Cravings: What Do They Mean and How Can You Beat Them?

Is it food or something more?

Written by Laura Bauer

We all have cravings but what are they exactly? According to Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition, “Cravings are largely psychological or emotional in the absence of malnutrition. This isn’t to say they aren’t ‘real.’ You feel them very intensely, but it’s important to dissect the causes and stimuli and honor them with intention and truth.” Cravings are largely psychological and can’t always be trusted. Moreno gives an example of how social media can play a role in our urges for certain foods. “If you just had lunch and you’re scrolling through an Instagram feed and see a post about a local restaurant’s ice cream sundae, obviously that’s a triggering stimulus and you aren’t really hungry.”

Dr. Robyn Odegaard, the co-founder of The Whole Food Muscle Club, shares a few common tips for cravings:

What causes cravings?

  • Lack of sleep – If you aren’t getting enough quality shut-eye, your body is going to be looking for quick-fix energy. Nothing works better for that than fat, sugar, and salt. Throw in some caffeine and you can continue to ignore the call of your bed. Study after study shows that most adults are sleep deprived. It is highly unlikely that you are an exception.
  • Lack of nutrients – The standard American diet that most people eat doesn’t have nearly enough nutrients in it. Your cells could be starving. Your evolution says, “Find something calorie dense” because it makes the mistake of assuming that calories = nutrition. For example, sugar addiction is your body screaming for nutrients, but we mistake it for wanting energy (calories). We and our clients have found that the desire for sugar (especially in the evenings) goes away when breakfast and lunch are low calorie dense and high nutritional dense foods (not supplements or fake foods).
  • Lack of bulk (fiber) – If you’ve eaten enough calories, yet still crave something it could be that you’re not getting enough fiber in your diet to make you feel full, and feed your gut bacteria.
  • Unhappy gut flora – The human gut is an amazing place. Healthy bacteria can reduce inflammation, make you feel better, and generally keep things humming along. But, unhappy gut bacteria can make life miserable, including creating cravings.
  • Social setting – Sometimes a craving is just about where you are and who you’re hanging with. When junk food is easily available (like at a party) it can feel almost impossible to not have some.

In other cases, cravings can also be a learned behavior. When you feel you need something sweet after a meal, this may purely just a habit or a psychological need. This isn’t always a bad thing, the body wants what it wants and it is better to honor your cravings in some cases instead of depriving the body. Dr. Moreno says, “If days go by and you find yourself thinking about a certain food, you should consider honoring the craving as opposed to sweeping it under the rug and then you’d eventually binge on something else to cope.”

Tapping into the root cause of your cravings and your body is a simple way to keep them under control. “Cravings [are] now widely considered a key characteristic of diverse pathologies, including weight and eating disorders also playing a role in food addiction,” explains Dr. Ryan NeinsteinAccording to a study in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), frequent food cravings can lead to unwanted consumption of foods that are being craved, and, as a result, trigger feelings of guilt or shame. This explains why food cravings may be associated with disordered eating and eating disorder psychopathology.

Need chocolate?

Nealy Fischer, founder of The Flexible Chef, says there are a few reasons why you may be hit with a chocolate craving—stress being a popular reason. “Studies have actually shown the overall experience of eating chocolate can help lift our spirits. It’s because when we indulge in a nibble of this yummy treat, dopamine (a feel good neurotransmitter) is released into our brain. When this happens, stress levels lower and our joy level rises,” explains Fischer.She adds that if you’re planning to indulge in a few bites that dark chocolate is the best option because it’s free of processed sugars, unlike milk chocolate.

Fatigue is another common reason why you may start feeling the need for chocolate. Your body may just be screaming for a caffeine boost.

Where’s that burger?

If the body is craving iron-rich foods you may automatically think of red meats. “Iron deficiency (ID) is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency within the developed world,” as explained in a NCBI case study. This may be a craving you want to honor, as iron deficiency affects over 30 percent of the U.S. population. This is a cause of concern as iron in the human body contributes to many important physiological functions.

If a burger or juicy steak isn’t on the menu for you, there are several other options. “There are a lot of vegetarian-friendly foods out there that boast this essential nutrient,” Fischer explains. Vegetables, like spinach and other leafy greens, can offer an excellent source of iron. Kale, swiss chard, collard greens, broccoli, legumes, nuts, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and tofu are all great options.

Need something salty?

Regardless of your food preferences, there’s something satisfying about a salty snack when you crave it. In some cases, this could be a simple craving out of a result of boredom. In other scenarios it could also be a sign that you’re stressed, haven’t had enough sleep, or are experiencing PMS. Once again, tapping into your deeper emotions to pinpoint the root cause will help you create a better understanding of your cravings as they happen.

Fischer says excessive sweating could be another reason for this craving! “Since our body’s sweat contains salt, excessive sweating can actually cause a dip in our sodium levels,” she explains. She suggests that if you work out a lot or run outside in the high heat, your desire to dive into a bag of potato chips may actually be the result of an electrolyte imbalance, and your body’s way of telling you it needs salt! Next time salt cravings hit, try snacking on some olives or pickles as a healthier, more beneficial alternative.

Now that you understand more about cravings, it’s time to work out! Check out all the programs and training classes that are live now in the Aaptiv app.