I am sure there’s not a single person in the world who hasn’t experienced a food craving; it’s a universal human experience. Cravings aren’t just annoying, they can derail the hardest efforts to eat healthily. They can make us feel defeated, overwhelmed, and at the bottom of the bottomless pit. But the truth is, there’s a reason and a purpose for that food craving and if you know what a craving really is, why you have it, and how to satisfy it properly, you can control your cravings instead of letting them control you.
What causes food cravings
A craving is an overwhelming desire to consume a certain food (usually not the healthy kind). It’s your body’s way of telling you it needs something . . . a vitamin, mineral, protein, or nutrient to function properly. A craving can also have a chemical component to it, which is why cravings are more common when someone is depressed or emotionally upset. Sometimes we may experience a craving after being reminded of a favorite type of food. Perhaps you’ve just walked by a doughnut shop, and now you can’t stop thinking about doughnuts. Cravings are initially triggered by a variety of environmental stimuli, but the actual cause of food cravings can be divided into two different categories.
Cravings can be a sign of physiological changes in the body, such as a hormone imbalance or pregnancy. It can also be a sign of a nutrition deficiency. For example, a diet heavy in processed foods will probably lack adequate protein and fiber, two nutrients that play key roles in helping us feel full.
Cravings may be a symptom of overall health, as well. Research studies show that sleep quality, body weight, and cravings are related. People who get enough sleep tend to make better dietary choices and experience fewer cravings compared to people who don’t, which directly affects their body weight. Among the many other reasons people should get enough sleep, everyone should aim to get a full night’s rest if they want to mitigate food cravings.
Chronic stress influences hormone levels, which can then trigger cravings. It can also make people turn to “comfort eating.” When your mood falls, your brain’s craving for an uplifting reward can manifest itself as a craving for your favorite childhood snack.
Along with stress, the brain’s ability to make strong associations between behavior and environment is a major cause of cravings. A classic example of this is the association between popcorn and movies. Most people will crave and buy popcorn at the movies, even if they’re not actually hungry. If you have a habit of snacking in front of the T.V. or buying candy bars during your work break, your cravings are likely to increase when you find yourself in similar environments.
Why cravings are bad
Obviously, cravings are bad for waistlines. For example, you probably find yourself craving ice cream more often than salad. Naturally, you would start to put on weight if you gave in to every one of your cravings. Aside from weight, people with dietary restrictions, such as those with diabetes or gluten intolerance, are at greater health risk if they experience a food craving.
According to some studies, high-fat and high-sugar foods are highly addictive. When you give in to a craving, you might be creating a food addiction and opening yourself up to more frequent and intense cravings. To prevent this from happening, it’s important to be aware of what causes your cravings so you can manage them accordingly.
How to reduce cravings
With these causes in mind, aiming to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle is a great approach to reducing cravings. Staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and exercise, and sticking to a diet of whole foods will keep hormone and stress levels in check, decreasing the likelihood of a sudden craving.
Another way to reduce cravings is to develop defense strategies for when they occur. If you find yourself in an environment where you tend to experience cravings, you can opt to remove yourself from the environment until the feeling subsides. Similarly, if you have a tendency to stress-eat and experience a moment of stress, you should have some coping strategies in place, such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, so you don’t end up giving in to your cravings. Here are some other techniques that many people have found useful.
Keep a food journal
Keeping a food journal or food diary entails logging everything you eat on a daily basis. Research shows that people who keep a food journal are better at sticking to their diet. To accomplish this, you can use an actual, physical journal or a simple app on your phone.
Go for a walk
Walking takes you out of your immediate environment, which breaks the environment-craving association that your brain naturally creates. Walking is also a great, low-impact exercise. For those who trying to lose weight, a quick walk can help you reach your goal by burning calories and managing your cravings.
Don’t skip meals
Cravings and hunger aren’t the same things, but they do go hand-in-hand. If you make a habit of skipping meals, hunger can become a craving. To combat this, eat several regular, small meals throughout the day. If you train yourself to eat at specific times, you are less likely to experience an intense craving.
