What Your Food Cravings Really Mean
A.k.a. why you were jonesing for pizza at midnight.
You know the moment when it hits you: All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, a food craving comes on—the one that tops all others—so badly you can't even think straight. It's so weird, right? Well, not really. It turns out that food craving is just your body communicating with you. Not to tell you that it's in desperate need of a sugar hit, but rather that there's an imbalance happening.
"Food cravings are often thought to be associated with nutrient deficiencies, but this may not always be the case," says Vandana Sheth, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "They may also be caused by a combination of social, emotional, cultural, and environmental cues."
That's because food often becomes associated with what we turn to when we're sad or feel like we deserve a reward—which is exactly why cartons of ice cream are now synonymous with heartbreak, and beer is a go-to when you've accomplished something badass. (Speaking of: Here's the #1 myth about emotional eating.) But food cravings for specific items can also mean that something deeper is churning beneath the surface.
Here's how to decode your own food cravings—and what to do if you're not feelin' ready to indulge.
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Sweets
Remember how ice cream is always associated with breakups? Same goes for all sweets, as a craving for sugar can mean your body is trying to give you a glimpse into your emotional health. Studies show that it's common to crave cakes, cookies, and saccharine-coated goodies when something is bothering you, be it stress, sadness, or even anger. What's worse: research out of Yale University found that women are more susceptible to cravings (the reasons for why are complex, but it could be pegged to hormones), so it's no wonder that it ain't no thang to polish off a pint when your heart feels like it's been shattered.
To combat the food cravings, head out for a hike. Research shows that walking for 15 minutes can help, and another study found that soaking up some sunshine and breathing fresh air helps relieve mental—and emotional—stress.
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Chocolate
Chocolate definitely falls under the sugary sweet category, but if you feel like you've got your emotional game under control, check your magnesium levels—this food craving could indicate a deficiency, says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. "Around the time of your period, your body uses up more magnesium, which is why many women experience PMS and chocolate food cravings simultaneously," explains Young. Reboot your taste buds by reaching for foods rich in the nutrient, like dark leafy greens, avocado, and bananas. (Related: 9 Surprising Things That Make Your PMS Worse)
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Something Crunchy
A handful of nuts a day can be a healthy snack, but it can also hint to an inner frustration and irritation, says Sophie Skover, author of The Continuous Appetite. "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." (DYK overeating can actually rewire your brain?!)
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, explains Elizabeth DeRobertis, R.D., a registered dietitian in Westchester, New York. (And make that healthy exercise high last longer with these tricks.) 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. (Related: 9 Low-Cal Crunchy Snacks to Satisfy Your Food Cravings)
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Cheese
When you have a bad day, there's a reason you want all the ooey, gooey, cheese—it's a comfort food that your body has learned to indulge in after processing a hefty load of emotions, says Young. That's because those meals are usually dripping with l-tryptophan, an amino acid (found in cheese) that boosts serotonin production—the hormone that influences how happy you feel. If you're trying to resist (which you don't always have to), Young suggests a relaxing yoga flow, as the gentle movement can help clear your mind and serve up an immediate hit of the feel-happy hormones.
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Carbs
While food 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." (Don’t forget your body needs carbs to exercise in peak form!)
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. (Holla to the 80/20 rule.) 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.
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Salt
Have you ever finished an intense workout only to feel like you could house an entire bag of chips? Sure, you likely burned a ton of calories—so your bod is ready for a refuel—but the craving for salt is probably due to dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance, Young says. "If you exercise a lot, you're sweating and losing salt, which means you end up craving [it] more to replenish those stores," she says.
Instead of grabbing a bag, try rehydrating with a sports drink for a hit of electrolytes, or down flavored water to see if you're just thirsty. (Use fruits like lemons, limes, strawberries, and watermelon for natural flavor.) If the cravings hit all the time though, consult with your doc. Although it's less common, Young says being a salt fiend could indicate an underlying medical condition.
Why You're Having a Food Craving for Red Meat
When it feels like a big hunk of red meat is the only thing that'll satisfy, your body is likely trying to say it's deficient in iron, zinc, or Vitamin B12, says Sheth. And a dose of red meat can provide a quick hit of whichever one you may be lacking, she adds. (Related: Is Red Meat *Really* Bad For You?)
If your goal is to cut back on the beef, Sheth recommends setting a timer for 10 minutes and going about your business. This short window of time allows your mind to chill out, since it thinks it will be rewarded at the ding, but in reality the pang for a greasy burger can peak after just a few minutes before starting to die down. So by doing something that requires focused attention—like sending an email or paying a few bills—you'll likely distract yourself long enough for the food craving to pass. (If not, go on and have the dang burger already.)
For a more long-term strategy, Sheth suggests talking to your doctor or a dietitian about whether you need more of the above-mentioned nutrients built into your diet. They can suggest a wide range of meat-free options (like beans and legumes) to help keep you satisfied.
Why You're Craving 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!" (Up Next: What Happened When One Woman Drank Twice as Much Water Than Usual for a Week)