NBC News reports that processed foods are craved more often than natural, whole foods because they’re more reinforcing.
Research shows that high fat, high carbohydrate foods (like ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookies, mac and cheese, cakes) light up reward circuitry in our brain more than foods that are either high in fat or high in carbs (as nature might supply them).
Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that sugar acts on similar pathways in the brain as addictive substances, which would explain some of our cravings, binging behaviors, and use of food as a reward.
The National Institutes of Health suggests that insufficient sleep can drive up cravings for less healthy fare. Sleep deprivation can make food seem more enticing and it can lower our inhibitions, putting us less in control of our eating choices.
Having said all that, a craving, most times, is a learned response based on pleasurable experiences that you may have enjoyed as a child or young adult.
Most of us are not even aware that we formed these associations, but once they’re linked, a similar pleasurable association can cue the craving regardless of how hungry we are.
They make us feel better when things are good and can make us feel good when things are bad. Rewarding ourselves with a pleasant food experience can make the emotional pain go away.
One learning was also that people who replace meals with protein shakes can eliminate food cues (sights, smells, taste) while reducing calories. Though you might expect cravings to be even more powerful, the research shows people in these conditions report fewer cravings, not more according to Martin Binks, PhD, associate professor and Director of the Nutrition Metabolic Health Initiative (HMI) at Texas Tech department of Nutritional Sciences.