Listen to Your Bod! Here's What Your Cravings Are Trying to Tell You
It’s a feeling we can all relate to — 3pm rolls around and suddenly you’d do anything for a warm, big-as-your-face chocolate chip cookie (or perhaps a heap of greasy, salty French fries — your move). Food cravings can come on strong, seemingly out of nowhere. According to Stephanie Middleberg, a registered dietician and founder of NYC-based wellness practice Middleberg Nutrition, unhealthy food cravings are a totally normal — albeit outdated — part of our evolutionary biology. “We were wired to desire sweetness from the start as breast milk is rather sweet and made up of carbohydrates, fat and proteins,” she explains. “Cravings might have made sense in times of scarcity, but now work against us in the fast-food era.”
Here’s the fascinating thing about our bodies: they’re incredibly smart, and they ask for what they need. When you’re yearning for something sweet or salty, chocolatey, greasy or carb-loaded, it’s likely your body is sending you a signal that it’s low in some essential nutrient. Learn to decode this hidden language and you’ll be one step ahead of your next craving.
It’s worth noting that cravings are often rooted in our emotions. Studies have shown that we crave certain (typically not-so-healthy) foods when we feel anxious, frustrated, sad or even bored. Middleberg points out that cravings can be related to hormones, lack of sleep, diet imbalances or simply habit (after all, she adds, “desserts is stressed spelled backwards”). So the next time an intense craving hits, consider trying some other mood-boosting tactics before giving in.
- Go for a walk and take in some fresh air
- Get your heart pumping at the gym
- Shift your focus by getting lost in a great book or favorite TV show
- Always drink a big glass of water first — hunger is often dehydration in disguise
If you’re craving: CHOCOLATE
You need: MAGNESIUM
Chocolate is arguably the great equalizer of food cravings. Lamenting your desire for chocolate will unfailingly elicit knowing looks of commiseration from anyone within earshot. But a hankering for a Hershey’s bar may in fact signal a magnesium deficiency, something Middleberg says is common among women (which may explain the PMS/chocolate craving connection). This crucial macromineral is involved with hundreds of biochemical reactions in your body, affecting everything from your cardiovascular health to your hormone balance. It’s particularly important to processes related to relaxation, which may partially explain why chocolate seems to help — aside from the magnesium content in cacao, we’ve become trained to associate chocolate with mood-improving indulgence. Even if you’re getting enough magnesium through your diet, you might be sabotaging your levels by consuming caffeine and alcohol, which interfere with your body’s ability to absorb it. Add that to a stressful day at the office and you’ll be scavenging the nearest candy dish by lunchtime.
What to eat: Lots of our favorite plant-based foods are rich in magnesium. Reach for dark, leafy greens, avocado, beans and dried fruit to load up, and look to yellow foods in particular (like squash and bananas). Simply must have some chocolate? Sprinkle some raw dark cacao nibs on yogurt for a sweet kick with antioxidant powers.
You’re craving: CARBS
You need: TRYPTOPHAN
Remember what we said about emotional eating? Carbs are America’s Most Wanted in these instances. Feeling blue (or anxious, or stressed or otherwise less than fantastic) is a sign that our serotonin—the brain chemical that levels out our moods and makes us feel happy, calm and content—is low. And in order to make serotonin, we need carbs. This is why we often crave starchy, sweet snacks when we’re stressed or sad—what we’re really after is a serotonin boost. And if we’re watching what we eat, or restricting ourselves in order to shed pounds, our carb cravings are all the more intense. Fortunately, we can get the mood-stabilizing effect we want without scarfing a whole sleeve of cookies. We’re talking, in this case, about the protein-building amino acid tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in your brain.
What to eat: Sweet potato, spinach, nuts, seeds, beans, eggs, and fish all offer mood-boosting tryptophan. Low glycemic index carbs, like berries and brown rice, are another good way to get a serotonin fix without a blood sugar crash later on.
