Why You Get Food Cravings

Are your food cravings out of control? Are the cravings cyclical? Do you miss certain foods when they’re not available? Are you paying a price (weight gain, moodiness, health problems)?

Plenty of people make late-night runs to the grocery store for Doritos, Häagen-Daz, Chips Ahoy. But a midnight dash for squash, a head of broccoli or an apple particularly in the must-have-now mindset in which many of us approach the candy aisle? Unheard of. The task of refilling the fruit bowl and the vegetable crisper is one that is, unfortunately, easily postponed and even neglected.

Why is it that the body never seems to crave the foods it really needs and yet regularly cries out for fat- and sugar-laden foods, even after the pounds have piled on and fatigue and malaise have set in? It’s not just your imagination, or even a lack of willpower.

“There really is something about sugar, chocolate, cheese, meat, and certain other foods that set them apart,” writes Neal Barnard, M.D., adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University, in his book Breaking the Food Seduction. “They don’t simply tickle the taste buds. It appears that they actually stimulate the brain in such a way that it is easy to get hooked and tough to break free, even if you find yourself gaining weight or lapsing into health problems.”

Like a drug. To illustrate, Barnard cites a study conducted at the University of Michigan in which researchers found that a drug called naloxone completely wiped out the desire to eat chocolaty and sugary foods. Naloxone is typically used to treat heroin or morphine overdose by blocking the effects that opiates have in the brain, so the findings raised an interesting parallel between sugar’s effects and those of addictive drugs. Around the same time, researchers discovered that cheese and other dairy products also release mild opiates during digestion.

Given these findings, it’s no wonder that people often have a hard time sticking with diets. “These foods stimulate the reward center of the brain—the same part of the brain that is stimulated by love and friendship,” explains Barnard. “If you eat them only occasionally, it’s probably okay. But many people find themselves eating chocolate at the same time every day.”

Barnard notes that some people may actually be biologically susceptible to intense food cravings due to genetically low levels of a brain pleasure-chemical called dopamine. Elizabeth Somer, M.A., a registered dietitian and author of the book Food & Mood, adds that the same is true of the mood-boosting chemical serotonin, which, when running low, tends to cause cravings for refined carbohydrates. Like an alcoholic who drinks to feel better, bingeing on refined flours and sugar and creamy dairy products may be one way an individual subconsciously attempts to reach a level of happiness that the average person enjoys naturally. The good news? “If it starts to affect your health and well-being, there are ways to break out of it,” says Barnard.

Breaking the addiction. It usually takes about three weeks to break food cravings, according to Barnard—which, when you’re looking at the big picture, is really not that long at all. To get there, he advises a strict cold-turkey approach that involves getting all the foods you typically crave out of the house.

“Remember, this a finite timeframe—only three weeks,” he says. “The goal here is not to commit to a lifetime without these foods, but to break out of the rut—to get some distance.”

When making the switch, both he and Somer stress the importance of eating a good breakfast, which helps prevent cravings later in the day. What you eat is important, too. Barnard cites a study in which researchers found that teenage boys snacked 35 percent less over the course of a day after eating old-fashioned oatmeal for breakfast as opposed to instant oatmeal—an argument for choosing whole-grain, fiber-rich foods as close to their natural state as possible. Research has also shown that drinking lots of water, exercising and getting enough sleep can help control appetite.

In time, food won’t hold such power over you. But until you get there, practice good self-care. “Arrange not to be home when the craving usually hits,” says Barnard. “Call a friend and plan something fun.”