There’s nothing like an insanely strong food craving to throw your diet for a loop… especially if it pops up on repeat. Perhaps the thought of a decadent dessert is enough to make you race to the nearest bakery, or maybe a salty bag of chips seems to call your name like clockwork. While a few treats here and there won’t do much harm (including throughout the holiday season, when eating for joy and merriment is very much called for), cravings can grow into bigger health issues if they persist—and you simply can’t resist—over long periods of time.
That said, some rumors are swirling around positing that specific amino acids can sweep in to curb your strongest cravings. Apparently, this could apply whether they’re for sugar, carbs, or salty foods—or even depending on the type of snacker you are (think: stressed, fatigued, comfort-seeking, and the like). But is there any merit to them?
In search of answers about the connection between amino acids and cravings—as well as how protein fits into the larger question—we reached out to Brooklyn–based dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RD, of East Coast Health.
Can a lack of certain amino acids trigger specific food cravings?
First, Pasquariello offers a quick recap of what amino acids are in the context of cravings. “Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are components of hormones, neurotransmitters, and more. As a result, our reward systems are linked to protein intake,” she explains. It seems like amino acids and cravings could be connected since we tend to experience pleasure by indulging in them… but the dietitian says the link isn’t terribly strong.
“While the evidence is very limited when it comes to whether a specific amino acid deficiency can trigger cravings, diets deficient in protein-rich foods in general can lead to cravings—including for foods that contain the amino acids the diet might be lacking,” she clarifies. Carb cravings are another such manifestation, which arise when the body seeks a quick (and ideally tasty) source of fuel.
As far as the research to date goes around specific amino acids, cravings, and satiety, Pasquariello calls out one small study on tryptophan. It found that “a reduction in the tryptophan/large neutral amino acid (LNAA) ratio—which can be caused by consuming meals high in protein—can reduce the overall desire to binge eat among women.” As such, it suggests a possible link between amino acid intake and strong urges to acquiesce to cravings.
Other amino acids, she continues, have been studied in the context of cravings—yet the jury is out since the bulk lack clear and conclusive evidence. These include:
“Another amino acid frequently discussed as a possible aid to reduce cravings is glutamine,” Pasquariello continues. She says it’s gained popularity in the craving conversation since it shows promise to encourage weight loss in people with diabetes specifically. However, evidence is lacking for those who have blood sugar levels within normal ranges.
5 tips to curb your strongest cravings
If you want to move the needle on your food cravings with significant success, heed the helpful, healthy dietitian-approved hacks below.
1. Sleep well and de-stress
This tip’s a no-brainer for your cravings and overall well-being alike. Per a 2018 study in the journal Obesity, chronic stress and higher levels of cortisol predict food cravings and future weight gain. And ICYMI, your circadian cycles regulate not only your sleep-wake times but also your appetite. They also influence certain hormones in the endocrine system—including the hunger and satiety hormones of ghrelin and leptin, respectively. Sleep deprivation (as well as stress) can suppress leptin and increase ghrelin, thus spiking hunger for processed, less-than-healthy foods.
Since these lifestyle habits can wreak havoc on your hunger cues, find ways to improve both when you’re under duress. Mindful movement, deep breathing, and a solid bedtime routine are only a few of the countless self-care modalities at your disposal.
2. Prioritize protein
As far as amino acids and cravings go, Pasquriello ultimately advises against seeking out the aminos on their own (via specific foods or solo supplements). “A healthy, nutrient-dense diet typically contains all of the essential amino acids that the body needs to thrive, so there’s no reason for most people to seek out supplementation or specific sources of a given amino acid,” she shares. “In fact, I would venture that doing so could bring on much more stress (and work!) than is necessary.”
That said, making sure you get enough protein in your broader diet—alongside carbs, healthy fat, fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals—may just be the best hack for cravings available. In addition to being inherently satiating, protein “is also vital for maintaining a healthy body weight, regulating our organ systems (as well as immunity and metabolism), maintaining cell structure and function, and forming muscle,” Pasquariello continues.
Circling back to amino acids, it’s important to ensure that you get all of them to reap the benefits from complete proteins. Animal foods will cover your bases easily, yet Pasquariello notes that vegetarians and plant-based eaters may need to take more special care. However, it’s absolutely possible to get all amino acids and adequate protein on a plant-based diet. “For instance, buckwheat, chia, and hemp seeds are all complete proteins on their own,” Pasquariello shares, “or you can opt for complete protein combinations like hummus and pita, peanut butter on toast, or rice and beans.”
Tip: Mixed into a smoothie or baked into treats, a plant-based protein powder like HUM’s Core Strength can help you increase your complete protein intake ease. (One serving offers 20 grams of protein with all 22 amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids.)
3. Get to know your cravings
By leaning into mindfulness, you may find that the causes behind your cravings are easier to uncover and remedy than you’d imagined. “Instead of trying to prevent or ignore your cravings, try to tune in to—and even physically note down—the circumstances in which they come up. Maybe you’re tired, bored at work, dehydrated, stressed, or distracted.” She says that certain cravings can be even more context- or environment-dependent. (Think: jonesing for popcorn and chocolate at the movie theater, beelining for a tray of baked goods at holiday parties, or simply experiencing period-related food cravings.)
In any case, keeping tabs on the what and when behind your cravings can help you get to the bottom of them. From there, it can be easier to break the cycle.
4. Adopt mindful eating habits
Some of Pasquariello’s foolproof mindful eating tips to reduce cravings and diminish emotional eating patterns include:
- Taking breaths between bites
- Avoiding distractions at mealtime
- Introducing mindset shifts like 80/20 eating (i.e., aiming for nutrient-dense fare at least 80 percent of the time)
- Reducing any noise around food, nutrition, and weight that doesn’t serve you
5. Don’t deprive yourself (or demonize the craving)
Deprivation is a no-go—full stop. By sticking to a healthy, balanced diet to begin with, you’ll have a better shot at keeping cravings for less healthy fare at bay. However, it can be in your best interest to allow yourself the occasional treat… so long as you do so in moderation. “It’s well-proven that by ignoring your cravings, your brain fixates on them even more, so trying to starve them out or swapping in an alternative may not cut it,” Pasquariello notes.
The Amino Acid takeaway…
In case you’ve heard that you can squash your cravings by prioritizing certain amino acids above others, doing so may prove to create more work (and potential stress) than any palpable rewards. Instead, getting familiar with the true cause of your cravings—whether they’re rooted in lifestyle habits, emotional triggers, certain environments, or dietary gaps—can allow you to reduce their strength once and for all.
If you find your cravings to be stronger than you can manage on your own, or if you think you’re deficient in a particular nutrient that could be driving intense hunger pangs, consult a physician or dietitian. “They’ll conduct blood work and determine what specifically might be lacking in your diet, if anything,” says Pasquariello.
By and large, however, Pasquariello notes that the magic trick to overcoming your cravings is probably simpler than it seems. Try to push the gimmicks and lofty goals aside, go back to basics, and take it easy on yourself. “While it’s difficult, I do think a healthy balance can be achieved where we aren’t fixated on numbers or hitting goals every day, and can instead learn to better tune into our bodies’ fullness and hunger cues,” the dietitian concludes.