Nutrition Articles

Master the Munchies: What 8 Common Cravings Say About You

After a long day that started with an 8 a.m. meeting and ended with a fickle client, you'd seriously consider forking over your life savings for a bowl of rocky road. Other days, sudden, but intense, hankerings for potato chips plague your best-laid diet plans. What's behind this cravings roller coaster? Why do some people dream about something salty, while others yearn for sweet?
Cravings are driven more by science than taste. They key to controlling them is understanding where they come from, and finding ways to keep them from sabotaging your healthy intentions.
Cravings & Hunger Are Not Created Equal
According to fitness trainer and author Ben Greenfield, cravings are different than hunger. "Hunger is controlled by the stomach, but cravings are controlled by the brain," he explains. "Hunger is all about your survival mechanism, but cravings are all about your body communicating with you."
Next time you're hit with a sudden hankering, dig a little deeper to find the source. If you're salivating over a fizzy soda, for example, you may have a calcium deficiency that's better satisfied by broccoli, kale, tahini, legumes, turnip greens and other calcium-rich veggies. According to Greenfield, most common cravings have a common cause, which, once identified, can be kept at bay with some slight tweaks.
  • Red Meat: Ready to ditch your healthy lunch and make a beeline for the burger joint? If you're constantly craving red meat, it could be a sign of an iron deficiency. Greenfield suggests beefing up your vitamin C intake to help your body absorb more iron.
  • Chocolate: Chocolate isn't all bad, but if you find yourself distracted during the morning meeting by visions of brownies dancing in your head, there may be something going on beyond a run-of-the-mill sweet tooth. Consistent chocolate cravings can be caused by a lack of magnesium, which can be addressed by introducing a diet rich in whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruit, greens and raw cacao nibs.
  • White bread, pasta and pastries: If foods with refined white flour are your weakness, you could have a chromium deficiency. Rather than overloading on carbs, Greenfield suggests reaching for romaine lettuce, grapes, apples, cinnamon, sweet potatoes, tomatoes or onions.
  • Salty snacks: Before hitting the couch with the bag of chips that's been calling your name, consider whether your salt hankering may be caused by either a chloride deficiency—which can be tempered with celery, tomato, olives, kelp or Himalayan sea salt—or fluctuations in stress hormones. If the latter, try using the all-natural remedies of exercise and meditation, as well as plenty of leafy greens and vitamins B and C.
  • Cheese: There's a place for cheese in every (tolerant) diet, but if you're finding ways to slip it into every meal and most snacks, it may be time to reassess your relationship with the creamy dairy food. Serious cheese cravings can sometimes be triggered by a calcium deficiency, which calls for sesame seeds, tahini, broccoli, legumes, kale and turnip greens. Those who are deficient in essential fatty acids can also have a weakness for cheese; in that case, Greenfield suggests including foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseeds, walnut, flax oil and chia seeds.
  • Bread: If you find yourself loving the loaf a little too much, your brain may be trying to tell you that you need more nitrogen. Beef it up by consuming protein-rich foods like nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and green, leafy veggies.
  • Sweets: If your sweet tooth is controlling you instead of the other way around, you may be suffering from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Instead of reaching for cake and cookies, try curbing the cravings with high-fiber foods like beans and legumes, fresh fruit, whole grains or cinnamon. Other possible triggers can include deficiencies in chromium, sulphur, phosphorus or tryptophan.
