5 Culprits in our Food Cravings

Having trouble with your portion sizes? There is more to your appetite than your will power
November 3, 2021

Are you finding that you are craving more carbohydrates these days? You aren’t alone. Based on the questions I am getting from clients and what I see happening on social media, food cravings are something we are all facing. In this post, I highlight 5 general culprits that lead us to our food cravings.


5 Culprits in our Food Cravings


1. Environmental triggers – location, time, people, environmental stimuli

With most of us staying close to home and within easy walking distance to the fridge or pantry, we have lots of visual cues that are prompting us to eat more than usual.  If we think back to our regular routine, we are often away from our kitchen or pantry. Maybe we are in an office, we are running errands, or we are outside. We are in places where food isn’t directly in our face.

Environmental triggers can include location but can also include people or time. For example you may be done with eating, but if you see your partner or child eating, you may be cued to continue eating.


2. Individual physiological triggers

There are a number of things in our body that can trigger cravings:

  • Imbalanced meals – Meals that are high in carbohydrate, low in protein and fat, and/or too low in calories can result in blood sugar imbalances and result in sensations experienced as cravings.
  • Irregular and unpredictable meals – Meals that are spaced too far apart set our bodies up to have cravings later in the day. When you go too long between eating, it becomes very difficult to control your appetite. Suddenly, quick and easy-to-grab foods become even more appealing, and the thought of pausing to cook something is overwhelming and totally unappealing.
  • Stress and stress hormones – Stress results in the release of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with cravings and helps our body to store energy from food as body fat.
  • Lack of sleep – Staying up too late, not getting enough sleep, not getting good quality sleep, can all trigger cravings and eating in a way that feels problematic.
  • Processed and refined foods are designer foods that do not naturally exist in nature. They are higher in sugar, fat and/or salt and do not have “brakes” that help us stop eating. Compare how easy it is to overeat on a bag of salty, crispy chips compared to a sweet and crunchy apple. It’s harder to stop eating the chips. Processed foods are usually hard to stop eating, especially if we are hungry and want something quick.


3. Habits or learned associations

Anytime we have habits that are challenging for us to “break”, it is helpful to think about them based on their cue, the actual habit and the reward we get from that habit.

  • What triggers us to our craving (the cue)?
  • What are the ways we respond to the trigger (the habit)?
  • What is the reward we get from this habit?

A common habit people have is eating while sitting and watching TV or a movie.

Cue Habit Reward
Watching TV eating or snacking while watching The reward is individual for all of us. It might be pleasure. It might be stimulation. It might be zoning out.



Once we can identify the behavioural chain, we can look at adjusting the cue-habit-reward pattern. We can create new cues. We can plan to respond differently with a pre-planned habit. We can look at the reward we are seeking and think about how else we can intentionally create ways to obtain that reward.


4) Emotional cravings

We are all on an emotional roller coaster these days. Different emotions can trigger a response of self-soothing. For some of us, this self-soothing response is eating. Consider the emotions of sadness, loss, loneliness, boredom, anger, fear, feeling trapped and more, and what you tend to gravitate toward to give yourself some relief from these emotions.

Noticing and naming what emotion it is that you feel is an important step in slowing down how automatically we respond to emotional cravings. It also allows us to create a plan for self-soothing in ways that don’t just include food.  If you need support with your emotional and mental health (and really, who doesn’t?), a registered psychologist or Access Mental Health can be an invaluable support.


5) Hedonic cravings

We all have our vices. Personally, I love salty snacks. This  mouth hunger is when we are specifically seeking a kind of taste experience – sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy, cold, spicy and more. These kinds of hedonic cravings are stronger if we have been restricting our access to this kind of food. Hedonic cravings are especially hard to resist when we haven’t fuelled our bodies.

So there you have it – the 5 general culprits that result in cravings.  Keep in mind, that it isn’t what you do once in a while that matters. It is what you do consistently that matters. If changing your response to food cravings is important to you, start with awareness and what might be inviting these cravings in the first place.

Want to take a deeper dive into food cravings? Contact myself or another registered dietitian to help you.

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Kristyn Hall
Kristyn Hall
Kristyn Hall MSc, RD Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian Calgary, AB.

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