What Causes Food Cravings

There’s a difference between hunger and cravings. We tend to talk about having cravings when we might really just be hungry. It can happen at any time to any one of us. We’re maybe doing something else, and it’s been a while since we’ve eaten or drank anything, then we start visualizing a croissant. Or a Starbucks frappuccino. Or maybe both. We recall the pleasure we’ve had in the past from a cup of sugary coffee and a pastry. We think the words, “I need this,” and then we decide that a sugary coffee and a croissant is the solution to our hunger. That cup of coffee and croissant was the image that popped into our heads when we thought about feeling hungry, so it must be the thing that will fulfill that hunger, right? We might ask ourselves, “Why am I suddenly craving junk food?” But we won’t have a good answer.

There is a problem with this thought process, however. There is a physiological difference between craving and hunger. According to The University of Melbourne Researchers, “Within the hypothalamus are nerve cells that, when activated, produce the sensation of hunger. They do so by producing two proteins that cause hunger: neuropeptide Y (NPY) and agouti-related peptide (AGRP).” (Melbourne)

The hypothalamus releases these neuropeptides and peptides whenever our bodies need refueling. Then it’s our job to make decisions about how to choose that fuel.

What Causes Food Cravings?

So, what causes food cravings?

According to Harvard School of Public Health, “cravings actually involve a complex interplay of factors: brain messages, behaviors that become habits over time, and having easy access to food.” (Harvard)

Food cravings might be a response to hunger sometimes, but it’s too simple to say that food cravings always tell you when you’re hungry. In fact, food cravings stem from a far more complex relationship between us and what we eat. We develop habits with complex psychological and physiological bases causing us to experience food cravings.

What to Do About Food Cravings When You Are Not Hungry

Woman drinking water - what causes cravings

It might be difficult to know how to stop food cravings when not hungry. For starters, it can be hard to tell the difference between food cravings and genuine hunger. According to Medical News Today, “Satisfying cravings can become a habit, and it may be easy to eat sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods without thinking about the consequences.” (Medical)

As a result, we often get into habits of assuaging hunger pangs with easy-to-access and pleasant carb- and sugar-heavy foods. As this habit grows, we eventually start craving the pleasurable memories that come with food even when we don’t feel genuine hunger.

The first thing to do in order to learn how to stop food cravings when not hungry is to identify the difference between food cravings and genuine hunger. This might take some practice and coaching, but it is possible. Since food cravings are caused mainly by habit, genuine hunger tends to come with a wider array of physiological effects, like pangs or lightheadedness.

In the event that you experience food cravings and you have identified them as not indicating genuine hunger, it may be a good idea to do something to respond to the craving other than eat a snack.

Some examples include:

  • Drink a glass of water
  • Take a walk
  • Engage in something mentally distracting, like a puzzle

Reacting to your food cravings with something other than eating, especially without eating sugar-heavy foods, will begin rewiring your habit-forming psychology and replacing it with better habits.

What If I am Craving Food but Not Hungry?

If you have food cravings, but your cravings don’t relate to any specific foods, this may indicate a slightly different state of your body and your relationship with food. According to Medical News Today, “Nonselective hunger is the desire to eat anything. It may be the result of real hunger and hunger pangs, but it can also be a sign of thirst. Drinking water may help with intense nonselective cravings.” (Medical)

If you are experiencing this nonselective hunger, or craving food but not feeling hungry, it might mean that you need to address stress and anxiety in your life in order to improve your relationship with food.

There is as much emotional motivation to food cravings as there are physical indicators. If you are experiencing difficult-to-control food cravings, there may be an emotional reason.

What Food Cravings Mean Emotionally

Woman sitting by couch depressed

Sometimes, food cravings correspond to moods. Feelings of anxiety and stress can make us seek something that we can control. Food often feels like something we can easily control. According to Dr. Michael Roizen, MD, “our moods may steer us to certain foods, based on their physical characteristics.” (ShareCare)


It can be helpful to figure out what food cravings mean emotionally. For example, “If you crave sugars, you could be feeling depressed. If you crave soft and sweet foods, like ice cream, you could be feeling anxious. If you crave salty foods, you could be stressed. Or, if you crave bulky, fill-you-up foods, like crackers and pasta, you could be feeling lonely and sexually frustrated.” (ShareCare) It is not always clear what food cravings mean emotionally, but with some practice and coaching we can start learning our own bodies better. Then, when we do, we can start to replace our bad food habits with good ones.


It is possible to learn how to stop emotional eating forever. It involves retraining your body and mind. With some coaching, you can change your relationship with food.


Leslie Chen helps you become free from your cravings and sustainably lose weight once and for all. Learn how to stop cravings for junk food. To experience the permanent, paradigm-shifting transformation, click here to schedule a free personalized 1:1 assessment with Leslie.




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