We’ve all been there. Out of nowhere, all we can think about is a plate of nachos and we just can’t rest until we make that delicious daydream a reality. But cravings can sometimes be more than just wanting to veg out on the couch snacking on your favorite treats. Our cravings could actually be a sign that our body is trying to tell us something. They could mean that our body is deficient in something, or – that we need to pay attention to an emotional need not being met.
But how do you know when a craving is more than just wanting a snack?
What is a food craving, and how do you know if you’re experiencing one?
This one may seem a little self explanatory, but there’s actually about 10% of the population who never experience food cravings. While everyone experiences a craving differently, typically a food craving is an overwhelming desire to eat a specific food or type of food, leaving the person feeling like they won’t be able to satisfy their hunger until they give into that craving.
Fun Fact: research shows that most of the time, males crave savory foods, while females gravitate toward sweets.
What Causes Food Cravings?
There are two main types of food cravings that people may experience at any given time:
Selective Food Cravings
Selective food cravings are when you have a craving for a specific type of food. For instance, if I were to start craving Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups simply because they’re my favorite candy bar (although, are they technically considered a bar since they’re cups?)
Nonselective Food Cravings
Nonselective food cravings are when you have the desire to eat anything. These could be caused by hunger, or even thirst. Did you know that our brains can’t differentiate between hunger and thirst? So a lot of times when you think you are hungry or craving something, it’s actually your brain’s way of signaling your body that you’re thirsty. Next time you feel a craving pang hit you, try drinking water and waiting about 15 minutes to see if that craving goes away. If it does, you know your body just needed hydration!
Physical vs. Emotional Cravings
Cravings can be further classified by physical or emotional.
Physical causes of cravings could be due to things like:
- Hormonal imbalances of leptin, serotonin, or ghrelin (hunger and fullness hormones).
- Pregnancy can influence our smell and taste receptors and cause intense (and often “strange”) food cravings.
- PMS causes a change in our estrogen and progesterone levels which may cause an increase in cravings, especially for high carb foods.
- Poor Sleep Quality can interfere with our hormones and may cause us to feel hungry more often than we truly are.
- Highly Processed Foods are often considered to be a culprit to having increased cravings. Have you ever heard that if you eat more sugar, you crave more sugar? Research suggests there may be truth to this, and that eating high-fat or high-sugar foods can cause addiction-like behaviors over time.
Emotional cravings could be caused by things like:
- Stress can increase our body’s level of cortisol, a stress hormone that is linked to increased levels of hunger, cravings, and binge-eating behaviors when elevated.
- Boredom can lead to mindless snacking, especially late at night.
- Mood and personality: research has shown that those with more impulsive-like personalities are more likely to experience high levels of food cravings.
- Opportunity, aka: seeing something on TV that looks good and triggers the desire in your brain to have that item.
Common Food Cravings and What They Could Mean
Craving Salty Foods
If you’re craving something salty, it’s probably just a personal preference that you tend to gravitate toward savory rather than sweet. But, it could also be your body’s way of trying to correct an electrolyte imbalance or dehydration.
There’s also research out that indicates salt triggers a release of dopamine, which causes us to feel good and want to keep coming back for more.
If you’ve just finished some intense exercise, it may be your body’s way of saying hey.. things are now off a little. Instead of slamming the popcorn (my personal choice), or pretzels, try eating a banana to correct electrolyte imbalances.
Craving Sweet Foods
There’s no denying we’ve all experienced a little sugar rush before, and sometimes no other snack will do unless it’s a box of Mike and Ikes (again, my personal choice). But craving something sweet could be a sign that your blood sugar is low. Sugar and carbohydrates are the most efficient means of providing our bodies with energy, so when those energy stores are low, we may find ourselves craving something sweet to help give us that boost we didn’t know we needed.
The problem with this, is if you reach for simple sugars (cakes, cookies, candies, etc.), you could cause your blood sugar to spike, then crash, then create another craving. See how craving sugar can turn into a never ending cycle?
If you do find yourself eating something sweet, try to pair it with a protein or as part of a meal to slow down the digestion and avoid those quick sugar spikes.
Check out these easy recipes for overnight oats: the perfect healthy combination of something sweet + a longer acting source of carbohydrate-provided energy.
Did you know that chocolate is the most frequently craved food in the United States? And that it’s most often craved by women? According to the Journal of Nutrition, researchers have found a link between chocolate and self-medication for deficiencies such as magnesium. When women are experiencing their menstrual cycle, we often lose magnesium, causing our serotonin levels to decrease and cravings to soar.
There’s also a theory that if we’re craving chocolate it means we’re craving love and attention. Is your love bucket full, or is it empty? I guess the answer is clear: find someone who fills your heart, and your snack drawer.
Craving Bread + Carbs
If you’ve cut bread out of your diet because you hopped on the gluten-free bandwagon, you could find yourself craving bread simply because you’re not allowing yourself to have any.
Or, craving bread could be a sign that you’re low in tryptophan, which is an amino acid responsible for regulating our serotonin levels (which in turn is responsible for regulating our mood and sleep). Bread and carbs can help our bodies absorb trypotphan, so when we cut bread or carbs from our diet, we may notice a change pretty darn quick.
If you’re able to have gluten, it’s worth keeping bread in your diet at least occasionally. Other ways to get tryptophan include eating a diet high in protein (think eggs, fish, dairy, etc).
Craving Fried Food
Craving fried food might simply just be a way of your body telling you that your current diet is too restrictive. When we cut out fat and our favorite foods from our diet, it’s common to feel a desire to eat more of that food. Instead of cutting out all your favorites, learn how to find balance between what you love, and eating a healthy diet.
Craving Red Meat
If you find yourself craving a juicy burger or a steak, you could actually be deficient in iron. A true iron deficiency can actually slow your metabolism, so paying attention to this craving is important! Opt for grass fed quality beef when you’re able to, and when you can cook at home you’re more likely to make a healthier meal than taking your chances with how it’s prepared at a restaurant (think added oils, butters, etc). You can also increase your iron by adding dark leafy greens to your diet.
A soda craving could actually just be a habit. If you’re used to reaching for that bottle of fizz, your body can get into the routine of wanting a soda at the same time every day. It could also be a way of your body saying it needs/wants sugar and/or caffeine.
Green tea is a great way to still get a little caffeine without all the added sugar or chemicals of a soda. Or, if soda is something you’re not willing to give up, try and slowly decreasing the amount you drink each day. Instead of having 6 sodas per day, try cutting it in half and reaching for water the other three times.
Craving Non-Food Items
If you find yourself frequently craving non-food items, then it’s definitely your body’s way of telling you that you have some sort of deficiency. Craving a non-food item is called pica, and it’s extremely common in children and during pregnancy.
Common cravings are ice, dirt, and even laundry detergent. Although the exact cause of pica has yet to be determined, research has found that for most people experiencing pica, they have low levels of iron, calcium, or zinc. If you feel you often have non-food related cravings, it would definitely be worth a call to your healthcare practitioner.
Sometimes, a craving is just a craving. But if it’s something that keeps coming back time and time again, it may be worth looking at a little deeper and uncovering the underlying cause. What are you typical go-to foods that you crave?