Instead of fighting off food cravings, try listening to your body. Learn more about food cravings, what causes them and how to respond.

Heather Caplan, R.D.

Photo: Arthur Gleydson / EyeEm / Getty

The other night, my partner and I were discussing dinner options. "I'm craving a burger," I said, implying I'd rather get takeout than cook at home. The burger had been on my mind for at least two hours, and while I eat red meat occasionally, it's not my favorite. So, when I do crave something like a burger, I know it's a signal to heed. Maybe my body is low on iron, maybe I haven't had enough protein recently, or maybe that's just what my appetite is asking for. In any case, strong food cravings are not something I ignore. And you shouldn't either.

Read more: I'm a Dietitian and I Eat Dessert Every Day

Here, we take a closer look at what causes food cravings and what to do about them.

What is a food craving?

A food craving is defined as the strong desire to eat, usually a hankering for a specific food or type of food. Most of us experience cravings when we get in the mood for something sweet or salty. We crave something like a chocolate chip cookie, french fries, freshly baked pizza, an ice cream cone or " all the carbs."

And it's hard to find a clear answer about what to do with these cravings-should you indulge them, ignore them or try to substitute a similar food to trick your mind and body into thinking you honored the craving? All, or none, of the above? If you're feeling confused, keep reading.

Why do we have food cravings in the first place?

"A food craving is a sign from the body that you're missing something-whether that be balanced, adequate nutrition, or a particular nutrient," says Crystal Savoy, a registered dietitian with Real Life Women's Health in the Boston area. Your body knows when there isn't enough energy or nutrients coming in, and this is the message it sends to fix that.

When I think about my cheeseburger craving, I feel pretty clear that my body was asking for iron and a quality source of protein. I can zoom out from my day, or even look at the whole week, and recognize why that popped up.

Food cravings aren't always so simple or easy to reason with. "So often, it comes down to a low energy intake overall or someone who skipped a meal or didn't eat enough at their last meal," Savoy says. This becomes very clear when working with chronic dieters, and eating-disorder patients-restriction may precede anything from a strong food craving to a binge-eating experience. Further restriction, or food avoidance, seems to exacerbate the issue.

Other factors that may influence our food cravings:

  • energy restriction (i.e., not eating enough)
  • malnutrition
  • fatigue
  • changes to sleep routines
  • stress
  • food preferences
  • fluctuating hormone levels
  • emotional needs
  • food insecurity
  • food exposure

There are some things we have control over and others we may not.

Another cause of food cravings is a disorder called pica. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, pica is a disorder that manifests as cravings for nonfood items such as hair or paint chips. The two most common causes of pica are iron-deficiency anemia and malnutrition. While there are no clear numbers for how many people have pica, when most of us talk about cravings, we aren't referring to a desire to eat paint chips.

Related: Mindful Eating: The Key to Eating What You Want and Fully Enjoying It

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How should you respond to food craving?

The research on food cravings is mixed, at best. Scientists do seem to agree that diets and "restrained eating"-keeping certain foods off-limits-both seem to increase food cravings. Yet some studies suggest extremes like weight loss, increased physical activity and even abstinence (from the craved food or food type) as some of the "best" approaches to dealing with food cravings. These approaches rarely work long term.

"I always reiterate that cravings aren't a negative feeling, and there are so many reasons we might have a craving," says Laura Iu, a registered dietitian and owner of Nourish New York. This distinction is important for people who may feel shame, guilt or embarrassment over their food cravings. Iu notes that she often hears clients say the foods they crave are "foods they really like, but rarely allow themselves to have." And often, those foods are deemed "unhealthy," "bad" or "junk"-labels that we may then apply to ourselves for eating them. Iu helps clients get out of this negative food-shaming cycle: "Foods might have different nutrient levels, but that difference doesn't make one food bad or good-food is just food."

In short: Respond to a food craving by honoring it. Have the burger. Go out for an ice cream cone. Enjoy the pasta. Savor a salty snack. One eating occasion, or even a few, won't make or break your overall dietary choices.

What if the craving never stops?

"If we do trust our bodies and give ourselves permission to have these foods, they won't be as special," says Iu, echoing two core intuitive eating principles-focus on satisfaction instead of conforming to diet rules. (Learn more about intuitive eating and how to get started.) And this feeling that because a craving will never really be satisfied, therefore we shouldn't trust it? That comes from the diet world, the one where restriction trumps all, even though the science tells us otherwise.

Savoy emphasizes the importance of mindful eating experiences when honoring a craving: "Allow yourself to really savor and enjoy the food you craved." If those specific foods are unavailable at the time, try to mimic the food, or food type (e.g., carbs, proteins, fats) as best you can to feel satisfied.

Now what to do with all of this new food cravings knowledge?

"Start by making sure you're getting adequate nutrition," advises Savoy. If you aren't eating enough energy-or daily calories-overall, your body will let you know. Again, cravings are often amplified with restriction and malnutrition. If you constantly battle strong food cravings, start by first assessing your body's energy needs with a registered dietitian. Are you meeting those needs? And honoring your hunger? Start by having at least three adequate, balanced meals every day. If you're hungry between those meals, have a snack.

Next, take a "food rules" inventory and see which foods you may be consciously, or unintentionally, avoiding or restricting. Is there overlap between that list and the foods you constantly crave? For example, do you limit carbs and get cravings for bagels? Are you doing a sugar-free month and can't stop dreaming about brownies? Try increasing your exposure to these foods gradually, honoring those cravings and reducing self-imposed restrictions.

And, as Savoy notes, "Practice body awareness." She encourages us to ask: What triggered this food craving? Are your emotional and physical needs being met? If you're eating adequate meals and snacks, but still having strong cravings, could it be related to stress, sleep, emotions or something else going on underneath the surface? Check in with yourself, and your food cravings, to see what patterns may emerge. Again, this work may be helped by the guidance of a registered dietitian, especially one who focuses on intuitive eating.

Bottom line

If I had tried pasta, or a deli meat sandwich, or a salad for dinner instead of honoring my burger craving, I'd still be thinking about the burger. And I probably would have kept snacking after dinner, seeking the elusive satisfaction we get from honoring a craving. I may crave a burger again sometime, but probably not tomorrow. Next time you have a food craving, just eat it.

Read More: 5 Tips to Help You Love Your Body

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