Have you ever wondered what your body’s telling you when you have a hankering for a plate of pasta, a chocolate bar, or cheese nachos? There could be more to your food cravings than a passing fancy. Cravings may be your body’s way of telling you that you need certain nutrients, that your blood sugar is imbalanced or your stress hormone levels are out of whack, or that you have sensitivities to certain foods.
For women, cravings may be cyclical. Do you crave chocolate right before your period? Starchy comfort foods? Alcohol? Chocolate contains compounds known to boost your mood. Starchy carbs and pasta boost feel-good serotonin in the brain. Alcohol cravings signal dropping estrogen levels. You may have low progesterone levels that need to be corrected.
Decode Your Cravings: What Do Your Food Cravings Mean?
Have a tendency for salty cravings? This is a sign your body needs minerals, or that your adrenal glands are working overtime. The adrenals need minerals to function properly and help your body handle stress. Or are you a sugar craver? Your blood sugar could be low: did you start off your day with coffee and no breakfast? Are you on a cycle of eating sugar, crashing, then craving it? Have you noticed that eating sugar makes you crave more sugar? Or, you could have high cortisol levels, which means your stress level is high and your adrenals are working overtime. Cortisol governs blood sugar (ever notice that you crave sugar when you’re stressed?), so high cortisol may exacerbate sugar cravings, or conversely, if you are not eating regularly or survive on sugary or refined foods and coffee, you’re driving your cortisol levels up.
Let’s look at some common cravings decoded.
Pasta, potatoes (starch): low serotonin levels. This feel-good neurotransmitter manages weight, cravings, and sleep. Low levels can cause you to crave starchy and sweet foods. Try taking 5HTP; start at 50mg and build up slowly. I highly recommend Crave Arrest.
Chips: mineral deficiency. Eat more leafy greens; top with a little sea salt. Use sea vegetables in cooking; they are very high in minerals that nourish the thyroid. Try a superfood supplement and add to smoothies. I like VitaMineral Green. Nuts and seeds are good sources too. Make a mineral-rich broth and sip in the evenings.
Candy/pastries/cookies: blood sugar imbalance, low serotonin, skipping meals (especially breakfast). Try this 5HTP crave arrest supplement, and make sure you are eating enough protein (palm-sized meat or 1/2 – 1 cup legumes/beans) with each meal and that you are not skipping meals. Do you crave sugar specifically around 3pm in the afternoon? This is a sign that your cortisol levels are imbalanced or your blood sugar has dropped too low after lunch. Did you get enough protein? Did you eat too many refined carbs (think bread with your sandwich) with your meal? Did you have a soda? All these foods can cause your blood sugar to spike and crash, leaving you fatigued and craving more sugar.
It can also be useful to break down your cravings. Let’s take, say, beef nachos with cheese. Beef contains iron and zinc, and cheese is high in calcium. Beef is fine if you prepare it on your own so you know it’s organic and you haven’t added unhealthy ingredients to it. Stir-fry up some beef with cumin and garlic and eat with kale and beans and avocado and a sprinkle of dulse (sea vegetable). Kale is very high in calcium and you’re saving yourself a lot of calories, fat, and sodium with this healthy makeover dish.
Do you crave certain foods (rather than general categories such as sweet, salty, starchy) like bread, cheese, ice cream, or milk? There is a possibility that you may be sensitive to these foods. We often crave the foods to which we are sensitive/intolerant because they are causing internal inflammation, and your body’s way of offsetting this damage is to release endorphins that fit in opiate receptors when you eat the food. You’ll get a pleasurable feeling when you consume the food and begin to crave it. If you notice there are certain foods you can’t live without (most people cite dairy–mostly cheese or ice cream– and bread), try eliminating this food for a while and reintroducing it. You may be surprised how much better you feel when you eliminate the food: more energy? less irritable? better sleep? Or, when you reintroduce it, you may notice bloating, fatigue, or congestion.
Remember, your body need everything all the time. In general, the antidote to cravings is to make sure you are eating a nutrient-rich, nourishing diet. Use whole foods, not processed. Use sugar sparingly, and cut out the processed refined crap. Nothing from a box! Eat seasonally–nature is smart about letting us know what we need and when. Eat every 3-4 hours, and get enough protein, minerals, good fats, antioxidants (especially zinc, which is chronically low in our diets. Lamb, beef, and pumpkin seeds are best sources), and trace minerals (sea veggies like nori, wakame, kombu).
Sometimes, of course, it’s best to just indulge. No sense in depriving yourself once in a while (NOT every day ). And remember, if you’re on a gluten/grain free/dairy free plan, there are so many alternatives to junky white flour treats! Check out my paleo pinterest board for inspiration.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.