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What Your Food Cravings Mean

When a chocolate fix hits so intensely that you feel like you’ll scream if you don’t get a candy bar, it’s easy to blame it on your sweet tooth or stress. But food cravings may actually be a clue that you’re longing for something not found in a grocery store, says Sophie Skover, author of The Continuous Appetite. “Most compulsive food cravings are an indication that something in your life is out of balance.”

Learn what your hunger pangs may be trying to tell you so you can find other ways to satisfy your true cravings—and avoid unnecessary calories.

Sweets

When you’re jonesing for chocolate, stop and evaluate how your sleep has been lately. “When tired, many people crave carbohydrates for a quick energy boost since carbs are our main source of fuel,” says explains Elizabeth DeRobertis, R.D., who practices in Westchester, New York. And simple carbs, such as sugar and white bread, are digested quicker than complex ones such as whole grains and beans, so the energy kicks in sooner.

Unfortunately that sugar “high” lasts as long as a your guy's attention span when you try to chat during a football game, and it leads to an inevitable crash—but few people can fit a nap into their day. As an alternative, go take a walk. In a University of Georgia study, people who worked out at a low-intensity for 20 minutes reported a 65 percent drop in feelings of fatigue.

Crunchy

A handful of nuts a day can be a healthy snack, but it can also hint to an inner frustration and irritation, says Skover. “The act of chewing and cracking the food in your mouth can momentarily release that angst, but the problem is the second that the crunching stops, the frustration returns—and many people go back to eating more and can end up polishing off an entire bag of chips.”

A better way to release that tension is to punch a punching bag or do any kind of exercise, which will release endorphins to boost your mood, DeRobertis explains. Or put in your earbuds: Several studies have shown that relaxing music really does relieve stress. “And pack carrot sticks to have on-hand when you want a healthier crunchy snack,” DeRobertis adds.

Creamy

Dishes such as ice cream, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese are called “comfort foods” for a reason: “Craving them possibly points to worrisome thoughts, and what you really need is to be soothed,” says Skover.

These are also high-carb, high-fat foods. “Carbs boost the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin, and when you eat something high in both carbs and fat, it can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward,” DeRobertis explains.

While a bowl of butter pecan may make you feel better in the moment, “usually the worries return when the person realizes how many calories they consumed, and then guilt sets in,” says DeRobertis. So instead of reaching for these fattening fixes, Skover suggests trying a warm bath, a foot massage, or just enveloping yourself in soft, cozy clothing for instant calming.

Caffeine

Anytime the coffee shop or a soda machine calls your name, you’re likely more than just thirsty. “You may feel discouraged or dissatisfied with your job and reach for these ‘quick fixes’ to perk you up and get you through the day,” Skover says.

It could also mean you’re dehydrated. “Not drinking enough water leads to a lack of energy,” says DeRobertis. So instead of a latte, you may just need some H2O. “Picture a wilted plant that needs water,” DeRobertis says. “Shortly after you water it, it will perk back up. With people, it’s the same thing!”

Carbs

While cravings for pasta, bread, and other carbohydrates can come from a number of physiological reasons, including a high insulin level or low blood sugar, DeRobertis says it’s more likely that you’re depriving yourself. “Typically, when someone is on a strict eating plan or has declared certain foods ‘off-limits,’ they will want them that much more.”

So remember that all foods—in moderation—fit into a healthy eating plan, and you’ll be less likely to need to overindulge in them to feel like you are letting loose or doing something fun, DeRobertis says. And having a good time or rewarding yourself doesn’t have to come in the form of food: “Clear your schedule and go on a weekend trip by yourself or with friends. Don’t bring a watch and don’t be on a schedule; just get into the day and enjoy it,” advises Skover.