Food cravings are a normal part of life that affect most people several times a week. Some people think that craving protein or other specific foods means that you're deficient in certain nutrients or that you have an underlying condition, like iron deficiency, but that's not necessarily true.
If you crave protein all the time, it's usually because that's what you're used to eating or it's what you like to eat. Research also shows that men tend to crave protein more than women, who usually have cravings for things that are richer in carbohydrates, like cookies or chocolate.
Cravings for protein don't necessarily indicate that you have an underlying condition, disease or nutrient deficiency. Usually, protein cravings develop if you're used to eating a lot of high-protein foods and you restrict them. Men are also more prone to protein cravings than women, who tend to crave carbohydrates more often.
Difference Between Cravings and Hunger
Before jumping into the reasons why you may be craving meat or protein, it's helpful to understand the difference between a craving and true, physiological hunger. A food craving is defined as an intense desire to eat a specific food, usually something that you define as a "comfort food." And there are other characteristics associated with food cravings:
- They're usually brought on by negative feelings, like stress, sadness or anger.
- They cause you to overindulge, which is often followed by feelings of guilt.
- They increase in strength when you're on a diet or trying to purposefully avoid certain foods.
- They come and go.
- They happen even if you're not hungry.
- They increase at certain times, like when a woman is premenstrual or menstruating.
On the other hand, true hunger is usually characterized by a desire to eat anything_,_ not just one specific food. Hunger may be accompanied by a growling stomach, feelings of fatigue or lightheadedness (due to low blood sugar). It also comes on because you haven't eaten food in a while and your stomach is actually empty.
True hunger doesn't come and go like food cravings, but usually persists until you eat something. Unlike food cravings, true hunger can also be satisfied even with a healthy meal or snack, rather than just the specific food that you're craving.
Why You're Craving Protein
According to a report that was published in Appetite in June 2017, the types of foods that you crave are often a result of individual differences. In other words, there's really no reason why you may be craving steak while your partner is craving a chocolate chip cookie.
Another report from a June 2017 issue of Obesity looked at different theories about food cravings. Researchers speculated that sometimes certain cravings are the result of conditioning or what type of diet you're on. If you're on a high-carbohydrate diet and trying to restrict protein-rich foods, you may start craving chicken, whereas if you're on a high-protein diet and limiting carbohydrates, you're more likely to start craving pasta or dessert foods, instead.
Cravings for certain foods also come from different internal cues and emotions. For example, when you're angry you might start craving protein, but when you're sad, you may reach for chocolate. External cues can also trigger certain types of cravings.
The report notes that the time of day, the activity you're doing (such as driving or watching TV) and other stimuli, like a sunny day or a family gathering, can result in cravings for different types of foods, depending on what you're used to and which memories these experiences stimulate. Advertisements can also induce a food craving for a specific type of protein-rich food, like fried chicken or a hamburger.
Gender Differences in Cravings
A report published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in June 2016 also noted that there may be some gender differences when it comes to what types of foods you're craving. According to the report, sex hormones are important modulators of the types and amounts of foods you eat. Your sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, interact with your digestive system and neurotransmitters in your brain and send signals to your body about hunger and cravings.
Although, in general, men and women have various types of sex hormones, men have higher levels of testosterone, while women have higher levels of estrogen. Women also experience a menstrual cycle, where hormone levels fluctuate and change, and this could also affect frequency and type of food cravings.
The report notes that, because of these hormonal differences, men tend to crave more savory, protein-rich foods, like hamburgers, whereas women crave sweet foods, like chocolate, more often. This isn't always the case, but it seems to be the general pattern.
Tips to Reduce Cravings
Unlike hunger, which is your body's way of telling you that it needs food for nutritional reasons, cravings often lead to overeating and weight gain. The June 2017 report in Obesity shared that people give in to their cravings 80 to 85 percent of the time and that this pattern of behavior is associated with a higher body mass index or BMI.
Although giving in to a craving every once in a while isn't a big deal, it can become problematic if you make it a habit. Piedmont Healthcare offered some tips to help reduce cravings and keep yourself in check. One of the first things you can do is drink more water.
Sometimes, you may mistake mild dehydration for hunger and reach for a snack instead of your water bottle. Drinking 12 ounces of water before meals can help control cravings and reduce the amount of food you actually eat once you sit down for your meal. You can also reduce cravings by:
- Distracting yourself by taking a walk or calling a friend
- Asking yourself if you're really hungry or just craving a certain food
- Taking a nap (sleepiness is often mistaken for hunger)
- Trying to keep your emotions in check
- Avoiding mindless snacking, especially while watching television
- Appetite: "Food Cravings in Everyday Life: An EMA Study on Snack-Related Thoughts, Cravings, and Consumption"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hunger vs. Craving: What's the Difference?"
- Obesity: "Frequency of Consuming Foods Predicts Changes in Cravings for Those Foods During Weight Loss: The POUNDS Lost Study"
- Piedmont Healthcare: "7 Ways to Fight Food Cravings"
- Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: "Gender-Related Differences in Food Craving and Obesity"