Eight Primary Causes of Food Cravings: Unraveling the Mystery

Food cravings are a shared experience, but what triggers them? This comprehensive guide dives into the eight primary causes of food cravings, offering insights and solutions to help you manage them effectively.


What are food cravings?

Food cravings are intense, specific and often go beyond normal hunger. These food cravings are fleeting or persistent and often linked to emotions, physiological needs, or different times of the year.

Why do we get them?

Understanding food cravings requires examining the intricate connection between our mind, body, and environment. They can arise from emotional needs, hormonal changes, or lacking certain nutrients.

The Eight Primary Causes of Food Cravings

Emotional Eating

The Emotional Connection:

Stress, boredom, or unhappiness often lead to comfort eating. These feelings can create a void, and food becomes a temporary way to fill that emptiness. It’s a common coping mechanism but can spiral into unhealthy habits if not addressed. Specific triggers may include:

  • Work-related Stress: High-pressure work environments or long hours may lead to emotional eating as a release of stress or a means of relaxation.
  • Relationship Problems: Challenges in personal relationships can create feelings of loneliness or frustration, leading to cravings for comfort food.
  • Depression or Anxiety: Chronic mental health conditions like depression or anxiety often manifest in cravings for particular foods, usually high in sugar or fat.

How to Correct Emotional Eating:

Understanding and correcting emotional eating requires a multifaceted approach, often involving self-awareness, lifestyle changes, and professional support when necessary.


Thirst or Hunger?

Dehydration can trigger hunger hormones, confusing thirst with hunger. When dehydrated, the signals sent to the brain are similar to those when you are hungry, leading to an increased craving for food when the body feels parched. This confusion can contribute to overeating and even obesity. Key factors that can exacerbate this include:

  • High-Sodium Diet: Consuming foods high in salt can contribute to dehydration and subsequent hunger feelings.
  • Alcohol and Caffeine Consumption: Both alcohol and caffeine can act as diuretics, increasing the need for hydration and potentially triggering hunger feelings.
  • Physical Activity: Intense exercise without proper hydration can lead to an incorrect perception of hunger.
  • Hot Climate: Living in a hot or dry climate increases the body’s need for water, potentially leading to dehydration and false hunger signals.

How to Correct the Issue:

Hydration is vital for overall health, and distinguishing between hunger and thirst is essential. Here’s how to manage this issue:

  1. Drink Regularly: Make a habit of drinking water throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Sometimes, thirst is a late indicator of dehydration.
  2. Hydrate Before Meals: Drinking a glass of water before meals can help you differentiate between thirst and hunger and may contribute to eating smaller portions.
  3. Choose Hydrating Foods: Fruits and vegetables, which are rich in water content, can aid in maintaining proper hydration.
  4. Monitor Urine Color: A pale yellow color usually indicates proper hydration, while a darker color might mean you need more fluids.
  5. Avoid Excessive Alcohol and Caffeine: Moderating consumption of these diuretics can help maintain proper hydration.
  6. Use a Hydration App: Numerous mobile applications prompt you to consume water and monitor your daily consumption.
  7. Consult a Healthcare Provider: Should you regularly find it challenging to differentiate between hunger and thirst, or if you experience continuous sensations of hunger, seeking advice from a healthcare professional to exclude any potential underlying health issues could be prudent.

Understanding the connection between hydration and hunger enables better control over food cravings and contributes to a healthier lifestyle. By recognizing the signs of dehydration and taking proactive steps to stay hydrated, you can prevent unnecessary cravings and foster a more balanced relationship with food.

Note: Individual hydration needs vary based on age, weight, activity level, and climate. 

Yin Yang, Food Cravings

Chinese Yin/Yang Balance

Yin and Yang Foods:

In Chinese medicine, balance is crucial, especially the harmony between yin and yang. Foods are placed into these two classifications, and any imbalance between them may cause cravings and various health problems.

  • Yin Foods (Cooling): These are foods believed to cool the body and provide calming effects. An overabundance of yin energy might manifest as fatigue or cold limbs.
    • Examples: Watermelon, cucumber, tofu, green tea, and most green leafy vegetables.
  • Yang Foods (Warming): Yang foods warm the body and invigorate energy. Too much yang energy may result in symptoms like inflammation or excessive heat.
    • Examples: Garlic, onions, peppers, ginger, chicken, and lamb.

An understanding of these properties is not just theoretical but is often used in traditional Chinese cooking and medicine to maintain balance and promote health.

