Nutrition Articles

Master the Munchies: What 8 Common Cravings Say About You

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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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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.