Every so often (and by every so often I mean very regularly), I get an uncontrollable urge to down a pint of Chunky Monkey or plow through an entire order of super-sized fries.
I indulge. I hate myself for it. And the nasty cycle continues.
I’m guessing you might be able to relate. About 90 percent of women (and 50 percent of men) get food cravings a few times a month, says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University. Why do we crave junk food? (And it’s always junk food — you never hear about someone’s kale binges, right?) Often it’s a psychological thing: We reach for the mac and cheese after a rough day because that’s what mom used to make for us. And sometimes it’s physiological: We guzzle a venti coffee after a sleepless night because we’re exhausted and need the jolt of caffeine.
But what about the junk food cravings that come out of nowhere? The ones that hit when you’re feeling great? Those could actually be a sign that you’re missing something from your diet, says clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas, BS, CCN. “Physiologically, the body will crave junk foods that could potentially mimic the nutrient that is deficient,” she says. “The brain actually craves a quick-release because of the low quality of foods you’re consuming.”
Obviously, this cycle of craving junk food when what we really need is health food doesn’t do us any favors. For starters, it’ll pack on the pounds. But more importantly, while junk food may mimic the energy or nutrients in healthy foods, it won’t give us the actual benefits. And so the food cravings will continue.
If you crave…carbs
You need: protein and fish oil
Metsovas explains that our bodies crave carbohydrates for a quick burst of energy. But if we ate a more balanced diet, we wouldn’t need that quick burst of energy — we’d be getting a steady stream from nutrient-rich foods like fish, grass-fed meat, nuts, and beans, she says. There have also been studies that show fish oil supplements can help curb carb cravings, says nutritionist Susan Kleiner PhD, RD. That’s because fish oil helps stabilize blood sugar, so you’re less likely to crave an instant energy fix.
If you’re craving…sugar
If you crave…caffeine You need: micronutrients
Fatigue is an obvious reason we crave caffeine, but Metsovas says if you’re feeling pooped even after a full night’s sleep, it could be due to inadequate nutrients in your diet. She recommends getting more micronutrients like phosphorus, sulfur, and iron, either through a supplement or your meals.
For foods high in phosphorus, opt for seafood, lamb, turkey, lentils, or milk. For sulfur, choose broccoli, cauliflower, red meat, onions, and garlic. For iron, eat red meat, dark leafy greens, beans, lentils, or dried fruit (like prunes and raisins).
If you’re craving…salt You need: salt (but not table salt)
It seems impossible that any of us would have a sodium deficiency considering there’s salt in almost everything we eat. But Paul C. Eck, founder of Analytical Research Laboratories, says that table salt is stripped of the healthy minerals we need.
To fix this problem, he recommends using natural sea salt whenever you can (it’s less refined than table salt). You should also boost your intake of manganese (found in leafy greens and berries), and vitamins B1, B5, C, and E, since all of these nutrients can help with sodium retention.
If you crave…chocolate You need: magnesium
Typically, we reach for chocolate when we’re stressed or PMSing, and for good reason: “Chocolate is a powerful stimulant that can increase the flow of the feel-good neurochemicals, dopamine and serotonin, in the brain,” says Metsovas. The only downside to eating a food that basically gives us a natural high is the inevitable crash when the dopamine leaves our system.
Instead of the quick fix, Metsovas recommends foods high in magnesium when we’re stressed or hormonal, since the mineral may help with nerve health and hypertension. Try foods like nuts and seeds, fish, cucumber, and unrefined sea salt.
If you crave…meat
You need: healthy fats (and maybe a little meat)
If you can’t get enough Big Macs, Metsovas says you may have a deficiency in either B12, fat, or iron. Supplements can help, but Metsovas also recommends making sure you’re getting fat in your diet from healthy sources like olive oil, coconut, avocado, nuts, and seeds (not bacon cheeseburgers). You can also boost your iron intake with lean red meat and dark leafy greens.
To minimize all of your cravings…
Even if your diet is healthy, cravings can still strike, but Kleiner says you can minimize them by keeping your blood sugar levels balanced and your mood constant (as best you can). Eating low-glycemic foods, eating at regular intervals, exercising regularly, and getting adequate rest can help as well. Bottom line: A healthy lifestyle generally equates to fewer late-night freezer and pantry raids.