How to Correct Yin/Yang Imbalance:

Balancing yin and yang in the diet is essential to maintaining harmony in the body. Here are ways to correct any imbalances:

  1. Recognize Symptoms of Imbalance: Understanding the signs of a yin or yang imbalance can guide dietary choices. Are you feeling too hot or agitated? Incorporate more yin foods. Are you feeling cold or sluggish? Add more yang foods.
  2. Eat Seasonally: Aligning your diet with the seasons can promote balance, such as eating more cooling yin foods in summer and warming yang foods in winter.
  3. Prepare Foods Differently: How you cook food can influence its yin or yang qualities. For example, steaming or blanching might increase yin, while roasting or frying might enhance yang.
  4. Consult a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Practitioner: If you struggle to balance, a TCM practitioner can provide personalized guidance based on your specific constitution and symptoms.
  5. Mindful Eating: Focusing on your food intake can enable you to connect with your body’s requirements and identify any imbalances.
  6. Avoid Extremes: Consistently overeating yin or yang foods can lead to imbalance. Strive for a varied diet that includes a broad spectrum of foods.

The philosophy of yin and yang in Chinese medicine extends far beyond diet, encompassing a holistic approach to health and well-being. But understanding these principles in the context of food can offer valuable insights into cravings and how to manage them. By embracing the wisdom of yin and yang, you can nourish your body in a way that aligns with its natural needs and fosters equilibrium.

Note: While these principles are respected in Chinese culture and traditional medicine, they may not align with Western medical practices. 

Your Past Resurfacing

Cravings from the Past:

Food cravings are not always about physical needs; sometimes, they are tied to our emotions and memories. Childhood foods or foods from a specific period in life can become associated with comfort, love, or other emotions, leading to cravings later in life. Here’s how this complex relationship develops:

  • Childhood Comfort Foods: Foods associated with care, warmth, or celebration in childhood may become lifelong cravings, especially in times of stress or loneliness.
  • Memorable Experiences: A particular dish from a unique vacation or a specific time in your life can resurface as a craving linked with that period’s joy or other emotions.
  • Cultural Connections: Foods associated with cultural or familial traditions can evoke a sense of identity and belonging, leading to cravings.
  • Trauma or Loss: Sometimes, cravings are connected to more painful memories, such as losing a loved one or a difficult time when a specific food plays a comforting role.

How to Fix the Issue:

Understanding that cravings might reflect past experiences allows for a more mindful and compassionate approach to managing them. Here’s how to navigate desires that stem from the past:

  1. Recognize the Connection: Acknowledge that food cravings might be about more than just hunger. Is it tied to a memory, emotion, or experience? Understanding this can lessen its power.
  2. Find Healthy Alternatives: If the food you’re craving isn’t aligned with your current dietary goals, consider healthier alternatives that satisfy the craving without compromising your nutrition.
  3. Create New Associations: Building new, positive associations with different foods can help you shift away from past cravings.
  4. Mindful Indulgence: Sometimes, allowing yourself to enjoy eating without guilt can fulfill the emotional need without leading to overindulgence.
  5. Therapeutic Support: If cravings are tied to traumatic experiences or affect your well-being, professional counseling or different types of support groups might be an appropriate route to explore 
  6. Embrace the Memory: If the craving is tied to a positive memory, embracing it as a celebration, rather than resisting it, can create a more balanced relationship.

Cravings that stem from the past are a natural part of our complex relationship with food. They offer insights into our history, emotions, and sometimes even unmet needs. We can honor our past without letting it dictate our present by approaching these cravings with awareness, curiosity, and compassion.

Note: As with other complex food-related behaviors, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Individual experiences and needs will vary.

Seasonal Cravings, Faceless Enemy

Seasonal Preferences

Craving Lighter Foods in Summer and Heavier Ones in Winter:

Seasonal cravings are a fascinating aspect of human nutrition and are often aligned with our body’s instinctive effort to maintain balance and adapt to environmental changes. These preferences have both physiological and cultural roots:

  • Summer Cravings: During hot weather, the body naturally seeks cooling, hydration, and energy efficiency, which leads to cravings for lighter, water-rich foods.
    • Examples: Salads, fruits like watermelon and berries, cold beverages, and seafood.
  • Winter Cravings: In contrast, the colder months often bring about a desire for warming, calorie-dense foods to provide energy and insulation.
    • Examples: Soups, stews, roasted meats, root vegetables, and hot beverages like cocoa or tea.
  • Transitional Seasons: Spring and autumn also have characteristic cravings. Spring might inspire a desire for fresh, green foods, while autumn might stimulate an appetite for a fall harvest.

