You’re sitting on the sofa, binge-watching your favorite show, when a sweet craving hits. You try and push it out of your mind (you’re not even hungry!) but the temptation keeps returning. What would you do in this scenario?
If your response is to hightail to the closest bodega or ignore the craving altogether, nutrition experts say you’re missing vital clues. “Listening to your biology isn’t easy in today’s world, but it’s crucial, especially since cravings may direct you towards a false fix, like processed foods and sugary treats, which will temporarily alleviate the craving but won’t get at the root of the issue,’ explains Keri Glassman, founder of Nutritious Life and The Nutrition School.
She cautions that while research is young, “there is some evidence pointing to food cravings as your body’s natural, instinctive way of letting you know you that you need more of an important nutrient.” Next time that familiar craving hits, pause—This is what your body is actually trying to tell you.
According to research by the University of Arizona College of Medicine, a sweet tooth could be a sign of magnesium deficiency. Glassman says that while more research is needed, this could explain why sweet treats are often associated with PMS. "While magnesium deficiency is not proven to cause PMS symptoms, some studies have shown increasing the amount of the mineral your diet can decrease PMS symptoms such as irritability, fluid retention, and headaches," she says.
The fix: Boost your consumption of magnesium-rich foods. Add spinach and legumes to your lunch and snack on nuts and seeds to ensure your body is getting the right nutrients.
“If you’ve got a hankering for fries or other salty snacks like potato chips and pretzels, you could be slightly dehydrated,” Glassman says. She also points to research that suggests salty cravings could be linked to calcium deficiency. “A marginal deficiency of the mineral could stimulate the desire for salt, and other [studies] have shown women on low-calcium diets crave salty food more.”
The fix: “Reach for calcium-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, almonds, tofu, sesame seeds, and sardines," she recommends. If you do indulge the craving with salty food, it’ll temporarily increase calcium levels, "tricking the body into thinking it’s taking in calcium when it’s not,” she cautions.
Buy a carafe for your desk and keep a refillable bottle of water on your nightstand to remind you to rehydrate throughout the day.
Caffeine cravings are a little different, says Glassman. “If you’re craving a coffee, it may be out of habit (it’s morning time!) or a physiological need—like you are tired and your body is used to the caffeine buzz.”
It’s important to note that if you need to boost your energy levels, a latte is not the solution. “Caffeine is a stimulant, it does not provide energy,” she explains.
The Fix: Consider the trigger. “Cravings can come from behaviors (the habit of grabbing something sweet every day after lunch), emotions (feeling nostalgic when you smell fresh baked cookies) or a physiological need (craving red meat when you are low in iron).” She says there is nothing wrong with a couple of cups of coffee, but if you are trying to kick the habit, take a look at the habits or emotions that prompt the craving.
In this instance, your body is sending a clear signal, Glassman says. “A strong craving for meat may mean you’re iron-deficient. In fact, studies show that in pregnant women and others with iron deficiencies, food cravings serve to prevent or alleviate the nutritional deficit.”
The fix: Listen to your body and add more protein to your diet, via red meat, fish, poultry, nuts, or legumes.
Satiated your cravings? Take the next step and address the six bad habits you need to give up to be healthy.