craving a sugary fix come 2PM, it’s possible that you’re experiencing low blood sugar levels (and blood sugar imbalances).
These days, many of us are riding the blood sugar roller coaster. This happens when we constantly consume foods that cause our blood sugar to rise rapidly and spike insulin (think: processed carbs and refined sugar). As a result, our blood sugar can come crashing down quickly and we experience (reactive) hypoglycaemia.
The result? We feel tired, hangry and in urgent need of our next sugary fix (to bring our blood sugar back up!).
#5 – Hormonal Imbalances
It probably goes without saying that many women experience cravings for chocolate and carbs around the time preceding their period (AKA the luteal phase). While PMS symptoms can be related to a number of different hormonal imbalances (particularly between progesterone and oestrogen), inflammation is also thought to be an underlying factor (3, 4).
Of course, female hormones can be extremely complex (and deserve their own series of posts)! Addressing PMS and food cravings will involve re-balancing hormones and reducing inflammation (through stress management, herbal treatments, reducing environmental toxins, and gut + liver work).
#6 – Emotional Eating Habits
Do you ever find yourself eating when your sad, stressed… or just bored?
Emotional eating is when we eat to distract or “buffer” against any uncomfortable emotion that we don’t wish to feel. Rather than using food to fuel and nourish our bodies, we eat against our true hunger cues when we’re not hungry (or even full!) to serve as a distraction from our emotional lives.
In this case, it’s so important that we address the emotional cause rather than masking it with food. Emotional eating is a big issue that we will be discussing in greater detail in an upcoming post!