Have you ever felt yourself irresistibly drawn to a bag of nabs or a cookie even when you had just eaten? Hunger isn’t the only motivation to eat. Sometimes other forces drive us to dig a hand into a bag of chips or a box of cookies. The NEED to eat and the DESIRE to eat are two different entities. Hunger is a physiological need to eat driven by low energy stores whereas appetite is the desire to eat based on the sight, sounds, thought, or smell of particular foods. Appetite is more selective than hunger. When you’re truly hungry, you’re open to a wide range of foods. But, when appetite drives you to eat, you yearn for something specific or are seduced by the sensory qualities of a food. A bowl of spinach won’t cut it when your appetite is driven by pizza.
Cravings are a more extreme form of appetite and are usually built around a particular food or type of food. According to the dictionary, a craving is an intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing. So, craving a particular food is more urgent than having an appetite for that food. Cravings are often brought on by emotional upheaval and stress. Some experts believe cravings are a way to soothe emotions by supplying the body with comfort food. Makes sense, doesn’t it? We usually crave comfort foods rather than healthier fare, like an apple or a bowl of broccoli. In fact, cravings are often for one of three types of food. Let’s look at each one.
Sweet Stuff Cravings
Cravings for foods high in sugar are the most common, especially among females. Women crave sweets while men more commonly yearn for salty foods. Why are sweet cravings so prevalent? Studies in animals suggest that eating food high in sugar stimulates reward centers in the brain, particularly those related to dopamine. So, eating sugar is a mood booster. That’s why a brownie looks so enticing when you’re feeling down or stressed out. It gives you a temporary mood boost.
Unfortunately, the mood boost you get from eating something sweet can become something your body wants to experience again and again – and that’s when sugar cravings set in. There’s even evidence that sugar is addictive because it stimulates the same reward centers as addictive drugs.
How do you break the cycle? The best way to nix sugar cravings is to gradually cut back on the amount of sugar in your diet and give your taste buds a chance to adapt to less of the sweet stuff. Start by substituting less intensely sweet treats, like dark chocolate, for sugary items that have little nutritional benefit, like brownies and cookies. Use fruit as a way to satisfy a sweet craving naturally. For example, buy a bag of frozen berries and enjoy “popsicle bites” rather than a bowl of ice cream. These substitutes can help you satiate a craving, but aim for gradually eliminating as much sugar from your diet as possible to break the sugar craving cycle. With a little patience, it will work.
Salty & Crunchy Food Cravings
Potato chips, crackers, and nuts fall into the salty and crunch category of cravings. While you might think people crave sugar more than salty foods, a significant portion of the population has cravings for high-sodium fare. Of the three types of cravings mentioned, this is the type that is most likely to be linked with an underlying imbalance or health condition, although most people who crave salt are healthy.
Stress plays a role in salt cravings too. Mental and physical stress causes the adrenal glands to pump out more stress hormones. Some functional medicine practitioners believe that the adrenals can become exhausted from overproducing these hormones and reach a point where they’re unable to produce enough stress hormones. Since the adrenal glands also make hormones that regulate salt and fluid balance, fatigued or exhausted adrenals are less effective at regulating fluid and salt balance. If you also have a low blood pressure or feel lightheaded when you get up too quickly and also crave salt, this can be a sign of adrenal fatigue or more serious problems with your adrenal gland.
A more severe form of adrenal gland disease is called Addison’s disease and is a condition that needs immediate treatment. That’s why if you suddenly develop salt cravings, get checked out by your doc. Some experts also believe that salt cravings may be a sign of a broader mineral deficiency that may include magnesium, calcium, zinc, potassium, or iron. However, there’s no strong evidence to support this.
If you crave something salty, stick to the healthier stuff, like lightly salted nuts. Nuts are more nutrient-dense than chips, crackers, and other packaged, salty fare. Another salt snack that’s rich in minerals and also has a salty flavor are seaweed chips and snacks. Ripping open a bag of seaweed chips is better than digging into a bag of chips with little nutritional value.
Fast Food Cravings
Fast food combines salt, fat, and sugar into a single meal. No wonder it becomes crave-worthy for some people. Yet, we know fast food has a multitude of negative effects on the human body. In fact, one study showed that markers of inflammation rose immediately after a fast food meal and lasted for several hours. Once they reign you in, fast food restaurants don’t make it easy to stay away. They constantly seek the perfect combination of fat, salt, sugar, and flavor enhancers to keep you coming back for more.
If you’re having problems breaking the fast food habit, try making a healthy substitute for your favorite fast food items at home. Buy a package of veggie burgers and enjoy one on a whole grain bun. If French fries are your weakness, invest in an air fryer, so you can enjoy an occasional order of fries without the soybean oil you get when you eat fast food fries. Again, the goal should ultimately be to cut back on calorie-dense foods with a low nutritional value such as French fries, but when you do eat one of these foods, make your own healthier option at home.
The Bottom Line
Your cravings may be different from someone else’s but succumbing to cravings too often can lead to weight gain. If you crave salt, make sure you aren’t suffering from other signs of adrenal dysfunction and choose healthier options, like nuts. If it’s sugar you crave, gradually cut back on all sugar over time. Until then, choose natural sources of sweet, like fruit. If you’re a fast food junkie, learn how to make healthier versions at home and add more variety to your diet.
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39.
University at Buffalo News Center. “Eating High-Fat Meal Raises Blood’s Proinflammatory Factors; Vitamins E and C Counter that Response”
Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials. “3 Reasons You Crave Sweet or Salty Foods”