It’s 11:00 p.m. and you suddenly have an uncontrollable urge to rip open a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips or dig into a pint of chocolate ice cream. You want it so badly that you’d even be willing to venture to the grocery in your sheep-print pajamas without thinking twice. Does this scenario sound familiar? If so, consider the fact that your body’s strong food cravings may be trying to tell you something. In fact, these cravings can be a sign of a mineral deficiency, a calorie deficit, or can even be impacted by your lifestyle. Here are four common cravings, some insight into what they may be saying about your health, and healthier ways to kick your cravings to the curb.
Sweet-a-holic. If you’re sugar-crazed, it’s usually because your body is trying to increase serotonin levels, a feel-good chemical in your brain. When you eat foods rich in carbohydrates, like chocolate, ice cream, and other types of candy, it gives your brain a boost in serotonin and lifts your mood. Cravings for sweets can also stem from a need to boost energy levels. When you’re running on empty, it makes sense that your brain would crave the type of energy that will lead to a quick pick-me-up, like sugar. This is also why you might find yourself craving sweets at around 4:00 p.m. during the work day or late at night when you’re tired. If you’re the type of person who ‘forgets to eat’, your body may also trigger a need for sweets since excessive hunger can lead to drops in blood sugar. When you don’t take in enough calories, your body tries to get you to take in food to prevent starvation/fuel energy stores.
A healthy way to kick this craving: Boost serotonin naturally by eating fresh fruit like bananas or even making a healthy, sweet smoothie with fresh fruit, low fat yogurt, and a dash of cocoa powder.
Meat maniacs. If you can’t seem to get juicy burgers and steaks off of your mind, you could actually be low in iron. Red meat is a fantastic source of dietary iron, and when your body starts to become deficient in this essential nutrient, it can trigger cravings for foods rich in iron which will help boost your intake.
A healthy way to kick this craving: Although some red meat is fine to have once in a while, plant-based foods such as beans and legumes, as well as leaner animal proteins like eggs and poultry, are also great sources of iron that can raise your levels and calm cravings without an excessive intake of saturated fat and calories.
Salt lover. If you daydream about snacking on pretzels and potato chips and can’t imagine your life without a salt shaker, you could actually have a mineral deficiency. Research has found that women who had a low dietary intake of calcium actually craved salty foods. An increased intake in dietary sodium can temporarily boost calcium levels in the blood which tricks your body into thinking you have enough of this essential nutrient. Women dealing with PMS may also experience low levels of calcium, which could increase cravings for foods that contain it (like salted caramel ice cream!). But that’s not the only cause of salty cravings. If you’re very physically active and sweat a lot, you lose both water and electrolytes including sodium. If you only rehydrate with water, you’re not replacing the sodium that you’ve lost, which can trigger your body to crave it.
A healthy way to kick this craving: If you’ve just completed a tough workout, reach for an electrolyte-rich beverage such as coconut water to rehydrate and prevent late day cravings.
You like it hot! If you add hot sauce to everything and your mouth waters over spicy foods, it may be that your body is actually trying to cool down. Although it sounds like an oxymoron, you may crave spicy foods as a way to make your body perspire which in turn cools you off. In addition, some people get hooked on the rush of eating spicy foods. Hot foods can increase your heart rate, boost circulation, and even increase the rate in which you breathe—a feeling that you may seek out once you’ve gotten used to it from eating spicy foods in the past.
A healthy way to kick this craving: The good news is that spicy foods like hot peppers are healthy for you so feel free to heat things up. Just make sure that the spicy food you’re indulging in is baked, broiled, or lightly stir-fried and not deep fried.
Whatever your food cravings may be, if you feel that they’re overpowering you, start keeping a food journal. Record everything you eat and drink. Jot down your cravings, the times you experience them, and what you’re doing when bad foods are calling your name. This can help you understand what’s leading to these cravings so you can gain better control over them.
About Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE.