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 three 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.