Food cravings are our body's sneaky way of crying out for help—and they're not always what they seem
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that food cravings are your body's way of telling you that it wants something. But while our bodies are great at communicating, they're not as great at telling us exactly what they need. It's true: Just because you're craving Flamin' Hot Cheetos doesn't mean you need salty, orange processed fat. Fortunately, there is a way to decode your body's signals, according to the Texas A&M Health Science Center.
The best way to understand what your body really needs is to start by getting all of your nutritional bases covered, said Taylor Newhouse, a registered dietitian with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. "Eating a recommended, balanced diet will cover most of your cravings. However, as a society, we tend to avoid the green things on our plate and we miss out on key nutrients our body needs," she explained. Newhouse broke down what your cravings really mean, so you know how to react next time.
If You're Craving Sweets
Your body really wants: Rest. There's a reason the vending machine looks so tempting at 3 p.m.—eating sugary treats and other simple carbs is a quick way to give yourself a boost of energy. (Ever Wonder What All That Sugar *Really* Does to Your Body?) But, sadly, that burst doesn't last and, worse, leads to a blood sugar crash, making you feel even more tired. "It's imperative we learn to replace that 'high' with a healthy activity we enjoy, like exercising," she said. You don't have to completely shut down your sweet tooth, though. Newhouse adds that snacking on nature's candy—fruit—will keep your energy stable and give you a hit of the good stuff.
If You're Craving a Burger
Your body really wants: Protein. It's common to crave junk food after an especially tough workout, Newhouse said, because your body wants nutrients to quickly repair and replenish itself. The fastest way is often fast food, but that doesn't mean it's the best way. A protein shake will give your body what it truly needs—protein to repair muscles and healthy sugars to replenish your glycogen stores—without undoing all your hard work at the gym. (Psst... The Junk Food Hangover—Explained!)
If You're Craving Chocolate
Your body really wants: A meditation session. Eating chocolate is a natural reaction to stress and a primary coping mechanism for many women when they're feeling overwhelmed, she said. Chocolate boosts feel-good brain chemicals and the caffeine gives you a natural buzz. But that's a short-term fix to the long-term problem of chronic stress. So instead of relying on chocolate, Newhouse recommended finding other stress outlets like a brisk walk or a brief meditation at your desk.
If You're Craving French Fries
Your body really wants: Fish. Yeah, we know, a bag of warm, crispy fries sounds a lot more appealing than a slab of salmon, but Newhouse explained that cravings for fatty fast foods often signal a legitimate need for fat—but those of the healthier variety like omega-3s found in fish or the polyunsaturated fats found in nuts and avocados. (Try one of these 11 High-Fat Foods a Healthy Diet Should Always Include.)
If you're Craving Pretzels
Your body really wants: Red meat. Intense salt cravings may mean you're iron deficient, a problem particularly common in menstruating women. But it's not enough to just eat more iron-packed foods like red meat and beans, she added; you need to eat them with nutrient-packed fruits and veggies. The calcium, potassium, and vitamin C found in things like spinach and oranges will help your body absorb the iron better.
If You're Craving Dark Chocolate
Your body really wants: Magnesium and other nutrients. Because chocolate is high in magnesium and other micronutrients, a constant craving for chocolate may signal a nutritional deficiency. "It's okay to have a little chocolate to subdue cravings," Newhouse said. "But, you should also supplement with healthier options like mixed nuts, a banana, or, sauté greens like spinach with lemon, olive oil, garlic, and rosemary for a sweeter flavor."
If You're Craving Pickles
Your body really wants: Electrolytes. There's a reason that post-workout recovery drinks often have a salty-sweet flavor—when you sweat intensely, your body loses a lot of salt and electrolytes along with that water. So as soon as you're done, your body will want to replace those, stat. This may feel like a simple craving for super salty foods, but in reality you need a balance of salt, electrolytes, and glucose to maintain the delicate balance in your body. Try eating a banana with a handful of salted nuts. (Here's What to Eat Before and After a Workout.)
If You're Craving Anything
Your body really wants: Water. A sudden strong craving for any type of food may be your body's way of crying out for water, Newhouse said. "As a society, we are chronically dehydrated (just so you know: Thirst is actually the last resort signal for dehydration)," she said. "The next time you reach for something sweet or salty try quelling the craving with a tall glass of water. You may be surprised at the result."