Either one or the other, or a combination of, obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour. For some people, cravings can be caused by seeing, smelling, hearing about, or thinking about, certain foods/eating behaviours. Processed, or ‘highly palatable’ foods in particular are engineered to cause cravings and are even advertised as such.
Cravings can also be caused by ingesting or tasting certain foods or engaging in certain eating behaviours (undereating then overeating, restricting then having ‘cheat days/meals’, continuous snacking/grazing, eating out of bags, mindless eating in front of the TV/computer, standing in front of the fridge eating directly out of containers, licking fingers, pans, plates, bowls, etc).
Cravings can also ‘come out of nowhere’ – as a habitual response to stress, or feelings such as boredom, anxiety, depression, grief, anger, embarrassment, confusion, tiredness or loneliness.
Cravings can also occur when people are physically (too) hungry or malnourished.