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What Your Cravings Might Be Trying to Tell You

Author: Jamie Stephens, NTP

Why do we have cravings?

Cravings. We all have them. But why?

It’s actually not fully clear and there is still much debate as to whether cravings are psychological, emotional, or possibly physical in nature. Most likely, they’re a combination of them all.

Many cravings seem to be rooted in emotions, nostalgia, or routines.  Ever notice that you get a craving for popcorn and a cold beverage when it’s time for a movie?  It’s a routine that we’ve been conditioned with since we were kids. Do you have cravings for a sweet treat in the evening to end your day?  You probably grew up accustomed to having dessert after dinner. Maybe as a child whenever there was an emotional upset the adults in your life tried to help calm you down with a particular treat and now there is a connection between that food and those emotions that send you seeking it for comfort.  When you did well in school or sports was there a pizza party or ice cream for your reward? Do you still reward yourself for your accomplishments with these foods now? Recognizing these patterns and calling them out is the first step to conquering these cravings rooted in emotions, routine, or nostalgia.

Sugar, salt, and fat, oh my!

Beyond emotional and psychological cravings there are those other cravings that seem to be from a physiological need, hunger or just something you can’t quite put your finger on.  The most common cravings fall into one of three groups, sugary, salty, or high-fat foods. Which one of these do you find yourself craving the most? Take note of when you seem to find yourself craving those foods and let’s explore what science says and current theories about why you might be having these cravings.

Sweets and blood sugar

Sugar and carbs are probably the most common cravings people experience hence why you hear the term sugar addicts or carboholics more so than fat and salt.  One reason you could be craving something sweet is low blood sugar.  Mid morning is a typical time people will have that first blood sugar drop.  If you eat a balanced breakfast, your blood sugar should remain balanced and it will fuel you for several hours, possibly all the way until lunch.  However when we start our day with refined carbohydrates or something sugary our blood sugar initially spikes followed by a mid morning crash around 10am.  The same is true for skipping breakfast or only having  a coffee. When this crash happens our body is crying out for a quick source of energy.  The quickest source carbohydrates to raise blood sugar levels is sugar.  This could be one reason we instinctively crave sugar at this time.  The problem here is that you’ll continue on this blood sugar rollercoaster of crashing then craving a sugary pick me up, resulting in Hypoglycemia symptoms that can lead to more health issues.  It’s best to stick to balanced meals and avoid skipping meals for this reason.  

Sugar cravings and mineral deficiencies

In the world of holistic health, sugar cravings are considered an indication of a mineral  deficiency such as chromium or magnesium. A recent study suggests chromium impacts the  neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of eating behavior, mood, and food cravings. Though still a theory, most vitamin shops stock chromium in the blood sugar support section and generally recommend it for curbing sugar cravings due to blood sugar imbalances.  Another common claim is that chocolate cravings are a sign of magnesium deficiency. Dark chocolate is known to have high amount of magnesium and this could be a valid theory as it is very common among american women to have chocolate cravings around there monthly cycle when magnesium levels drop at the beginning of the follicular phase.  Test out this theory by adding some extra green leafy vegetables to your diet prior to your monthly or try taking extra magnesium. *Note-Always discuss possible supplement drug interactions with your doctor or pharmacist if taking any medication.

Sweet cravings and thirst

Another interesting hypothesis is that sugar cravings may actually be a sign of dehydration.  The idea is that our body is looking for glucose, the primary source of fuel our cells use.  Water is actually needed to transport glucose into the cells and when we lack fluids the production of energy is hindered triggering sugar cravings.  Try drinking water next time you have a sweet craving, it just may help. Check out Noom’s Are Your Drinking Enough Water? for more information on proper hydration.

Low energy and carb cravings

Still another possible explanation is lack of sleep causes additional needs for energy and the body relies on carbohydrates as its main source of energy.  In most cases the closest sweetest treat will do the trick which explains the sugar cravings. Take note if you find yourself craving more carbohydrates, especially sweets when your running on low sleep after an all nighter!  Getting 8 hours of sleep never hurt anyone, so try to catch some more zzz’s and check out How Does Sleep Impact Weight Loss?

