There's a nasty rumor going around that cravings are caused by nutritional deficiencies. And while we wish that we could chalk up a hankering for piping hot, cheesy pizza as craving for calcium, unfortunately, that's not the case.
A moment of silence for all the times that you won’t be able to blame a Cool Ranch Doritos craving on needing to "replenish salt levels" after a crazy-sweaty workout. However, those cravings for salty, sweet, and bitter foods can be explained away with some legit science.
Studies point to the fact that even though now our cravings are solely based on neurological factors, our ancestors—you know, the ones who were eating clay, soil, and rocks—had cravings that did correlate to their nutritional deficiency. But as we’ve evolved, our food yearnings have too. Researchers now believe that our food urges are much more influenced by our interactions with the world around us than by actual hunger or nutritional content. Plus, there's plenty of research that indicates the brain's reward system lights up the same way when eating processed junk food as it does when taking drugs like cocaine.
So when a person comes back from lunch with curly fries, their cubicle mate is way more likely to crave that food because the brain remembers how satisfying it can be to bite into a crispy, fried potato. That positive association with junk food and its ability to light up the brain's pleasure receptors can trigger cravings even when a person is full.
Maybe driving past a McDonald’s doesn't necessarily inspire a burger craving every time, but dessert after dinner or a piece of candy around two o’clock is another story. Sometimes craving sugar can indicate blood sugar fluctuations, and the brain knows it needs a quick fix to boost blood sugar, stat. But more often than not, an appetite for sugar is a learned habit that is intensified by sugar’s addictive qualities. The more of the sweet substance you ingest, the more likely you are to go for a chocolate chip cookie or a caramel latte, even when you’re not hungry.
Kick a sugar habit by eliminating as much added sugar as possible from your diet. Added sugars include anything with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners; these sugar substitutes are actually sweeter than regular fructose (the naturally occurring sweet taste in fruit), and they throw off the body’s ability to taste the sweetness in natural sugar. Artificial sweeteners affect the brain differently than regular sugar and make the brain's reward system go haywire, rendering natural sugar obsolete to tastebuds.
For salty-crunchy foodies who gravitate toward snacks that have more of a savory flavor, dehydration or adrenal issues may be to blame. When you’re dehydrated, the body needs salt to help balance its electrolyte and mineral content and you’ll crave salt in its most elemental form, not via potato chips or french fries. Salt cravings can also be an indicator of more serious underlying adrenal issues, so if eating-salt-by-the-spoonful sounds strangely good, head to the doctor to make sure it’s not something more serious.
Even with an understanding of what causes food cravings, it can be hard to ignore those pangs of hunger that seem to strike out of thin air. Stay strong by taking a second to breathe and drink a glass of water before indulging the craving. Try swapping a super sweet or salty processed food with something more organic and natural. Seaweed is a great source of iodine and has a delicious umami taste to satisfy a need for salt, and a piece of good quality dark chocolate will give a bite of sweetness while still supplying a serious kick of antioxidants.
Photo credit: Cara Slifka via Stocksy