We’ve all been there: It’s 4:30 p.m. and out of nowhere it hits you; a craving for a bag of chips or a candy bar. Surveys estimate almost 100% of women and nearly 70% of men report having experienced cravings — or intense desire for a specific type of food — during the past year.
“A craving is a signal from your body telling you that something is needed,” says Michele Sidorenkov, RDN. To suppress that craving, you can do one of two things: give in to it or find an alternative distraction like phoning a friend or taking a walk.
Here, a look at six common food cravings and what they could really mean:
Sodium (aka salt) is an essential electrolyte for many vital functions in the body — like helping your heart beat. “The body craves salt because, in the wild, it’s pretty rare to find foraged sources of sodium,” says Sidorenkov. When you find salt, “the body is wired to light up and signal that you should eat more because it’s so vital to survival.” However, too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure and other heart issues, which is why the Daily Recommended Value (DRV) is 2,300 milligrams.
The fix: To start, it’s a good idea to keep a food journal to track intake. Avoid turning to processed foods, which are often loaded with excess sodium and contain fewer nutrients,” says Sidorenkov. Instead, you can get sodium from healthy, whole foods like beets (which also contain powerful antioxidants) and leafy greens like spinach and chard (which are also rich in iron and vitamin K).
You’ve probably heard of the amino acid tryptophan — found in turkey, “it produces melatonin and serotonin to help you feel relaxed and sleepy,” says Hickey. That’s why many people feel tired after Thanksgiving dinner. But tryptophan isn’t limited to turkey, “it’s also found in high-fat dairy products,” notes Hickey.
The fix: Instead of having that late-night cup of ice cream, try to get into bed an hour earlier — quality sleep has been shown to help fuel weight loss and improve overall health. Or opt for an afternoon power nap that lasts 20–30 minutes. In addition to helping reduce stress and cravings, research shows naps can help you be more alert, improve immune function and boost your mood.
“Healthy fats are essential for survival because they’re a reserve fuel for the brain,” explains Sidorenkov. “If your diet is low in another macronutrient like carbs, you may be more drawn toward fats for sustenance and energy.”
What’s more, it’s a myth that eating fat makes you fat. In fact, certain types of oily fish like salmon are rich in omega-3 fats, which help protect the health of the brain and nervous system. These types of fish have also been shown to help with weight loss and are popular on the Mediterranean diet, a heart-healthy way of eating that includes all of the food groups.
The fix: Fat helps you feel full, but because it provides more calories than carbs and protein, you need to be mindful of how much you eat. For example, a healthy portion is 1/4 avocado or 1 ounce of nuts. Aim to consume about 20–35% of your total calories from healthy fats.
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily, which equates to about 350 extra empty calories. Sweets like muffins and cookies can provide a temporary calming feeling because the sugar triggers a quick hit of dopamine aka the ‘feel-good’ hormone. However, processed foods like packaged sweets can lead to blood sugar crashes and feeling sluggish shortly after consuming them.
The fix: “With proper planning and preparation, including sweets in your diet in moderation can serve both a comforting and nutritious purpose,” says Alana Kessler, RD. However, there are smart ways to satisfy your sweet tooth that won’t result in negative impacts of sugar consumption, like chronic inflammation. Rather than reach for processed options, opt for naturally sweet foods, including apples, berries, carrots and beets. These foods include gut-friendly fiber, which helps the sugar get absorbed into your bloodstream slowly, avoiding the vicious cycle of a sugar high and crash that leaves you craving more sugar.
If you find yourself regularly craving sweets, it’s a great opportunity to look deeper and figure out if you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Try combatting stress eating with positive coping mechanisms like going for a walk, taking a hot bath or calling a friend. Another helpful tool is prioritizing quality sleep, since changes in circadian rhythm (like sleep deprivation) can cause you to reach for sugary foods.
“Spicy food cravings are a sign that you may need to spice up your life to prevent food burnout,” says Kessler. “It’s easy for us to get complacent in our everyday routine where we eat the same things, take the same route to work and read the same type of information.” Previous research shows picky eaters have lower levels of essential nutrients, so craving spicy foods like salsa could be your body signaling it requests more variety.
The fix: If you’re craving spicy foods or cuisines you might not normally experience, you might want to take a look at your daily lifestyle and see if you’re always eating the same (perhaps bland) foods. Ask yourself how you can diversify your diet, whether that’s searching for a new recipe or experimenting with creating your own spice blends.
“Your hunger and thirst sensations come from the same part of the brain and sometimes the signals can feel similar or get misinterpreted,” says Sidorenkov. This does not mean every time you feel hungry, you should just drink water, but it’s important to be aware that those hunger sensations might actually be the first signs of dehydration. “We equate dehydration with excessive sweating or eating salty foods, but there are many other factors that affect your hydration status,” says Sidorenkov. “We lose water in other less noticeable ways like through dry skin and tiny water droplets in our breath. Just because you haven’t sweat in a while doesn’t mean you aren’t dehydrated.”
The fix: To fight your body’s hunger and dehydration signal confusion, it’s best to make sure you are always staying hydrated. The Institute of Medicine recommends 3.7 liters/day for adult men and 2.7 liters/day for adult women. Drink water throughout the day so when hunger strikes, you won’t have to worry if those feelings are truly hunger or dehydration because you have been diligent about your water intake. You can also track your water intake with an app like MyFitnessPal, and invest in good water bottles that you’ll be excited to use (plus, many will keep beverages cold — or hot — for up to 24 hours.)
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