How to Stop Food Cravings: Are They Caused by Hunger or Stress?

Posted by Ethan Boldt on

By Jill Levy

You might feel like you deal with more food cravings than the average person, but believe it or not, certain surveys have found that nearly 100 percent of young women and 70 percent of young men experience food cravings at least now and then.

What are the most common cravings? These include cravings for salty foods, such as french fries and potato chips, chocolate and other sweets, as well as “highly palatable foods” that combine fat, sugar and salt (aka most “comfort foods”).

Below we’ll talk about ways to identify what may be causing your food cravings — for example, feeling out of sorts, sleep deprivation or a poor diet — as well as how to stop food cravings by keeping both hunger and stress in check.

Types of Food Cravings and Causes

Food cravings generally fall into two broad categories: those triggered by stress, and those triggered by actual physical hunger.

What causes food cravings? Many cravings are caused by memories that link together pleasurable sensations and a certain food. The brain stores these memories (in regions including the hippocampus and insula) in a way that associates the food with a “reward” and feeling good.

This makes sense if you think about it, because you can’t crave something you’ve never eaten before, right? Oftentimes we experience food cravings when we’re feeling a certain way, for example sad, nervous, overwhelmed or excited.

This is why some (usually unhealthy) foods are referred to as “comfort foods,” since they help to make us feel better and more balanced almost instantly, and appear to help relieve stress, at least temporarily. For example, foods with lots of carbohydrates boost levels of the hormone serotonin, which has a naturally calming effect.

While emotions and desire are often involved in cravings, sometimes simply being hungry or lacking certain nutrients in your diet may cause you to want particular foods. For example, experts believe that our bodies are programmed to crave foods high in calories when we aren’t getting enough nutrients or rest.

Reasons that you may be physically craving foods can generally include:

  • Being sleep deprived, which can increase fatigue and release of the hormone cortisol that tends to increase hunger
  • Dieting and restricting calories, which can cause an increase in the “hunger hormone” ghrelin and a decrease in the hormone leptin which contributes to fullness
  • Exercising a lot, which increase your calorie and nutrient needs
  • Being pregnant
  • Being in certain phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle

Most Common Food Cravings

As mentioned above, some food cravings tend to be more stress-related while others are due more to physical hunger.

If you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up because you’re feeling stressed, you’re likely to crave these foods, most of which are highly-processed:

  • Chocolate
  • Baked goods
  • Candy, desserts and other sugary foods
  • Breads, pasta and other refined carbohydrates
  • Fast food
  • Fried foods, including french fries
  • Salty snacks like chips, popcorn and pretzels
  • Ice cream
  • Cheese
  • Sugary drinks like soda, juice or sweetened coffee and teas

What cravings may mean your body needs more nutrients? There isn’t much solid evidence suggesting that we crave specific nutrients we are lacking. Most often, we seek out processed and calorie-dense foods when we have cravings, which tend to be low in essential nutrients.

However, if you’re physically hungry, perhaps because you’ve been dieting, doing intermittent fasting or exercising a lot, then you may find that you crave these foods most of the time:

  • High protein foods, including meat or eggs
  • Cheese and other dairy products
  • Carbs including grains and potatoes
  • Fat-containing foods such as nuts, nut butters or fattier cuts of meat
  • Other nutrient-filled foods high in fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, such as whole grains, legumes, protein powder smoothies, etc.

How to Stop Food Cravings (9 Cravings Crushers You Haven’t Thought Of)

Now that you understand why you might be dealing with certain cravings, let’s look at ways to get things under control:

1. Avoid Crash Dieting

The more severely you restrict calories, the higher the chances are that you’ll feel overly hungry. And once you’re pretty hungry, it can be hard to choose healthy foods over those that are very palatable and rewarding.

Oftentimes when we get very hungry, we end up overeating to compensate, so try not to eat too little in general or go too long without eating if it makes you feel less in control.

2. Get Enough Sleep

You might not associate sleeping more with beating cravings, but in fact, being well-rested is one of your best defenses. When you’re fatigued, you’ll have less willpower and be more likely to reach for quick sources of energy such as sugar treats. Aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to keep your appetite in check.

3. Manage Stress

Stress is one of the leading causes of a big appetite and stress eating. Find ways to take good care of yourself and to maintain a mostly positive mindset throughout the day, such as by staying organized, not overwhelming your schedule, building in time to relax and connecting with others.

Other habits like exercising, meditating, reading, journaling and spending time in nature are also naturally relaxing.

4. Keep Unhealthy Foods Away/Out of Sight

Avoid bringing tempting treats into your home, which makes it much easier to keep indulging and building poor habits. If you do keep less-than-healthy foods at home, store them in non-see through containers that are out of sight, which can help limit snacking. You can also only keep portion-controlled amounts of your desired food on hand, as opposed to buying in bulk.

5. Engineer a “Good Food Environment”

Set yourself up for success by stocking your home (and office, bag, car, etc.) with healthy foods and snacks. The goal is to make it as accessible and convenient as possible to make good choices. Make sure to load up on lower-calorie foods like veggies and fruits that are high in filling fiber, as well as portable items like trail mix, whole grain crackers, etc.

And if you’re a carb craver, consider adding enough healthy carbs to your diet to make you feel satisfied, such as whole grains, fruit, etc. Also make sure to stay hydrated, such as by drinking a large glass of water between meals.

6. Eat Enough Protein

Research has generally shown that a diet high in protein usually helps to manage hunger better than low-protein diets. Try to include a protein source with each meal that provides at least 15 grams of protein, such as a serving of yogurt, eggs, meat, fish or protein powder.

7. Satisfy Cravings In a Healthier Way

Try experimenting with healthier swaps in place of your favorite indulges, for example by making lower sugar baked goods, healthy smoothies instead of ice cream, baked french fries, etc. This can often be enough to satisfy an urge and still keep your diet on track.

8. Keep a Food Journal

A journal can help you identify patterns when it comes to your cravings, such as times of day you feel most hungry, the emotions you're feeling at the time, and the foods you crave. This is all valuable information that you can use to create a plan ahead of time to avoid giving into temptation and triggers.

A food journal can also help you to practice mindful eating, which teaches you to distinguish between emotional cravings and physical hunger.

9. Get Up and Move

Sometimes simply being active when you’re dealing with cravings can serve as a healthy distraction. Try taking a walk, stretching or doing some yoga when you’re tempted to munch on unhealthy snacks.

Exercise in general also helps to regulate your appetite and has other benefits like improving your sleep and busting stress, too.

Jill Levy has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.