  • Coffee: Java gets a bad rap, but that morning cup of joe could actually provide a health boost—in moderation, of course. If you find that you can't function without a fresh cuppa, the craving may be caused by a sulphur deficiency. Greenfield suggests filling the gap with kale, cabbage, asparagus, garlic, onion or horseradish. Other potential causes of coffee cravings include deficiencies in phosphorus, salt and iron.
If you think you may have one of the above deficiencies, talk to your doctor or dietitian to pinpoint next steps.
6 Tips to Control Cravings (So They Don't Control You)
Even if you know exactly what's causing a craving, it can still be difficult to bypass that office birthday cake in favor of carrot sticks. Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and nutrition expert Toby Amidor offer these tips for standing strong against unhealthy hankerings.  
  1. Take the apple test. "Check in with yourself, and ask yourself if you're really hungry or if the craving stems from something else, like boredom, stress or anxiety," Rumsey says. To differentiate between true hunger and a craving, ask yourself "Would I eat an apple right now?" (Feel free to substitute any fruit or vegetable that you like.) "If the answer is yes, then you have physiological hunger, and [you should] go get an apple to eat," Rumsey says. "If the answer is no, then it's emotional hunger. You're not actually hungry for food, but for something else." In that case, instead of reaching for a snack, reflect on what your mind and body are really craving, whether it's a distraction, stress relief or a social connection, and try to proactively address the situation.
  2. Know your weaknesses. Amidor is what's called a "supertaster," which means she has a heightened sensitivity to flavors. She dislikes bitter foods like coffee and dark chocolate, and is instead drawn to sugary foods like cookies, brownies and donuts. "It’s an inborn trait, and it's up to me to control it," she says. "Today, for example, I was craving ice cream, but instead I grabbed a Greek yogurt frozen bar for 100 calories made by Yasso that helped curb my sweet tooth for much fewer calories, plus it has the same nutritional profile as Greek yogurt, with calcium and protein."
  3. Distract your mouth. Next time a craving strikes, Rumsey suggests chewing a piece of sugar-free gum or brewing a cup of hot tea. "Often when we have a craving, it can be difficult to stop thinking about it," she says. "The act of chewing a piece of gum or drinking a hot beverage can divert your mind from the thought of eating food." As an added benefit, hot beverages can be filling, which can further help to decrease cravings.
  4. Distract your mind. Instead of reaching for chips, cookies or soda, experiment with a non-food diversion. "Try taking a walk around the block, leaving your desk to chat with a co-worker or just grabbing a good book," Rumsey suggests. "These distractions will separate your mind from the food and give you a chance to realize that you aren't actually hungry."
  5. Get plenty of protein and fiber. Assess your diet and make sure you're getting enough protein and fiber in every meal and snack. "These two nutrients help to slow down digestion and keep you feeling fuller longer," says Rumsey. "In contrast, foods high in sugar or refined starch digest quickly and can cause a blood sugar rebound effect, which triggers more sweets cravings."
  6. Substitute a smarter temptation. When a craving simply cannot be denied, outsmart it with a smarter, but still satisfying, indulgence.
Remember, cravings happen to everyone, but with a little understanding and regular check-ins with yourself, you can crush that candy hankering before it crushes your goals.

