If you ever get a craving for something sweet or salty that you can’t quite kick, you may think it’s your body’s way of testing your willpower. But cravings aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes a craving is your body’s way of asking for something that it’s missing nutritionally.
Cravings have garnered a bad reputation because the types of foods you often crave aren’t typically the healthiest. But understanding what those cravings indicate can actually help you make healthier choices to satiate those cravings, so you can have your cake and eat it too — kind of.
Decoding the Cravings
Decoding the cravings starts with understanding what can potentially contribute to them, and it’s more than just the nagging sweet tooth.
“Cravings can commonly be contributed to by vitamin and mineral deficiencies,” says Kaylee Jacks, a sports dietitian at Texas Health Sports Medicine. “This can be caused by not eating enough or not eating a balanced variety of food groups. But they can also be caused by dehydration, working out too much or too little, hormone imbalances, and a lack of sleep. A lot of time people mistake dehydration for hunger and crave certain foods. Additionally, sleep deprivation can cause overeating and certain cravings. A lot more can go into cravings than you may initially think.”
What Popular Cravings Could Be Signaling
Sugar cravings can be wide-ranging, so it can be helpful to identify the type of sugary item you’re craving to better understand what the craving is telling you that you need.
If you’re craving chocolate, it could mean you are deficient in magnesium. Magnesium, a mineral, plays an important role in assisting more than 300 enzymes to carry out various chemical reactions in the body such as building proteins and strong bones, and regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, and muscle and nerve functions. Magnesium also acts as an electrical conductor that contracts muscles and helps maintain a strong, steady heartbeat.
Thankfully, you don’t have to cut out chocolate entirely. Adding magnesium-rich raw cacao powder to a smoothie, oatmeal or yogurt can help boost your mineral levels. And avoid grabbing that milk chocolate bar off the shelf; processed, sweetened chocolate bars actually contain very low levels of pure cocoa. If you’re going to shop for a chocolate bar, reach for dark chocolate (70% cacao content or higher), and the fewer ingredients in the list, the better.
Additionally, if you find yourself craving sugary sweet fruit or fruit juices, it can be another sign that you’re deficient in a particular nutrient, vitamin, mineral or antioxidant.
If your sugar craving seems to be less particular or focused on a certain food type, this may be your body’s way of signaling that it’s exhausted since glucose is a natural energy source for our bodies. A mid-day sugar craving may be your body’s way of trying to get some quick energy to finish out the day.
Lastly, if you consume a large amount of sugar on a daily basis or almost daily basis, your body may be craving sugar simply because it’s used to the sugar rush.
“Carbohydrates are broken down to sugar in your body and used as energy,” Jacks explains. “If you suddenly stop eating all sugar you will most likely experience a crash in energy leading to cravings.”
Jacks says the best way to combat this is to slowly taper off the amount of sugar you eat, focusing on eating a balanced diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as meals and snacks that are higher in protein to allow a slower energy release.
If your diet is generally clean and healthy, Jacks adds that craving sugar could also signal a lack of zinc or chromium. Taking a daily chromium supplement can help balance your insulin levels and keep cravings at bay, and a multivitamin can even out zinc deficiencies while you try to incorporate more zinc-rich foods such as nuts and seeds or beans and legumes.
As with anything, you should consult with your doctor or nurse before taking any supplement as they may interact with medication or any health condition you may have.
Who can resist a big bowl of pasta, another dip into the breadbasket or a whopping serving of mashed potatoes? Carbs get a bad reputation, but everyone needs them in their diet to provide natural energy, which holds a key clue to why your body may be craving them.
Again, the types of carbs you’re craving can tell a lot about what might be missing in your diet.
Overly processed, simple carbs such as refined grains, white breads, snack cakes, or processed corn or potato snacks are digested quickly, which can give you a jolt of energy, but also leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied not too long after.
It is best to consume the majority of your carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Whole grains include breads, pastas, oats, cereals, etc.
“A good tip for grocery shopping is to read the ingredient label located under the nutrient label,” Jacks explains. “The very first ingredient should say ‘whole.’ Whole grains are higher in fiber, slowing digestion and keeping you fuller longer. They are also higher in other vitamins and minerals that support various body functions. Additionally, pairing your carbohydrate with a lean protein can help fill you and prevent overeating.”
Try opting for a whole grain toast with a smear of avocado. The fiber from the whole grain toast paired with the healthy fat from the avocado will stick around for a bit and help you feel fuller longer.
If you’re looking for something crunchy, try jicama chips or raw veggies with a serving of hummus.
Jacks notes if you just can’t kick those carb cravings, it can also be a sign of dehydration.
“In those situations, hydrating with a glass of water and waiting a few minutes may help the craving subside,” she says.
Although you know better, sometimes a greasy slice of pepperoni pizza, a blissfully fried food, or anything wrapped in bacon can be really calling your name. While all of these things are delicious, there could be more behind the craving than your tastebuds are leading you to believe.
This one isn’t as hard to crack, though. You’re most likely craving these items because your body needs fat — healthy fat.
“If you are craving a bite or two of fried chicken, have a bite or two of fried chicken. However, if you’re constantly craving fried or fatty foods, it could be due to lack of healthy fats in the diet or a diet that is consistently too restrictive,” Jacks says. “Making sure you get a variety of foods and you aren’t too restrictive to the point you break your restriction and overindulge can prevent craving unhealthy foods.”
Try a slice of toast topped with avocado, a handful of your favorite nut mix, or even some chia seed pudding — all of which supply a healthy dose of good fats.
If you feel like you get an appropriate amount of healthy fat in your diet and aren’t restrictive, craving greasy foods can also be a sign of low calcium. Try increasing the amount of leafy greens and legumes in your diet.
Salt and salty food play a big role in hydration and maintaining your electrolyte and fluid balance. That being said, a craving for salt can be a sign that you’re dehydrated since sodium helps your body hang on to fluids.
If you’re a heavy sweater you will need to replenish the sodium and other electrolytes you lose in sweat. In rare cases, intense salt cravings can be linked to adrenal insufficiency which is a condition in which the adrenal glands may not be producing enough cortisol or aldosterone.
Last but not least, if you find yourself craving cheesy goodness, there can be a couple of factors at play.
Cheese contains tryptophan which some believe reduces stress, combats anxiety and supports mood. Cheese and cheesy dishes are also typically associated with comfort foods or relaxing situations as well. So you may be emotionally looking for a way to get those warm fuzzy feelings that cheese and cheesy foods can sometimes invoke.
However, cheese is also a source of many key nutrients, such as protein, calcium, phosphorous and fat.
“If you find yourself craving cheese, it could be due to a need for a better balance of healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids,” Jacks explains. “As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to get your healthy fats from a variety of food, not just through cheese, especially since cheese can be high in the fat we want to limit or avoid — saturated fat.”
While cravings have long received a bad reputation for being mind over matter, research shows they may be more helpful than you originally thought so long as you interpret them correctly and make healthy choices.
But Jacks stresses no matter if your craving is practical, emotional or somewhere between, there is no such thing as “bad” foods and cravings shouldn’t be looked down upon as something that is inherently bad.
“As with everything, finding balance and moderation are essential,” she says. “I do not recommend cutting out an entire nutrient or food group unless necessary. This kind of restriction actually leads to cravings and making less-than-healthy choices in response to those cravings. It is also important to remember your diet should fit into a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise, controlling stress, hydrating, and staying rested are major factors in a healthy lifestyle and major triggers for certain cravings in addition to food choices.”
Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician that’s appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/FindaProvider today.