Are Food Cravings Psychological?

In the last few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about food cravings – and, in particular, how to eliminate them.

But it hasn’t stopped folks from asking me if our food cravings are the result of nutritional deficiencies. If we’re not getting enough of a particular nutrient, it’s a popular belief that our bodies will crave those foods rich in that nutrient. In other words, if you’re not getting enough Vitamin A in your diet, then the belief is that you might crave carrots.

But that’s exactly why this myth is untrue. When was the last time you craved carrots – or any other vegetable or leafy green? Instead, we crave foods rich in saturated fat, salt or sugar like pizza, milk chocolate, ice cream or cookies. And we certainly don’t need any more of those foods in our diets.

Rather than being associated with nutritional cues, research suggest that cravings are related to a complex mix of social, environmental, physiological and cultural factors. For example, there was a recently-cited study in the Wall Street Journal which found that sushi cravings are more popular in Japan than chocolate cravings.

It’s also been found that food cravings activate the same reward circuits in brains as cravings for drugs and alcohol – and that brain regions associated with memory, emotion and stress all light up during intense cravings. Rather than craving chocolate because of a magnesium deficiency, it’s more likely that your hankering is the result of a screaming boss.

Though it’s a commonly held belief that our cravings are related to nutritional deficiencies, research strongly suggests otherwise. Instead, it seems that cravings are a psychological coping mechanism born from a rich brew of complex factors.

If you need help overcoming cravings, check out my 10 tips for eliminating the munchies.

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  1. I had a recent veggie craving recently ๐Ÿ™‚
    Actually I was just feeling very low on energy and figured I must have a vitamin deficiency. So, I ate a ton of veggies at dinner and the next day I felt great.
    Also had a craving for peanut butter the same day but I’ll chalk that one up to a psychological craving.

    • Garry Griffith says:

      Weight Watchers says that fruits and certain vegetables are “free” foods. In other words, you should fill your dinner plate with more vegetables than meat or starches to stave off your hunger. The exceptions are corn and peas, along with a few other vegetables which have starch in them.

      • Yeppers, relative to their glycemic index (GI) which, admittedly, I know almost nothing about other than it’s a relative measure of how much sugar is in the fruit or veggie, and low GI is better.
        I do know that berries supposedly have a low GI which is great seeing how much I love them.

  2. I’ve had cravings for veggies and fruit all the time…But I’m willing to admit that I’m probably craving pears because they are sweet, apples too. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Have a good one Davey!

  3. Hi. What you say about psychological cravings is interesting, but I believe most cravings are actually left over from tens of thousands of years ago, when we were biologically similar, but in some very different circumstances.

    Evolutionarily, before we learnt to satisfy all our needs with technology and the like, a day in which we didn’t have to exert ourselves was pretty rare. Under the circumstances, you can see how there might be an evolutionary reason to crave foods that will give you lots of fuel. Unfortunately, now, its leading to an epidemic in obesity. Yay.

    I don’t mean to sugest that you’re wrong – theres no denying that people crave food for comfort reasons, as well.

  4. I disagree to a poit,. Some cravings may just be psychological, but I truly believe at times that they are necessary. Generally, I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I have gone through times where I crave it constantly and only want to eat it. It’s not just that I craved it either, other meats were unappetizing and would make me feel I’ll if no thought of eating them. I will frequently crave fruits and vegetables as well. More often than I crave junk, because I’ve phased a lot if junk out of my diet.

  5. Red meat^, auto correct and touch screens are my bane.