If exercise is our superpower, cravings are our kryptonite. The body wants what the body wants…or does it? Sometimes, when your body craves sweet or salty foods it’s really craving the pleasurable response that comes from eating a certain food. Other times it’s craving a chemical or additive in the food. And still, other times, your body may be trying to tell you something.
“When someone has a craving the first thing we discuss is if they are really hungry: is it food they are craving or is it something else,” says registered dietitian Mary Jane Detroyer.
Is that craving worth indulging? Let’s dig in.
We can’t blame you on this one; chocolate is delicious. As long as you’re sticking to dark chocolate, which contains less sugar than milk and white varieties, it’s not an awful snack splurge. But the taste isn’t necessarily what you’re craving when you want chocolate.
A chocolate craving may be your body’s way of asking for more magnesium. You could also be deficient in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Happiness and chocolate go hand-in-hand.
Another possibility? The way you were raised. “Many women in this country crave chocolate when their hormones are fluctuating around menstrual cycles. Women in Spain have the same hormonal fluctuations but do not crave chocolate at that time,” says Detroyer. “There are most probably cultural, or other factors, that result in this difference.”
Feel free to indulge in dark chocolate when you get the urge. As long as you stick to varieties that contain 75 percent cocoa or more.
Carbs on your mind?
We usually start craving carbohydrates when we’re feeling down—either depressed or low energy. When you eat carbs, your body makes more serotonin and your blood sugar spikes. So, cravings are your body’s way of asking for more of those good feels.
Carbs aren’t inherently bad; it’s fuel for our bodies. But portion control is still crucial. If you want some pasta, go for it—just be mindful of how much and how often you’re eating. Stick to complex carbs, such as whole grains and sweet potatoes.
Where’s that burger?
Sometimes you just need a steak. And, hey, sometimes it’s just that: you really want some expertly cooked meat. If a burger doesn’t satisfy your craving, your body could be trying to tell you something.
You might not be getting enough protein, especially if you’re lifting a lot or sticking to a vegan diet. For the most part though, Americans get plenty of protein. If you’re vegan and start consistently craving protein, it would be a good idea to talk to a dietician about what vitamins and minerals your diet may be missing.
Red meat cravings can also mean that you’re low on iron. This could be diet or hormone related. In fact, iron deficiency can pop up in women of menstruating age. If you think you fall into this camp, try upping your intake of iron-rich foods, such as leafy greens, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. Don’t take an iron supplement without the supervision of a doctor.
Must have cheese?
Cheese is another tricky one, because, like sugar and carbohydrates, it releases pleasurable chemicals. Casomorphins, a part of cheese’s protein structure, attaches to the same brain receptors as heroin. So, every time you eat cheese, your body is given a little dose of dopamine—and it will want more.
You might also not be getting enough calcium, vitamin D, or fat. If a few slices of cheddar or some good brie don’t curb your cravings, talk to a dietitian to see what’s up.
Need something salty?
Pick your poison: popcorn, chips, or Chinese food. There are days when you just want some sodium. Salt’s a tricky craving because our bodies are designed to want it. Since sodium wasn’t always so readily available, we are programmed to crave salt. Nowadays, though, we ingest more than enough.
If you eat mostly whole, fresh foods, there’s a chance that you’re not getting enough sodium. Athletes will need to pay more attention to their salt intake, as well, so they don’t get dehydrated during intense workouts. Keep track of what you’re putting on your food and in your body. You might need to be conscientious about adding salt or extra electrolytes to your diet.
On the other hand, you could be getting too much salt out of habit. Try weaning your body off by slowly reducing the amount of salt in your diet. Although you’ll probably have cravings along the way, your body will regulate naturally.
Just want it ALL?
If you can’t stop craving, well, everything, you might simply not be eating enough. If you’ve recently cut a lot of calories or increased your physical activity, you might just need to eat more. Our bodies need fuel.