Hormones and carb cravings

Hormones get blamed for everything but with sugar or carb cravings they just might deserve it.  The neurotransmitter Serotonin which also acts as a hormone is known as our happy feel good hormone.  During the winter months we make less serotonin from sunlight and if we aren’t getting enough foods high in the amino acid L-Tryphtophan the precursor to serotonin, we could  find ourselves feeling the effects of seasonal affective disorder.  One would think that cravings would be for tryptophan rich foods, however research actually shows carbohydrates and sugar help release the bound tryptophan into the brain.  This same process happens during a woman’s menstrual cycle during the irritable premenstrual phase when her estrogen levels drop.  At this time her serotonin levels drop as well and it’s not uncommon for all kinds of sweet and carbohydrate cravings to occur.  This could possibly be the body trying to come back into a hormonal balance by lifting serotonin levels. Next time you’re dealing with the winter blues or a case of bad pms, try some mood boosting foods or possibly some 5-htp or L-tryptophan supplements when the sweet cravings kick in.  *Note: Always discuss possible supplement drug interactions with your doctor or pharmacist if taking any medication.

Salty food cravings

Another common craving people have are for salty foods.  Have you noticed an increase desire for chips, popcorn or french fries during times of stress or depleted sleep?  It could be your body trying to compensate for an increased need for sodium. Stress is actually thought to impair the adrenal gland and research shows that prolonged stress increases the stress hormone cortisol. Over time increased cortisol output can lead to adrenal insufficiency.  Another hormone that the adrenals make is aldosterone which regulates our bodies fluid balance of sodium and potassium.  When adrenal glands are over taxed from stress, the aldosterone output is impacted as well as the ability to regulate sodium which could cause salt cravings in attempt to increase sodium.  

Exercise, heat, sweat, and salt

Another consideration for salt cravings is when a person loses too much sodium through sweating from intense sports or heat.  One study showed that people who work in hot conditions for 10 hours can lose up to 15 grams of salt.  When sodium levels are depleted our bodies will begin to crave salt to bring the body’s electrolyte balance back into homeostasis.  Even thirst during this time could be an indicator of electrolyte imbalances from loss of sodium. Consider adding more electrolytes in if you are feeling salt cravings during the summer heat or after a long run.  Read more on this here – Your Guide: Electrolytes 101.

Evolution and fatty foods

Lastly there are fatty food cravings where the body seems to be craving more fat.  Fats are known to make food more palatable and one hypothesis claims fat cravings have to do with our taste buds being hard wired with evolutionary desire for high caloric energy dense foods that will ensure survival.  Though this is not a proven theory it is plausible that cravings could arise from the human body being programed to crave fats considering that the body does need essential fatty acids.

Vitamin and essential fatty acid deficiencies

Among alternative nutrition experts, cravings for fatty foods are theorized to be a nutrient deficiency in essential fatty acids or fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, K.  Currently this theory has no researched support, but it wouldn’t hurt to try swapping that fatty food craving for some healthy fats in your diet such as nuts, seeds, oils and cold water fish.  Some added omega 3’s just might do the trick, otherwise you will still reap some great heart and brain health benefits.

High-fat food and mood

Still others speculate that our bodies instinctively crave fat for soothing the nerves as many fatty foods also contain the amino acid L-tryptophan which is needed to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being.  Research shows that low serotonin levels contributes to a lowered mood state, cognitive impairment, and increased anxiety.  This could be the body looking to regulate mood or stress through food.

High-fat food cravings and hangovers

Finally there’s those obvious fatty food cravings that come after an evening of drinking too much.  Something about fatty greasy food seems like it will magically fix everything so you wake up refreshed with no hangover.  Next stop is your favorite fast food joint where you indulge guilt free in a greasy food you normally wouldn’t touch. Why is it that our body seems to feel that this will lessen the impact of alcohol?  Research actually show that consumption of alcohol produces galanin a neuropeptide that increases the appetite for fat.  Though it’s going to be difficult to make good decisions after an evening bender, opting for Noom approved healthy fat foods would be your best bet!

Conquer your cravings

Next time you have a craving, try and figure out where the craving is coming from.  Is it emotional, nostalgic psychological, or physical. Do you typically have sugar, salt or fat cravings?  Identify patterns and write them down. Once you have begun to understand your cravings it will be easier to understand them and have a better understanding of your triggers. Check out How to Manage Night Time Cravings for ideas on bringing mindfulness and intention to your behaviors.

And remember, when you embrace Noom’s philosophy that all foods fit in moderation, you don’t need to conquer them, you can honor them!