You’re craving: SWEETS
You need: CHROMIUM, SULPHUR, PHOSPHORUS, CARBON
Middleberg attests that sugar is one of the most commonly craved foods, and no wonder—it “could elicit a neurological response similar to that of cocaine and heroin.” Yikes. Sugar is also an insidious little beast, sneaking into all kinds of unlikely places (which is why avoiding heavily processed foods is wise) and eating it creates a vicious cycle. That’s right — when you consume sugar, you don’t “solve” your sugar craving; instead, you kick your sweet tooth into high gear. Eating sugar begets desire for more sugar. Aside from weaning yourself off the stuff, which will slowly but surely reduce your mad desire for it, you can heed your body’s call for sweetness by feeding it what it really wants: chromium (which helps regulate blood sugar), sulphur, phosphorus (an energy-producer) and carbon. These five nutrients play varying roles in your body, among them helping to regulate blood sugar and energy levels. Heads up: a craving for sweets may also simply signal that you’re feeling sluggish, since your body knows it can absorb the refined sugars in sweet treats quickly for an immediate energy boost.
What to eat: Rather than tearing open a candy bar, opt for fresh fruit—it still tastes sweet, and provides the carbon your body needs. Try a smoothie with some kale to get an added dose of sulphur. A handful of raw nuts offers phosphorus (plus protein for clean energy), while you can get chromium from broccoli.
You’re craving: GREASY FOOD
You need: ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS, CALCIUM
The smell of food deep-frying is intoxicating enough to send most people heading to the nearest drive-thru in a French-fry-inspired fugue state. We crave fast food in part because it’s engineered to make us want it, but if you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is an oily, fatty meal, it may simply be that you need the right kind of fat in your diet. A lack of essential fatty acids is common among Americans, since a lot of our fat intake comes from low-quality, refined oils like sunflower, corn and soy. It’s also possible your body is asking for saturated fats because it really needs calcium—the former is necessary for the absorption of the latter.
What to eat: Organic dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, are the obvious choice for calcium, but you can also find it in dark, leafy greens like kale and collards, as well as okra, broccoli, white beans, oranges and figs. Look to avocados, nut butter, fish, chia seeds, flax and coconut oil for satisfying fats full of essential omegas.
You’re craving: SALTY FOOD
You need: HYDRATION, MINERALS, B VITAMINS
The reality is, you’re probably eating plenty of salt — in fact, too much. The average American eats more than twice as much salt as is recommended by the CDC. Craving salt can be a side effect of a diet full of highly processed foods, since salt is like sugar in that it’s often lurking in unexpected places (i.e. things that don’t even taste salty). So if you eat a lot of food that comes in a box or a bag, you’re probably consuming too much salt, even if it doesn’t seem like it. And if your excessive salt consumption has dulled your sensitivity to salt, you may crave it more. The simple solution? Cut back on processed snacks in favor of whole foods. Of course, it’s also possible that you’re dehydrated. In addition to providing essential minerals, salt keeps our electrolytes in check. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, and up your intake when it’s hot or when you’re exercising heavily. It may also be stress that has you reaching for the potato chips. Research suggests salt may slow down the release of stress hormones released by your adrenal glands.
What to eat: If stress is indeed the culprit, quell anxious feelings with B vitamins, found in avocado, nuts, seeds, legumes, nutritional yeast and whole grains. Himalayan sea salt is a great alternative to traditional table salt, since it’s full of trace minerals your body needs. For even more must-have minerals, up your intake of sea veggies like nori and kelp.
All this sheds some new light on the concept of listening to your body — or perhaps, listening to your body more closely and forging new habits that encourage genuine intuitive eating. Tuning into your inherent body intelligence starts with sorting through the convoluted labyrinth of emotions, dietary customs and bodily chemical reactions that contribute to our various food behaviors, but it also means banishing guilt and deprivation—key milestones on the path to achieving balance. Put another way, sometimes a craving for chocolate won’t be sated by a kale salad. Take it from the professional: Middleberg recommends her clients have a “splurge item” once a week, with the only stipulation being that they must have it in public. “It’s important to have a mindful splurge, plate it, savor it and enjoy it,” she states. “There is less shame and guilt when you do it mindfully.” So once in a while, have the chocolate. Make it the best quality, most perfect piece of chocolate you can get your hands on. Stop what you’re doing and fully embody the experience of enjoying that chocolate. Savor its smooth texture and seek its complex notes of flavor. Nourish your whole self. Life’s too short not to.
*Sad Series image by Lianna Tarantin