How to replace cravings
Now that you know a craving means you’re lacking something in your diet, the trick is finding out what you’re lacking and replacing that craved food with one that’s more nutritious with relatively low calories and fat. In theory, this will satisfy your craving, keep your health on track, and hopefully replenish the key nutrient triggering the cravings in the first place. Here are common food cravings, the meanings associated with them, and what to substitute for them.
Let’s start with the big one – chocolate! Chocolate cravings are associated with deficiencies in magnesium and copper. A typical bar of chocolate is mostly fat and sugar but also contains high levels of magnesium and B vitamins. Therefore, dark chocolate will have more of these micronutrients than white or milk chocolate. If you feel a sudden craving for chocolate and a small piece of dark chocolate just won’t do, filling up on leafy greens and yellow foods like butternut squash, non-GMO corn, apples, apricots, bananas, and nuts should do the trick for a fraction of the calories. You might also consider a magnesium supplement.
People craving chips, pretzels, and other salty, savory snacks may be deficient in electrolytes, such as potassium and chloride. A serving of tomatoes or olives is more nutritious than potato chips while delivering electrolytes. Pickles (and picked juice) are also a good snack for rehydrating and restoring electrolytes at very little caloric cost. Also, if you’ve been eating a lot of sweets, your body may naturally want salt. So by keeping sweets in check, you can help beat those salty snack cravings.
Sugar is the body’s main source of energy. It’s also highly addictive. You could be craving sugar because you have an addiction or because your body needs a quick energy boost. If you’re craving sugar while studying, it’s because your brain burns glucose for energy. These cravings usually go away once you eat. If you crave sugar after chowing down on some chips, it’s because you ate too much salt. If you’re depressed and craving sugar, look into serotonin and healthy ways to boost it via exercise or a serotonin precursor like 5-HTP. The next time you crave something like cookies or ice cream, try reaching for a piece of fruit instead. Most fruits are high in sugar while having more nutrients to offer. If you feel like you crave sugar literally all the time, you need some probiotics, and fiber, and should consider a full-on sugar detox plan
Cheese and dairy (including pizza)
Cheese and other dairy products contain high levels of calcium and fat, so craving cheese suggests a deficiency in these nutrients. We lumped pizza in here, too, as an example of a food with a lot of cheese that you might be craving. Leafy green vegetables, chia seeds, and cruciferous vegetables are good sources of calcium. For a dose of healthy fat, nuts, legumes, and oily fish are healthier options to replace your cheese craving. Plant-based cheese has also come a long way, perfect for pizza.
Sweet and Sour Cravings (pickles, lemons, limes, or a combo of sour and sweet)
These cravings are associated with liver congestion. Want a simple fix? Add lemon to your water on a regular basis. If you think you might need something a little more than lemon, try a liver cleanse supplement or milk thistle.
Yep, it’s more common than you think. Think earthy taste cravings. A dirt craving is often associated with a deficiency in trace minerals, like iron and magnesium, and is very common during the third trimester of pregnancy. Make sure you’re eating enough vegetables (especially root vegetables) and consider a trace minerals supplement. This craving could also stem from emotional needs. Perhaps you’re seeking a sense of grounding. Or you grew up with a parent or grandparent who gardened, and the smell of fresh earth reminds you of happy times spent outdoors together. Or maybe you are simply craving the taste of something natural, real comfort food, that isn’t unprocessed. Spend time cooking up a nice meal with potatoes, carrots, beets, and even some types of mushrooms.
Not all fats are bad, and a craving for fried foods is a sign you’re lacking the good fats your body needs to function properly. Ditch the “taste good but bad for you” fried foods and up the olives, avocado, coconut oil, seeds, and nuts.
