You can think of your cravings as little sticky notes that your body leaves you as reminders to “pick something up from the store” or “run that errand you’ve been meaning to run.” Here are a few ways cravings can tip you off to what your body might need.
Cravings for salty foods can be a cue that you’re stressed and overexerted. That’s because chronic stress can disrupt adrenal gland function. Along with regulating your stress hormone, cortisol , the adrenals are also responsible for regulating sodium via the production of the hormone aldosterone. When you’re body is stressed, it produces high levels of cortisol, which can lead to a decrease in the production of aldosterone. This can cause an imbalance of sodium—and an itch for something salty. If this sounds like you, focus on ways to manage and reduce stress, such as mindfulness and meditation, yoga and exercise, and improving sleep.
Dehydration or excessive sweating can also increase salt cravings. These cravings tend to be in more extreme cases such as excessive sweating from endurance training or working in very hot environments. You also might want to watch out for this if you’re frequently taking hot yoga classes or other heated workouts, or if you’re consistently not getting enough hydrating beverages into your day.
Sugar cravings or constant cravings for carb-y foods can have a number of potential underlying causes.
The first thing to consider is your relationship with sugar and carbohydrates. If you tend to label these foods as “bad”, “off limits,” or “unhealthy”, or you’re restricting them too much in your diet, this can contribute to a negative relationship with these foods. Significant restrictions of these foods combined with feelings of guilt or shame when eating them can actually cause us to think more about them and crave them more intensely .
If you feel like this may be the case, healing your relationship with sugar or carbohydrates may alleviate your cravings all together. Intuitive eating can be a great tool to start to understand your cravings and make peace with foods you lack trust around. This goes for any food that you may be overly restricting or feeling fear around.
Not eating enough at meal times or skipping meals can cause the body to look for the quickest source of energy it can find. Sugar and carbohydrates (specifically refined carbohydrates) are absorbed quickly and give us a boost in energy, causing cravings to set in after a day of limited food intake. For this same reason, we often crave simple sugars and carbohydrates when feeling tired or fatigued so our bodies can get a quick pick me up.
Research suggests a strong link between sleep quality and sugar cravings. Restless nights affect brain regions that control decision making and reward responses, resulting in increased cravings for sugar, as well as fat and salt. A lack of sleep also affects hormones like ghrelin and leptin, which regulate your hunger levels throughout the day, and may lead to an increase in cravings of quick energy sources like sugar and carbs.
Craving carbs or sugar can also occur if blood sugar is too high or low. If your plate is imbalanced or your meals are mostly simple or refined sugar/carbs, this can cause quick spikes and drops in blood sugar and have the body looking for more. Refined or simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quickly and raise blood sugar and insulin. Protein, fat, and fiber, on the other hand, ensure meals are absorbed at a nice slow pace and help us to feel full and satisfied. Specifically, too little protein in the diet has been linked to an increase in food cravings.
Craving chocolate is commonly talked about as a period craving, but women may have an increase in any food cravings before and during their menstrual cycle. Why? Your metabolic rate actually increases about 7-10 days prior to menstruation, which causes you to burn calories faster than other times of the month . This increase will affect hunger as well as caloric need (roughly 100-300 extra calories per day).
Another reason for cravings involves serotonin levels. Serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, decreases during the premenstrual phase , so you may tend to crave sugar and carbohydrates because at that time because your body uses these foods to help build this important brain chemical and balance mood. Changes in progesterone and estrogen levels during this time can also affect blood sugar, causing cravings to balance levels.
Pregnant women are just as likely to have cravings as non-pregnant women, and often these arise from the same factors, such as fatigue , sleep issues, and an imbalance on the plate. But, the phenomenon of craving strange foods or even foods that previously weren’t liked is an interesting one. Research suggests that an increase in hormones can alter a woman’s sense of taste and smell. This may explain why certain foods become more desired while others are a complete turn off.
You’ve probably heard that certain cravings can be a sign of specific nutrient deficiencies , such as chocolate cravings as a sign of magnesium deficiency, red meat cravings a sign of low iron levels, and cheese cravings mean you need more calcium. However, research has yet to fully prove this.
Some issues with this theory include gender and geographic differences among cravings (women specifically have a higher incidence of cravings) and the fact the most often we are craving foods that are not specifically nutrient dense (how often are you craving dark leafy greens or legumes?). For example, tofu contains up to twice as much calcium as cheese, so theoretically we would crave this just as much if we needed more calcium. In the case of chocolate, cravings levels vary geographically, with American women having the highest craving for this food .
Listening to your cravings can give you lots of useful information about what you might need to add to your plate and how you can better support sleep and stress levels. Tuning into cravings allows us to build a closer relationship with our bodies and make positive health choices to support optimal wellness.
Kris (she/her) is a Brooklyn-based Master Nutrition Therapist and Senior Health Coach with seven years of functional nutrition and health experience. She is a certified Health Coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, earned her Master Nutrition Therapy certification through the Nutrition Therapy Institute of Denver, CO, and is trained in Intuitive Eating. Kris is HAES-aligned and passionate about weight-neutral approaches to health, supporting folks to heal from disordered eating/eating disorders, and body liberation.