By Meri Reffetto

Food cravings can occur for a variety of reasons, both psychological and physiological. After you know why your food cravings are happening (whether you are on a low-glycemic diet or otherwise), you can take steps to deal with them more effectively. Some common reasons for food cravings (as well as how to combat them) are as follows:

  • Addiction: Recent research points to the idea that eating high-glycemic foods stimulates the cravings and rewards regions of the brain. More research is needed, but it’s good to be aware this could occur. Consuming low-glycemic foods throughout the day regularly can help break this cycle.

  • Unstable blood sugar: This is probably the biggest physiological food-craving trigger. The food you eat, specifically carbohydrates, increases the amount of blood sugar in your body. When you eat large amounts of carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes quickly and then comes crashing down.

    Following a low-glycemic diet can help keep your blood sugar stable by providing an energy source that digests slowly, producing gradual increases in blood sugar and insulin levels.

  • Lack of sleep: Recent research shows that people who don’t get the appropriate amount of sleep at night produce more of their “hunger hormone” and less of their “full hormone,” leading them to feel hungrier during the day, overeat, and consequently gain weight. The study also found that these people had more cravings for salty and sweet foods throughout the day.

    To counteract this physiological trigger of food cravings, allow yourself seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you have sleep problems, contact your doctor for professional help.

    Can’t wind down at night? Try drinking a cup of chamomile tea, doing a few yoga stretches, reading, meditating, journaling, or any other activity capable of turning off your mental to-do list.

  • Low serotonin levels: Some researchers feel that a hormone imbalance, specifically low serotonin levels, may be another physiological trigger for food cravings. Scientific evidence also suggests that carbohydrates may help replenish the body’s serotonin levels (serotonin is a feel-good brain chemical). Although there’s no conclusive evidence that eating carbohydrates has a calming effect, it may be enough for a quick feel-good moment.

    Keeping your blood sugar stable and eating high-quality carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (rather than high-glycemic carbohydrates) can help. Exercise also increases serotonin levels and may help decrease food cravings.

  • Conditioned responses from childhood: One of the biggest psychological reasons people crave food is because they’re conditioned to from childhood. Conditioned responses go hand in hand with emotional eating. Infants and young children learn through experience that certain foods make them feel better or even make them feel full or emotionally satisfied.

    Perhaps you always had dessert after dinner as a child, or maybe you got ice cream when you lost the soccer game. Some of these conditioning cues are okay because they’re once-in-a-while things, but some are tougher because they’re daily habits. For instance, if as a child you were rewarded with sweets each day for doing your chores, you may continue this pattern as an adult, thinking “I worked hard today; I deserve this.”

    To break away from your conditioned food responses, you may be tempted to cut out the food altogether, but doing so will only make your craving worse. Instead, eat something similar. If you’re craving ice cream at night because that’s what you ate before bed when you were little, then have a small amount of frozen yogurt or a fruit smoothie. If you’re craving chocolate, have an ounce of dark chocolate.

  • Restrictive dieting and restrained eating: Studies suggest that when people refrain from eating certain foods, they end up craving them more, giving into the craving, and overindulging. As a psychological response, they then feel guilty and decide to refrain from eating the foods, which only prolongs the food-craving cycle.

    Severe restrictive eating (found in very-low-calorie diets) can also result in a physiological trigger — low blood sugar from not eating! Instead of cutting yourself off from certain foods, eat small amounts of them. You can also try a lower-glycemic food that’s similar to what you’re craving.

Think about the last time you had a food craving. Can you point to your trigger? Becoming aware of why you crave certain foods can help you overcome and prevent these cravings in the future.

Keep in mind that the most common reason for food cravings in people trying to lose weight is low blood sugar. Unstable blood sugar can not only trigger food cravings but also make them worse.