Whether it’s the saltiness of potato chips, the richness of chocolate, or the creaminess of ice cream, food cravings are something that we have all experienced. They often come out of nowhere and can be difficult to overcome until you indulge in that salty, rich, or creamy treat. However, cravings are generally a sign of something occurring in the body, and if you can learn to listen you can learn to tackle them before they get out of control. So here is a breakdown of what your cravings mean and what you can do about them.
What are Cravings?
Food cravings are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they are a form of communication from the body, and, on the other hand, they can trigger us to eat the exact foods we are trying to avoid. Cravings are different from hunger in the fact that they are a way of our body asking for exactly what it needs. The human body is smart and intuitive, and our cravings are signs of what our body may be deficient in or what processes may not be working optimally. Cravings are not only influenced by our chemical makeup, but also by our environment. Often times we crave certain foods based on certain situations, feelings, or habits. For instance, you may crave popcorn at the movies, crackers when you get home from work, or ice cream when you are sad, not necessarily because your body is asking for it, but because you have associated those foods with those situations and feelings.
What Your Cravings Mean
Certain cravings can be an indication of the state of our diet, our blood sugar, and the nutrients we are deficient in, so if you pay attention, you can give the body exactly what it needs, in the very best format.
What it Means: A constant craving for carbohydrates, specifically in the processed form, is usually an indication of insulin resistance, hypoglycemia, or plain old fatigue. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy so when we are looking for an energy boost we crave simple and refined carbohydrates in the form of items like crackers, cookies, bread, and granola bars. Re-occurring cravings for refined carbohydrates are also a sign of insulin resistance as the body is demonstrating its inability to regulate blood sugar (and therefore energy) effectively, so you end up needing more, more often, to feel energized. Additionally, given there is not adequate fiber, vitamins, or minerals present in these forms of carbohydrates your cravings can actually become heightened over time. By eating a bagel for breakfast, granola bar for a snack, a sub for lunch, and pasta for dinner, you actually perpetuate the cycle of carbohydrate cravings. And not to be forgotten, poor sleep is also a trigger for carbohydrate cravings since the body will seek extra sources of energy to keep going.
What to do About it: In order to reduce carbohydrate cravings, replace refined carbohydrates at meals with vegetables, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, and whole grains such as rice, oatmeal, or quinoa. These whole food sources of carbohydrates are rich in fiber and nutrients, and will therefore not disrupt blood sugar as refined versions will. Additionally, try to add a source of protein to every meal, be it meat-based or plant-based, as this will help to balance your blood sugar, keep yourself fuelled for longer periods of time, and keep cravings at bay.
What it Means: Sugar is our brain’s preferred source of fuel and therefore we have been programmed to seek it out, however, our biology has not caught up to the fact that sugar is now readily available. Similar to carbohydrates, common causes of sugar cravings include insulin resistance, as well as dehydration, stress, and poor gut health. Dehydration is actually one of the most common causes of sugar cravings because a lack of fluid intake can make it more difficult for the body to metabolize glycogen (stored glucose) for energy, so our bodies crave sugar to provide us with a quick source of energy. Sugar also helps to temporarily reduce feelings of stress by increasing our dopamine levels, the body’s happy neurotransmitter, giving us a temporary boost in pleasure. Moreover, a disrupted microbiome and lack of beneficial bacteria in the gut can cause us to crave sugar since yeast and bacteria actually thrive on sugar. So the more disrupted your gut health is, the more you may actually experience sugar cravings which only continues the negative cycle of poor gut health.
What to do About it: Not only is it important to try and limit obvious sources of sugar like candy and ice cream, but it is vitally important to look for hidden sources of sugar. Unfortunately, these are the sources of sugar that become more problematic over time so it is important to read all labels and look for common keywords for sugar. Additionally, in an effort to help manage blood sugar, add more fiber-rich vegetables and protein to meals, and focus on eating more whole grains, potatoes, beans, and lentils as opposed to pasta, bread, and crackers. And finally, avoid consuming large amounts of natural sugar such as dried fruit, honey, and maple syrup, because even natural sources of sugar can perpetuate sugar cravings if consumed in excess.
What it Means: Chocolate is one of the most craved foods and with good reason; not only is it delicious but real chocolate has nutritional properties that cause us to crave it. Cacao, the natural form of chocolate, is a rich source of magnesium, the body’s anti-stress mineral, and cacao is known for its ability to increase levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine helps contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness, so it’s no wonder we reach for it when we are stressed or looking for a little mood boost. However, it is important to understand that not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate contains higher concentrations of cacao and lower amounts of sugar as compared to processed forms of chocolate which are more like candy than actual cacao.
What to do About it: In order to ensure you get the nutritional benefits of cacao to support your cravings, reach for chocolate with 75% cacao content or more. Chocolate with lower percentages not only contain less cacao but often contains extra sugar, additives, and fillers, making them a less-than-ideal choice. In addition to actual chocolate, cacao powder or cacao nibs can be added to items like smoothies, chia seed pudding, or granola for added flavor and benefits. Additionally, items such as pumpkin seeds, spinach, and swiss chard are also rich sources of magnesium which are beneficial to include in the diet.
What it Means: Can’t get enough of salty foods? This may be linked to fluctuating stress hormones or low electrolytes. A constant craving for salt may be a sign that you are actually dehydrated since sodium is a natural electrolyte that helps to balance the fluid levels of our cells. Sodium, along with potassium, controls the influx of water into our cells, so consuming water without an appropriate electrolyte balance in the diet means the body will struggle to actually put all of the water you are drinking to good use. Stress can also influence salt cravings given our adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline, cortisol, and aldosterone, regulate sodium in the body, so when taxed they become less efficient at regulating sodium, which may lead to greater salt cravings.
What to do About it: Using high-quality salt in the diet can help to support electrolyte balance and minimize salt cravings. Refined and iodized salts do not have the same effects, therefore it is best to use a high-quality sea salt or Himalayan salt. Moreover, B-vitamin-rich foods are great for supporting stress, so get your fill of nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Fried Food Cravings
What it Means: If you are constantly looking for French fries or love a good batch of chicken fingers, cravings for fried foods may be a sign of essential fatty acid deficiency. Although fried foods are rich sources of fat, they are not rich sources of healthy fat, since they are commonly cooked in refined vegetable oils which are highly inflammatory to the body. Given that fat is essential to our health, as it is required for optimal brain function, hormone function, and nutrient absorption, consuming a low-fat diet can cause us to crave more fat since our body requires it to function. Not only does avoiding fat-based food limit the amount of fat in our diet, but it also minimizes the intake, absorption, and utilization of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
What to do About it: Ensure that you are consuming whole food sources of fat at every meal, such as eggs, meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, butter, or natural oils. It is imperative to avoid all forms of vegetable-based cooking oils, and opt for high-quality cooking oils such as butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, or animal fats. Not only will this help to optimize your fatty acid profile, but support the intake of fat-soluble nutrients.