Craving spicy foods might be a sign that your body is lacking in sulfur. Sulfur is necessary for the production of collagen and keratin, which are important for healthy skin, hair, and nails. Garlic, onion, horseradish, curry, and cayenne pepper are all good sources of sulfur. It is also important to make sure that you are getting enough vitamin C, as this helps the body to absorb sulfur. MSM is one of the best supplements to address sulfur deficiency.
But nuts are good for me. Why would cravings be bad? Nuts are good for us but within moderation. You’d be surprised by how many calories this natural food can pack in, a quarter cup of peanuts or pecans is over 200 calories. A craving for nuts is a clear sign you’re body needs essential fatty acids (or protein if you’re vegan or vegetarian). EFAs are essential to all of the cells in your body. Here we’re going to suggest just watching the amount you eat. For almonds, it’s recommended that you eat only 24 a day. Maybe post a reminder on the inside or your snack pantry (we all have one). Also, switch to unsalted and raw, you might be craving salt. You could also try taking an Omega 3 supplement.
When you find yourself craving chalk, it could mean that your body is lacking in calcium. Chalk is basically made up of calcium carbonate, so it makes sense that our bodies would crave it. Look for food replacements rich in calcium, like dairy products, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Lots of plant-based milk are now also calcium-fortified. You can also take a calcium supplement to make sure you’re getting enough of the mineral.
We should all know by now that caffeine can be addictive. One reason is that coffee contains dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and motivation. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward, so drinking coffee may make people feel good. Craving coffee can also mean that you have low levels of iron (iron-deficient anemia) and may be struggling with fatigue in general. Coffee might give you a quick “pick-me-up,” but the natural compounds called tannins actually inhibit iron absorption and could be making your condition worse. There isn’t an easy replacement for caffeine cravings. Deep down, you really have to want a life with less caffeine. This could mean switching up your morning routine to not drinking coffee right away or substituting it with decaf, green tea, mocha, or mushroom.
Carbs (after a long day at work)
People crave carbohydrates and magnesium at the end of a busy day to calm their nerves. You might also crave carbs if you resistance train on a regular (to restore glycogen.) Take magnesium right before you leave work so you won’t attack the junk food and tortilla chips when you walk through the door, eat every 3 hours, and look to satisfy your cravings with healthy carbohydrates.
Fish and tuna
If you’re craving fish, your body is probably looking for a source of omega-3 fatty acids. If you can find some mercury-free or sustainably sourced tuna, go for it. If you can’t, try an omega-3 fish oil supplement. You should also make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, as this can help the body to absorb omega-3s.
If you find yourself snacking on celery more often than usual, it might be a sign that your body is lacking in sodium. Celery is a good source of sodium, so eating it can help to replenish levels of this mineral. You could also try eating other sodium-rich foods, such as olives, pickles, and salty snacks. If you’re still craving celery after eating these foods, it might be a good idea to see a doctor, as you could be suffering from a medical condition that causes sodium cravings.
If you find yourself eating ice or chewing on ice cubes, it could be a sign that you’re deficient in iron. Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. So, if you’re not getting enough iron, you might start to feel tired and weak. If you think you might be iron deficient, see a doctor for a blood test. You can also try eating foods that are high in iron, such as red meat, dark leafy greens, beans, and fortified cereals. Chewing on ice can also damage your teeth, so it’s best to avoid this habit if possible.
If you’re craving meat, your body might be telling you that it needs more protein. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of tissues, so it’s important to make sure that you’re getting enough of it in your diet. Look for other ways to get protein, like eggs, tofu, beans, and nuts. You can also try eating leaner cuts of meat to satisfy your craving.
Change it up for better results
It might seem basic, but to really beat the cravings you need to view the food or drink you crave in a new way and reach for alternatives to change it up. Current studies show that the more you give in to a craving, the more likely you are to experience that same craving. If your goal is to reduce your cravings, start by reducing your consumption of that specific, craved food. Then, try one of the above healthier alternatives to combat particularly strong cravings. Remember, cravings are often just a sign that something is missing from your diet – so use them as an opportunity to improve your eating habits and overall health!