How to Stop Seasonal Cravings:

While seasonal cravings are natural and often aligned with nutritional needs, some individuals may wish to manage or mitigate these cravings for various reasons, such as weight management or specific dietary goals. Here’s how to navigate seasonal cravings:

  1. Understand the Need: Recognize that seasonal cravings often reflect legitimate nutritional and physiological needs. Accepting this can foster a balanced approach to managing them.
  2. Plan Balanced Meals: By ensuring your diet is balanced and nutritious year-round, you can reduce the intensity of specific cravings. 
  3. Stay Hydrated: Proper hydration can reduce cravings for both summer and winter foods, as thirst can sometimes be confused with hunger.
  4. Exercise Regularly: Physical activity can regulate appetite and cravings, providing a stabilizing effect across seasons.
  5. Mindful Eating: Practicing mindfulness can help you differentiate between a genuine need for seasonal foods and emotional craving.
  6. Seasonal Eating with a Twist: If you want to reduce cravings for calorie-dense winter foods, for example, you can create lighter versions of comforting winter dishes, like vegetable-based soups or stews.

In conclusion, seasonal cravings are not necessarily something to be “cured” or stopped, as they often signify the body’s adaptive strategies to environmental changes. However, understanding and approaching these cravings with awareness can help align with individual health goals and preferences.

Note: Individual experiences with seasonal cravings may vary, and if they pose a concern or challenge, consult a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or health coach. 

Lack of Nutrients

Nutrient Deficiency:

Cravings can sometimes be a sign of underlying nutrient deficiencies. The body’s instinct to seek out specific nutrients can manifest as cravings for foods rich in those nutrients. Here’s how it often plays out:

  • Iron Deficiency: A lack of iron might lead to cravings for red meat, beans, or dark leafy greens, which are high in iron. In some cases, it might even lead to unusual cravings, like a desire to eat ice or clay, a condition known as pica.
  • Magnesium Deficiency: This could manifest as cravings for chocolate, nuts, or seeds, all of which are good sources of magnesium.
  • Vitamin C Deficiency: A craving for citrus fruits or other Vitamin C-rich foods might indicate a need for this essential vitamin.
  • Calcium Deficiency: Cravings for dairy products, fortified plant milk, or leafy greens might signal a lack of calcium.

These cravings are not arbitrary; they’re the body’s way of communicating a need for specific nutrients.

How to Fix the Issue:

Addressing nutrient-deficiency-related cravings requires a strategic and sometimes medically supervised approach:

  1. Identify the Deficiency: Understanding the specific deficiency is the first step. Blood tests and professional medical assessments can provide an accurate diagnosis.
  2. Eat a Balanced Diet: Incorporate a diverse selection of nutrient-rich foods from all categories to guarantee that you fulfill your daily nutritional needs.
  3. Supplementation: In some cases, dietary adjustments may not be enough, and supplementation may be necessary and should be done under the guidance of a healthcare provider, as excessive supplementation can have negative effects.
  4. Monitor Your Progress: Regular check-ups to monitor nutrient levels can help ensure that the deficiency is being corrected and that you are on the right track.
  5. Educate Yourself: Understanding the nutrients food provides will help you make choices that align with your body’s needs.
  6. Consider Special Diets: If you follow a specific diet (such as a vegan diet), you may need extra care to ensure you get all the necessary nutrients. With a Vegan diet, you should eat various foods to provide your body with complete protein.

While cravings can be a clue to nutrient deficiencies, they are not a definitive diagnostic tool. A thorough medical evaluation is essential to understand what’s happening in the body. 

In conclusion, nutrient deficiencies can lead to specific cravings as the body seeks to correct the imbalance. Recognizing these cravings as signs of underlying needs and addressing them through proper nutrition, medical guidance, and possibly supplementation can restore balance and health.

Stressed, Cravings

Hormonal Influences

Women, Menstruation, and Pregnancy:

Hormones are significant in various bodily functions, including metabolism, mood, and appetite. Fluctuations in hormone levels can lead to cravings, especially among women during specific times:

  • Menstruation: Hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle, particularly the luteal phase, can increase cravings for sweets, salty foods, and fats. These cravings may be the body’s response to fluctuating serotonin levels and energy needs.
  • Pregnancy: The hormonal shifts during pregnancy are even more pronounced, leading to cravings ranging from pickles to ice cream to sardines. Increased energy needs, taste and smell sensitivity, and emotional factors may drive these cravings.
  • Menopause: The hormonal changes during menopause can also influence appetite and cravings, often leading to a preference for high-fat and sugary foods.

How to Fix the Issue:

Managing hormonal cravings involves a combination of understanding the underlying biology, making mindful dietary choices, and seeking professional guidance when necessary:

  1. Recognize the Pattern: If cravings follow a predictable cycle, such as menstruation, acknowledging this pattern can help you prepare mentally and make more informed choices.
  2. Opt for Nutrient-Dense Alternatives: If you crave sweets, choosing fruit or dark chocolate might satisfy the craving while providing nutritional benefits.
  3. Stay Hydrated: Proper water can help control cravings, as dehydration can intensify hunger and food cravings.
  4. Balanced Diet: Eating regular, balanced meals helps stabilize blood sugar levels and can reduce cravings.
  5. Exercise: Regular physical activity can boost mood and help mitigate cravings.
  6. Stress Management: Since emotional factors often intertwine with hormonal cravings, strategies like meditation or relaxation can be helpful.
  7. Consult Professionals: If cravings are persistent or problematic, seeking guidance from healthcare providers like gynecologists, endocrinologists, or dietitians can offer personalized strategies based on individual hormonal profiles.

