This article was originally written by the Sequence clinic team (now known as WeightWatchers Clinic).

A guide to food cravings

Published July 14, 2023

Cravings can be a tricky thing to tackle. While you’re on a weight loss medication, you should experience a decrease in cravings, but having cravings from time to time is very normal. Let’s go over some of the causes for intense cravings.

6 causes of food cravings

1. Low blood sugar:

Research shows that cravings increase when blood sugar is low. It’s part of biology! Having low blood sugar usually results in low energy, which means your body is going to be driven to look for some energy. The fastest form of energy is usually processed carbs and sweets. Low blood sugar can happen when you skip a meal or a snack. Instead, picture yourself enjoying a healthy midafternoon snack before that craving hits you, and being able to manage your hunger better! An apple with almond butter vs. the leftover donuts at the office… The key is to get to that apple before your blood sugar drops too low. Pay attention to when you typically get that afternoon hunger slump and have your snack 15-30 minutes before then.

2. Inadequate food:

What most people don’t realize is that eating “super clean” or “super healthy” is not necessary and can often backfire by increasing your cravings. Carbs are often labeled as the bad guy, but they are an important and healthy part of any diet especially in the form of whole foods and whole grains. Skipping the carb and having only grilled chicken and salad for lunch may feel right at the moment, but have you experienced an intense craving for sweets or salty snacks mid-afternoon? Perhaps it strikes you in the evenings before bed? Eating inadequate amounts of food during your meals can drive cravings later on. The same goes for skipping a snack.

3. Lack of satisfaction (a.k.a boredom):

If your meals are not satisfying you (i.e. you’re eating the same chicken, brown rice, and salad everyday), then you’re more likely to experience cravings. Even if you are physically full, you may not be feeling mentally satisfied. And that’s a big difference. Try mixing up recipes, flavors, sauces, and spices. It may feel overwhelming at first, so I recommend starting with just 1 new recipe every 1-2 weeks. Pick up a jar of pesto, marinara, tzatziki, hummus, teriyaki sauce, bbq sauce, and add a drizzle onto your meals for a pop of flavor. Think outside the box.

4. Triggers:

I’m talking about that box of cookies right in your own kitchen — it’s sitting there, testing your willpower. Triggers in your own environment can lead to intense cravings and also make it too easy to eat them! If you can’t keep them out of your home, then keep them in less convenient places like the back of the cupboard or hidden in the pantry. Keep healthier options easily accessible, like fruit salad (that you prepped in 15 minutes on a Sunday), snack-packs of dark chocolate covered almonds, or veggies with your favorite dip.

5. Stress:

Stress and emotional eating are big causes for cravings. There’s no way for us to get rid of our stress, but we can certainly find healthy ways to manage them. Practice some self-care, even if it’s just a few minutes at a time. Instead of reaching for food as a destresser, pivot to something different. Perhaps it’s a cup of tea and a good book, or a quick yoga session or walk around the block. Maybe throw yourself a little dance party at home! We have a guide to de-stressing that you can check out for more ideas.

6. Hormonal changes or imbalances:

This is one that we don’t always have much control over, and hormones like ghrelin and leptin (the appetite hormones) can be difficult barriers to weight loss. Hormone shifts throughout the menstrual cycle can also have a significant impact. Typically, cravings and hunger increase during the second part of the menstrual cycle; we recommend allowing yourself to eat more, even if it’s more sweets, rather than stress over it. Give yourself a little grace when you’re going through hormonal shifts. Talk to a physician if it really seems to be difficult to manage and take care of yourself both physically and mentally. There has been some research that avoiding dairy can be helpful as well, but I recommend speaking with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian before eliminating any food groups from your diet.

How to eliminate cravings

The process for managing cravings is to address the root cause of the craving and then figuring out strategies to combat it:

Avoid skipping meals, eating too healthy, or eating too light. This takes a little prep work, or maybe you’ll be excited to add some carbs back into your life!

Prepare a healthy option in advance. Think, a fresh fruit salad, veggies with hummus and dips, whole grain crackers with cheese, a turkey and cheese rollup, or some of your favorite trail mix.

Do some self-care and try something new. This can help manage your stress and emotions and redirect them towards something besides food.

Take care of your triggers. Clean up your environment so that you’re not faced with temptations all day long, and replace those unhealthy foods with nutrient-dense ones.

Nutrition and weight loss progress

Now, I am a big proponent of flexible eating, which means you can totally have what you are craving from time-to-time. The frequency of that is up to you. If you are able to achieve your health and weight goals even when you grab a handful of peanut m&ms after lunch and dinner, then no need to give them up! If you are experiencing a plateau in your progress and just happen to be having an ice cream every evening, then that frequency may need to be adjusted to help you reach your goals.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be regarded as a substitute for guidance from your healthcare provider.