Why we crave some foods, and how to adopt healthy snacking habits

Do you find yourself reaching for the biscuits mid-afternoon? Find out why we crave sweet and salty foods, and how to adopt healthier snacking habits.

Let’s not beat around the bush – we all desire a specific food from time to time. ‘Food cravings’ are intense emotions that are tricky to curb, unless you eat the meal or snack you’re longing for. 

Generally speaking, people tend to crave sweet, salty, and not very nutritious options, such as fast food, processed treats, and sugary drinks. And while it’s important to listen to your body and its needs, regularly consuming these foods can have a detrimental impact on your wellbeing and lead to unwanted consequences such as obesity.

Here, we explore what our cravings truly mean, suggesting healthier options that can satisfy your urge for something tasty.

The science behind food cravings

It’s worth pinpointing that there is no universal reason for food cravings. There are several aspects that can trigger an uncontrollable appetite for a certain type of food, and what you most crave for varies from one individual to another. For instance, it has been found that males are more likely to yearn for savoury meals and snacks, whereas females prefer sweet and high-fat treats. 

From specific behaviours and habits to brain messages and easy access to food, cravings are the result of a complex interplay between different factors. In fact, when we consume certain foods, neurotransmitters inside the ‘reward’ region of our brain – the hypothalamus – become extremely active.

In turn, they translate the intake of these foods into feelings of pleasure and fulfilment, which is why we’re more prone to seeking these options in the future too. 

The more we consume those foods, the more we reinforce the positive memory of a rewarding experience – and will take the form of a craving when that memory is triggered. 

Foods that have this power are usually labelled as ‘hyperpalatable’, as they are enjoyable to digest and eat because of their richness, sweetness, or saltiness. 

The physical and mental causes of cravings

As mentioned, there are many causes that can spur your desire for specific foods, and they can be either physical or mental. 

For example, little or low-quality sleep may be a factor that favours food cravings during the day, because a disrupted night’s rest can impact those hormones in your body that regulate hunger (ghrelin) and fullness (leptin). Shortened sleep time, in fact, can be linked to an increase in ghrelin and a drop in leptin, which may stimulate appetite and an urge for high-fat foods.    

Richard Holmes at Westfield Health, experts in health cash plans, says that poor-nutrient diets can make you crave for sweet or salty treats too. In contrast, a balanced diet can help you tackle unwanted food cravings.

If you cook meals that are rich in proteins and fibre, you’re more likely to feel full, and won’t have the impelling necessity to snack on non-nutritious foods. Instead, if you follow a diet that lacks these vital nutrients, you may end up craving for treats regardless of whether you have assimilated enough calories or not.

However, it’s important to remember that listening to your body is crucial, and that if your stomach is rumbling, it’s probably time to eat. In fact, studies show that skipping meals or restrictive diets can increase cravings as well.

Finally, being in a bad mood or feeling stressed can also make you long for less nutritious foods. Specifically, sentiments of stress can increase your levels of cortisol, a hormone that – as well as many other things – can intensify your levels of appetite

Stress also seems to have a direct correlation with snacking on products such as biscuits, chocolate, and crisps too. Ultimately, cravings often act as a survival mechanism that can help you brighten your mood on a rainy day, which explains why you consume comfort foods when you’re feeling blue.

How to embrace healthy cravings

Ignoring your body when it’s craving for more food is not the right solution. Yes, most people feel the urge to indulge in salty and sugary treats, which can take its toll on your overall wellbeing in the long run. But the good news is that there are plenty of healthy alternatives that can equally satisfy your desire for snacks.        

Here are a few options you may want to take into consideration when you next feel a bit peckish:

  • Fresh fruit – Fruit is always an excellent option, as it is naturally very sweet and can satiate any sugar craving you may have. What’s more, fruit has a wide range of health benefits. For instance, apples can support digestion and your immune system, whereas cherries can help tackle inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. 
  • Dark chocolate – Chocolate is one of the most obvious and common cravings you can long for. But why not swap your milk chocolate for a few squares of dark chocolate? In fact, dark chocolate contains a higher percentage of cocoa, which can reduce your likelihood of developing heart diseases.
  • Pistachios – Crisps are a frequent go-to option when you’re longing for a tasty, crunchy snack. Likewise, pistachio nuts are enjoyable treats too, but with a significant difference – they are way more nutritious. Pistachios are an excellent source of fibre, protein, and antioxidants, and can benefit your heart, gut, and blood-sugar levels.   
  • Popcorn – If you want a healthy alternative that can evoke fun, carefree times, popcorn could be the ideal option for you. Indeed, corn is a whole-grain and is therefore rich in fibre. Not only that, but it also contains antioxidant properties that can aid your digestive system and improve your blood circulation.  

From sleep deprivation and restrictive diets to stress and low spirits, there are many factors that can drive our desire for comfort food. Putting your cravings into context can help you understand why you need those types of food and why you should always listen to your body. 

However, by making better choices you can satisfy your appetite while sticking to a healthy, nutritious diet.

Photo by Amanda Vick