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Member Comments

  • All in moderation is the key
  • I loved this article. I knew I had deficiencies with some vitamins and minerals but this made me more aware of others that I might be missing. I crave salt - and my blood tests show sodium deficiency - that I know. I'm anemic - that I know. I work with the doctor on these - But some of the other areas were new to me. Thank you.
    More nonsense about "emotional eating!"

    Eeeesh, can we stop with this myth any time soon?!?!?
  • Great article, the apple test works well sine I really do not like apples to begin with lol.
    Another thing I am finding helpful is to cut back on foods that are high in salt and sugar so it does not spike my cravings.

    I find myself a lot more zen about snacks when I avoid over stimulation! Also if needs must I just go ahead and have it, but in a regulated portion, after I have thought about what it means after I have eaten it.
  • I love chips and salty nuts. I lightly salt my food when cooking, but I like lightly salted home cooked food. My blood work has shown for many years I am low in sodium. Every few weeks I get a "sweet" attack. If I eat 4 servings of fruit or a 6 oz. cup of Welchs grape juice to make it go away. But on occasion I've been known to succumb to 2 scoops of ice cream or glutino toaster pastry!
  • Our bodies do "tell" us what we need, I am sure. Any woman who has been pregnant could tell you that. I had specific cravings before each of my children was born and the cravings were healthy food that I usually didn't eat a lot of, citrus fruit, for example.
    If I crave chocolate, I enjoy a little bit of it and I am satisfied. Even salt, which is given a bad rap, is needed in our bodies, more in hot weather. In moderation, we can eat our "craving" and not have to substitute something we don't want to eat.
    It is interesting to see how cravings are giving us a message. I
  • This was a great article. Very helpful. Thank you!!
  • As someone who's been slapped more than a few times for leaving "negative" comments on articles on this site, I'm utterly flummoxed at the people gritching about this article.
    You want science and data? Go pay for a subscription to some actual research journals, and not a free calorie-and-fitne
    ss-tracker web site.
    At any rate: if I had started listening to my mother at an earlier age, I'd have never gotten fat in the first damned place. Growing up, if I said I was hungry, my mom would say "Have an apple. If you don't want an apple, you're not really hungry."
  • Actually no, there's not "a place for cheese in every (tolerant) diet." Those of us who are opposed to hurting animals eschew all dairy products, and many physicians note that dairy is detrimental to health, and contains much less calcium than greens.
  • So we're supposed to understand and respond to our body's hunger signals, but also lie to our bodies with gum, hot tea, apples (enough of which are a sugar issue for diabetics, folks), etc.?
  • I have been having a hard time of it today but this article showed me that my cravings were more emotional and not hunger. I picked up a book and started reading. I'm doing just fine now. Thanks SparkPeople for giving me the tools I need to be successful.
  • Sorry, I have to agree with the others--a whole lot of factoids without science (and even named sources) backing the points made. For example, chocolate has a lot of copper in it, so how do you know that they are craving magnesium and not copper? Or, maybe they just like the flavor of chocolate and so it is their favorite sugar laden treat? Or, it is associated with many happy family memories, so when they are feeling down, they eat it to get that "happy feeling".

    The only way to know if you are craving something because you are low in some vitamin or mineral it contains is to be tested for that vitamin/mineral level.

    One last note--people should know there are TWO iron tests that they should take, especially as they get older. One is the blood serum level (which is the most common), the other is a ferritin level, which measures the blood stored in the tissue. You can have a normal (or even low) iron level on the serum test, but an abnormally high blood level in your tissues, which can be dangerous. And, if you up your iron intake with a high ferritin level, the results could be VERY bad as it could result in organ malfunction. Menstruating women have less of a problem with this as their iron stores are somewhat depleted every month, but post-menopausal women should be checked. How do I know this? Because I have the issue.
  • I think me craving burgers almost all the time is definitely linked to iron deficiency as I usually am anaemic when I try to donate blood but my husband has a lot of iron and wonders why he craves red meat too. I'll check out TracyDT's link.
    I loved the substitutes for all the cravings you mentioned, such healthier alternatives.
  • I do not believe "Himalayan sea salt " is any better for you its just SODIUM CHLORIDE with a FEW trace minerals. Just as bad for you.
  • The entire first part of the article was based on a post on the website of the "fitness trainer and author", Ben Greenfield, cited, but was actually authored by Tanya Maher (http://betterraw
    about-you-chart.html) back in 2011. The correct authorship was noted on the page linked, and should have been included by the author of this article.

    As far as I can tell, there is no actual science backing any of it, and neither Ben Greenfield nor Tanya Maher appear to have any formal training in the field of nutrition. Apparently just having an interest and an opinion and selling some writing is what it takes to be an "expert".

    What this appears to be is a scientific-appear
    ing presentation of somebody's way to get folks to play mind-games with themselves to eat healthier foods instead of the junk foods that they are "craving". If "oh- I want chocolate, so I must be low in magnesium, so I'd better eat kale instead" works for somebody, that's great --- but it really should NOT be presented as being a factual, science-based scenario.

    At least the second part of the article has some credible sources, and is about potentially useful suggestions.

    I am surprised and disappointed that SparkPeople is presenting this article, since it is scientifically unfounded and does not even include correct citation of sources. It would be much improved if they just deleted the first page and left the second.

    My thanks to TRACEYDT for the link to some actual, properly cited science on the subject in her comment.

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.

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