What Causes Food Cravings?

Last Editorial Review: 8/11/2017

Ask the experts

I'm reading a book that says amino acid deficiencies can cause food cravings. Is this true?

Doctor's response

For many people, understanding what causes, or better yet, what prevents their food cravings would be a dream come true. It seems as if anything and everything can trigger a craving, and the food is everywhere to feed into it once the craving hits. Research is continually being done in this area and has had success in determining some causes and treatment options for cravings.

A craving is defined as an intense desire to consume a particular food or food type that is difficult to resist. There is evidence that people tend to crave particular classes of foods, especially sweets and high-fat foods. The important thing to determine is if your craving is physiological or psychological. If you are physically hungry, foods that are high in fiber and/or protein would be ideal to fill you up. When it's psychological, we tend to crave high-carbohydrate foods for the mood-enhancing effect that they produce due to their impact on the serotonin levels in our brains.

There can be times when we crave specific foods that we are deficient in. A recent study showed that when people were placed into one of two groups (carbohydrate-restricted or protein-restricted), they ended up craving foods from the group that was being restricted. Theoretically, this would be the only situation when an amino acid deficiency could lead to cravings. Amino acids are actually the building blocks for proteins. So, having their protein intake restricted meant that these persons also had restricted amino acids. The important thing to note is that when their protein was restricted, they only craved what they were relatively deficient in. This means that the customary sweets and high-fat food cravings would not be the result of an amino acid deficiency.

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Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine


"Dietary assessment in adults"