Maybe you’ve heard that craving chocolate means you’re low on magnesium, or craving peanut butter means you’re not eating enough fat. But for most experts, these theories justifying our cravings are no more than wishful thinking.
“In my years of practice I haven't found that to be true,” says Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine practitioner, IFMCP, DC, and author of Ketotarian. “Most likely if cravings were due to nutritional deficiencies we would all be craving green smoothies and kale!”
But that doesn't mean that your cravings aren't trying to tell you something just as important.
"I think cravings are a complicated interplay between psychology and physiology," says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. "I don't know if your body can crave chocolate so specifically and need magnesium; what's more plausible to me is you're craving chocolate because it's a conditioned habit, a function of stress or mood, or that your body is under-nourished and just wants calories/sugar for survival and you are interpreting the craving as one for chocolate."
Here are the three most common reasons you may be experiencing a specific craving – and what to do about it.
This perhaps comes as no surprise, but stress is a huge contributing factor in cravings for things like chocolate or candy.
“Studies have shown that the area of your brain responsible for stress also manages your hunger hormone leptin," explains Cole.
Both, he notes, are activated when you crave certain foods, and this is perhaps never more true than with sugar.
“Relying on sugar for fuel puts you on a blood sugar roller coaster - constantly hangry and in need of your next fix," he explains. "Since sugar acts more like kindling to a fire, it gives you a boost of energy but quickly dies out, cueing the cravings for these foods.”
This is especially true if your stress is linked in any way to sleep deprivation. According to one 2012 Mayo Clinic study, lack of sleep contributes to lower levels of leptin and another hunger-regulating hormone called ghrelin, causing people to eat more than usual.
But it’s not just sweets we crave when we’re stressed. People also reach for salty snacks like chips, something that Elise Museles, Certified Eating Psychology and Nutrition Expert and founder of the Food Story concept, notes may have more to do with crunch than with salt.
“When your back teeth come together, that is a stress reliever,” she says.
Registered dietitian nutritionist Mandy Enright tells Reader’s Digest that chewing crunchy foods can even offset jaw tension, providing an actual physical relief for stress. It's no wonder popcorn, carrot sticks, and dry cereal are such popular snacks.
Whether it's gooey mac and cheese, hearty beef stew, or a simple PB&J, for a lot of people, cravings are born out of a desire for comfort.
“I know that when I'm sitting at my desk, and I'm not having fun, I'm craving chocolate,” says Museles. “It represents something that's pleasurable."
These cravings are often linked to memory: foods that are associated with pleasant moments from our past. And while we're quick to attempt to justify these cravings, for our experts, comfort is sometimes a justification in and of itself.
“Sometimes, you just want that food," says Museles. Sometimes you just want the greasy French fries, even though you are a completely clean eater. It may not have anything to do with potassium and potatoes.”
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But there's also a physiological reason behind our desire for these comfort foods. Jaime Mass, R.D., tells Men’s Health that the consumption of fat and sugar releases dopamine, triggering the same area of your brain as drugs do and initiating, not just a one-time craving, but a repetitive learned behavior. When we know that certain foods will make us feel good, even temporarily, we seek them out again and again and end up locked in a cycle of using food for comfort.
3. Nutrition Deficiencies
While most of the time, cravings are linked to emotional needs, there are a few occasions when they are indeed linked to deficiencies – but not in the way you may have been led to believe.
Cravings are rarely as cut-and-dry as a magnesium deficiency making you crave chocolate or a cheese craving meaning you’re low on calcium. Your body may, however, tell you what it needs in other ways.
After a vacation, for example, “Don't you just come back craving greens or a big salad?” says Museles.
“That's our body saying, ‘That's what you need right now.’”
She recounts one craving she frequently had when she was eating a far more restrictive diet.
“I craved honey all the time,” she recalls. “Now, looking back on that, it makes sense, because honey is just pure energy. It's sugar! So that's what my body needed.”
According to Dr. Terry Wahls, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa and author of several books on functional medicine, cravings may also reflect an underlying physiological issue.
“Craving sugar usually means that your sugar-loving microbes (or your insulin resistance) are driving you to eat more carbs,” she explains.
Should You Give In?
Understanding your cravings is just one (important) part of the battle to better health. The question still remains: should you reach for that chocolate bar or those chips when the craving hits, or should you try to ignore it?
For our experts, the answer is complicated.
"Instead of thinking 'should I 'give in' or not,' take a step back and evaluate your situation at large," says Moreno. "Are you truly hungry (like, did you just have a balanced meal with protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates?) That's a signal that this is lack of SATISFACTION with that meal, not physical fullness. Are you stressed, bored, anxious, or emotional in some way? Are you about to eat food that you NEVER allow yourself to eat so you're anxious or excited? Are you already feeling guilty just by wanting this food? How will you feel after? Will you enjoy it mindfully or just bulldoze through it?"
"Distracting yourself is just suppression, which will eventually manifest as deprivation and lead to obsession or a binge," she continues. "But you can dig deeper and discover if this craving is a function of something other than hunger."
Museles suggests asking yourself if something else would fulfill the need motivating the craving.
"Would a call to a friend, a hug, a walk outside make you feel just as good?”
By reconnecting with your body in this way, you'll grow to understand your cravings. From there, you'll be able to make an informed choice: enjoy a square of dark chocolate for the pure pleasure it brings, or glean that pleasure from a walk, a phone call, or a five-minute meditation session.
Whatever you choose, don't beat yourself up about it. Cravings are human responses to real needs: stress relief, comfort, pleasure, energy, or something else. Get to know your own body, and make decisions from an informed and enlightened place.