In conclusion, hormonal influences on cravings are a complex interaction between biology, lifestyle, and sometimes emotional well-being. While these cravings are normal and often temporary, understanding their origin and employing mindful strategies can help manage them. Tailoring your approach to your unique situation and seeking professional guidance ensures that these natural fluctuations stay within your nutritional goals.

Note: Every individual’s hormonal balance is unique, and the information provided here is general in nature. 

Devolution: Self-Sabotaging Cravings

Understanding the Issue:

“Devolution” in this context refers to a step back or regression in progress, especially concerning dietary and health-related goals. Cravings for unhealthy foods that seem to sabotage progress may be more complex than simple taste preferences; they can signal unresolved emotional struggles or even a fear of success. Here’s how it might manifest:

  • Cravings for “Comfort Foods”: Often high in fats and sugars, these foods may provide temporary satisfaction but can lead to longer-term health issues if consumed excessively.
  • Patterns of Binge Eating: Intense cravings followed by overindulgence in unhealthy foods might reveal a cycle of emotional eating.
  • Fear of Success: Sometimes, individuals subconsciously resist positive change because success brings new responsibilities and expectations, which can manifest as cravings for foods that sabotage their progress.

How to Fix the Issue:

Addressing self-sabotaging cravings is not necessarily a straightforward nutritional challenge but often requires delving into underlying emotional and psychological factors:

Self-Awareness: The first step is understanding that cravings might be linked to emotions rather than physical hunger. Journaling food cravings and associated feelings can be enlightening.

  1. Seek Professional Help: Therapists specializing in eating behaviors can provide personalized strategies to understand and overcome these patterns.
  2. Set Realistic Goals: Unrealistic dietary restrictions can lead to cravings and binge eating. Working with a registered dietitian or health coach to set achievable goals can help.
  3. Build a Support System: Sharing your goals and struggles with friends or support groups can provide encouragement and accountability.
  4. Mindful Eating Practices: Learning to eat mindfully can foster a healthier relationship with food and help differentiate emotional cravings from physical hunger.
  5. Develop Alternative Coping Strategies: If cravings are tied to stress or other emotions, developing healthy coping mechanisms like exercise, hobbies, or relaxation techniques can redirect those energies.
  6. Celebrate Progress: Acknowledge and reward progress, even small achievements, to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce the need for emotional rewards through food.

In conclusion, self-sabotaging cravings are complex and multifaceted, often tied to emotional or psychological challenges. Addressing these cravings requires a compassionate, holistic approach that may involve professional help. By exploring the underlying causes and implementing personalized strategies, individuals can transform their relationship with food and build a positive pathway to success.

Note: Since this issue often involves emotional and psychological factors, individual experiences can vary widely. Professional guidance from mental health and nutritional experts tailored to the individual’s situation is often the most effective approach.


Food cravings are multifaceted and can stem from various sources. Whether it’s an emotional need or a simple thirst signal, understanding the underlying causes helps overcome these cravings.

If food cravings persist or seem unmanageable, consult a healthcare provider or registered dietitian. From emotional eating to the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, the eight primary causes of food cravings open new ways to think about our relationship with food. Understanding these triggers empowers us to make healthier and more balanced choices.

Additional Information

In addition to the eight primary causes of food cravings listed above, there are a few other factors that can contribute to cravings, such as:

  • Genetics: Some people are more prone to food cravings than others due to genetics.
  • Sleep deprivation: When you’re sleep deprived, you produce more stress hormones which can lead to cravings.
  • Medications: Certain prescriptions, such as steroids and antidepressants, can cause food cravings.
  • Medical conditions: Certain conditions, such as diabetes and thyroid problems, can also lead to food cravings.

Here are some tips for managing food cravings:

  • Identify your triggers: Managing food cravings is identifying what triggers them. Once you know your triggers, you can develop strategies for avoiding them.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks: Eating regular meals and small healthy snacks helps stabilizes your blood sugar, which can help to prevent cravings.
  • Choose healthy foods: When you have a craving, try to reach for healthy foods instead of unhealthy ones, which will help satisfy your craving without sabotaging your weight loss or health goals.
  • Drink plenty of water: Sometimes, we think hunger is thirst and avoid mistaking thirst for hunger.
  • Get enough sleep: When sleep-deprived, your body produces stress hormones, which can lead to cravings. Ensure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise helps to reduce stress

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