Why do we get cravings? Are they secret signals from your body that tell you exactly what you need? In general, a craving can signal something is out of balance, but it doesn't always mean you need a certain type of food. A craving might mean you're dehydrated, stressed or lacking sleep.
If you crave a snack, and you eat it, but you don't feel any better, your body was never needing that food to begin with. Here are some reasons you might be craving a certain type of food.
Do you suddenly have a hankering for something sweet and creamy? While a chocolate bar does contain sugar and fat, there are actually some nutritional benefits to dark chocolate. Some studies show that people who eat a small amount of dark chocolate every day, as part of their total calories, have lower blood pressure. Cocoa is really nutrient dense with magnesium, iron and fiber.
If you follow a plant-based diet, you might be craving chocolate if you're anemic or low in iron. Chocolate has a small amount of iron, but it's easy for your body to access. The $5 word for that is bioavailability.
When you're craving salt, you might just be dehydrated. Before you reach for a salty snack, take a big drink of water. Often when we think we're hungry, we're actually just thirsty.
Some studies show that people who are on medications that waste salts, called diuretics, often those people will crave salt and they actually need it. Only some diuretic medications cause this to happen, so check with your health care provider if you think this may be the case for you.
Or, you could be stressed. Salty foods are common for stress-eating – think potato chips or pretzels. If stress is the culprit, eating something salty won't make you feel better. You'd be better served by some breathing exercises, a quick walk or a yoga session.
Carbs like pasta, cookies and bread are quick sources of energy, but they won't keep you full for long. If you're craving high-fat, high-carb foods, think about your sleep schedule. Your body might be asking for fats and carbs because they generate some of the hormones that we normally get that regulates your sleep. A full night of recharging can help curb some of those unhealthy cravings.
There are only so many foods in our diet that are good sources of iron and zinc. If you're craving red meat, ask yourself if you're getting enough of these minerals.
While red meat is not a recommended food, it can be included in a healthy diet. Studies show most people can have a small amount of red meat every week and still maintain great health. Some studies have even shown benefits with a small amount of red meat. A small caveat is that some people at high risk for certain types of cancer should avoid it entirely.
What to do if you're craving something
First of all, stop and think, "Do I need this?" You might need salt, for example, if you just finished a heavy workout where you lost a lot of sweat. Or you might have just come off of a bad bug and your salt stores are depleted. If that's the case, your body only needs a very small amount of salt in general.
However, if you're having weird cravings, you shouldn't always give in. If you know your body is asking for something you don't need, take five minutes and do something else. Take a quick walk or talk to a friend. Cravings pass – they really do. What you might be wanting is stress relief or a quick boredom fix. If you're still truly craving the same thing after your five-minute break, then go ahead and have that food. But usually, you'll feel better from the exercise or social break.
If you feel the same or worse after you indulge the craving, it's not the food you're needing. You probably need stress relief, rest or hydration.
Enjoy your favorite foods
When we make a mental rule about one type of food and completely restrict it, it usually backfires. I see some people going a month without a food that they absolutely love. What happens is they start to think about it a lot and it becomes a mental craving. So I tell them to have a little. Personally, I am a big chocolate lover. I have a little bit of chocolate every day. I include it in my daily allowance of calories and then really savor the experience. Life is about balance.