After a stressful day, it’s almost second nature to laze on the couch and drown our sorrows in a bowl of ice-cream or potato chips. Soon, we glance down and realize we’ve managed to consume the entire pint or bag. So, what makes these foods so irresistible—causing us to mindlessly indulge? According to a Texas A&M Health Science Center registered dietitian, there’s a difference in what you think your body craves and what it actually needs.
“Eating a recommended, balanced diet will cover most of your cravings,” said Taylor Newhouse, registered dietitian, with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “However, as a society, we tend to avoid the green things on our plate and we miss out on key nutrients our body needs.”
The insatiable sweet tooth
Fluctuating blood sugar levels may be to blame if you immediately reach for sweet snacks. “As blood glucose (blood sugar) levels change throughout the day, the body tries to keep these levels stable,” Newhouse said. “Still, this is counterproductive; consuming sugary foods will only feed this addiction and result in more cravings.”
In fact, sugar releases endorphins within the body that make you feel happy or comfortable. Newhouse said this ‘sugar high’ can also lead to the overconsumption of simple carbohydrates and result in binging—now considered an official eating disorder. “We tend to overconsume carbohydrates because they’re easily digestible and give us the same boost as sugar,” she said. “It’s imperative we learn to replace that ‘high’ with a healthy activity we enjoy, like exercising.”
However, it might not be smart to exercise too hard if you’re trying to kick a craving. Intense exercise can also tell the body when carbohydrate stores have been depleted. If you’re working out, and suddenly decide you need a burger on the way home, this is your body’s way of saying it needs nutrients to recover.
“Incorporating more sweet fruits like berries or apples into your diet, along with dark leafy greens like broccoli or kale—which are high in calcium—will help to reduce the need to hit the company vending machine during the day,” Newhouse said.
Hungry? Don’t eat a chocolate bar…
Chocolate, like coffee, is almost an addiction. Scarfing down a chocolatey confection when we’re stressed is almost an involuntary act, since stress can produce chocolate cravings. Unsurprisingly, chocolate is also known to raise brain serotonin levels which generate feelings of happiness or pleasure. This may be why we can feel ‘addicted’ to chocolate or sugar.
Another reason we may crave chocolate is due to a magnesium deficiency (chocolate contains high levels of magnesium). Women may also pine for chocolate due to hormonal changes, or, snacking frequently on chocolate could mean the body has a vitamin B shortage.
“It’s okay to have a little chocolate to subdue cravings,” Newhouse said. “But, you should also supplement with healthier options like mixed nuts, a banana, or, sauté greens like spinach with lemon, olive oil, garlic and rosemary for a sweeter flavor.”
I’ll have fries with that
We’re all guilty of stress-eating and binging on certain foods when we’re bored or overwhelmed. Newhouse noted during periods of stress our body will naturally crave fast food or fattier foods.
“This could mean you’re deficient in essential fatty acids like omega-3s,” she said. “Our bodies do not naturally make omega-3s, but you can supplement them or cook with oils like canola oil, extra virgin olive oil or hemp oil to up your intake.”
Indulging shamelessly in a large order of fries could also mean our body is actually craving fat, however, not all fats are created equal. The next time you feel the need to order anything fried try supplementing with healthier options like avocados and raw nuts—which are high in ‘good’ fats.
How to pass on the salt
If you suddenly develop an intense desire for chips or pretzels, your may be iron-deficient. “When we crave salty things, it’s a signal to consume foods with more iron,” Newhouse said. “Eating foods high in calcium, potassium and iron can combat these cravings.”
Drinking a glass of milk, eating yogurt or making a salad with dark, leafy greens will all aid in keeping our sodium habit at bay while increasing calcium and iron levels. To up potassium intake, Newhouse recommends snacking on a banana, sweet potatoes, avocados or citrus fruits.
Important to know: During intense exercise or a difficult workout, your body will actually lose sodium and seek to replace it. “If you’re outside working or working out, your body will lose salt through the process of sweating,” Newhouse said. “This can increase your cravings for salty foods.”
Are you just dehydrated?
Most hunger pangs and cravings usually have a simple solution: Drink more water. “We often misinterpret the signals our body is giving us,” Newhouse said. “As a society, we are chronically dehydrated (Just so you know: thirst is actually the last resort signal for dehydration). The next time you reach for something sweet or salty try quelling the craving with a tall glass of water. You may be surprised at the result.”
A hankering for kale? It’s a thing
Yes, sometimes we do crave fresh food and vegetables like kale or broccoli. Many times this desire for fresh ingredients appears when your body needs more Vitamin C, calcium, iron or magnesium. “If you begin to crave fruits and vegetables, then indulge away!” Newhouse said. “However, if you’re trying to limit your carbohydrate intake, you should still pay attention to the amount you eat.”
It’s all about balance
A healthy diet and lifestyle hinge on one thing: Balance. Newhouse said it’s perfectly normal to satisfy cravings in moderation, but, you should also assess your diet during these instances. “Think about the last time you consumed foods in every single color. If you can’t remember the last time you ate a tomato or berries, try snacking on those,” she advised.
About Texas A&M Health Science Center
Texas A&M Health Science Center is Transforming Health through innovative research, education and service in dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and medical sciences. Learn more at vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu or follow @TAMHSC on Twitter.