What Your Cravings Mean
Updated: May 27
Do you have food cravings? Do you give in? SHOULD you give in?
Listen to them. Your body is trying to tell you something.
I don’t often get them for things that are nutritionally important. Usually it’s for something sweet or caffeine. Sugar and caffeine cravings are a sure sign of stress. The ugly thing about stress is you may not even consciously be aware that you are stressed. Simply doing things like going on social media, driving a car, staring at your phone/computer/TV, inadequate sleep, keeping yourself isolated, work, etc. all contribute to the burden.
While I still consume caffeinated beverages, it can be helpful to understand what it does to the body. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors and stimulates the brain. It triggers an adrenaline surge and sends in dopamine to make you feel good. Sugar is addictive in much the same way. Ingesting it triggers a dopamine hit and excessive sugar consumption is believed to have an opioid-like effect.
In the long term, they only contribute back to your stress load and perpetuate the cycle. Think about this mechanism as if it were something even more obvious, like alcohol or drugs. Initially there is a high or sense of well-being, but later you “come down” and have to recover. Although the highs and lows aren’t as extreme with sugar and caffeine, it’s no surprise these foods are best avoided. Instead, employ some stress-relieving strategies such as gentle exercise (walking is great), meditation, listening to music, reading, a warm bath or even a nap. (see below for more on decoding sugar cravings)
It’s not all bad, though. Some cravings are worth diving in a bit deeper to explore what your body REALLY needs.
Funny story: A couple weeks ago, I craved broccoli. Yep, just out of nowhere and it was super weird and random. I let it go for a few days and it persisted. I supplement minerals on occasion (usually magnesium) and eat a well-rounded keto/paleo diet. All veggies are unique in their nutrient make up with variation in mineral content even between crops of the same type. Broccoli primarily contains vitamins A and C, calcium, phosphorus, iron and a bit of protein. The combination of these nutrients contained within broccoli is what my body wanted. I roasted the broccoli in avocado oil-my favorite way to eat it-had about 2C worth and the cravings stopped. Could I have gotten rid of the craving from eating a different food? Sure. It’s safe to say that broccoli was an okay indulgence.
What about those foods that aren’t the best for us, especially in large amounts?
Sometimes our cravings are due to food allergies or sensitivities. One of the biggest offenders for many people is dairy. It’s tasty and can be a bit addictive. Trouble is that almost all store-bought milk contains a ton of hormones to keep the cows producing milk. It also has antibiotics to kill infections that the cows get from the feedlots and constant milking. In an effort to “clean” the milk up from these and other pathogenic bacteria, the pasteurization process is used which also kills off the enzymes you need to help you digest it. Bloating, eczema, diarrhea, inner ear issues, chronic runny or stuffy nose, hyperactivity are just a few of the symptoms of a milk allergy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to consuming raw dairy and hard cheeses. Milk has a good amount of calcium and phosphorus, Vitamins A, D and E and B vitamins like B6 and B12. However, adverse symptoms indicate you’re not tolerating dairy well.
Cravings can strike from an experience, such as smelling scents from a bakery or seeing an ad on tv. Those are transient urges and if ignored, tend to fade quickly.
In contrast, persistent cravings usually indicate that there is something missing from your diet. The food itself may not be what your body needs, but rather your interpretation of it. A boxed meal contains a lot of sodium, perhaps minerals is what you need. Healthy plant and animal fats are an important part of your diet and craving the (unhealthy) fats in fast food could indicate a need there. Carb cravings? If you follow keto or low carb, more veggies may be needed.
Speaking of carbs, more about sugar…
Sugar cravings can also indicate dysbiosis, or imbalance of “friendly” vs. “invasive” gut bacteria. Yeast and other invasive bacteria feed off sugar and can get out of control. Some common indicators of yeast, fungal and/or bacterial overgrowth include a coated tongue, bloating, intense sugar cravings, diarrhea, constipation, joint pain, brain fog, frequent yeast infections, UTIs and more. Working with a holistic professional to get proper testing and treatment is key to get your digestive tract in order.
Eating a meal high in starchy &/or refined carbs raises your blood sugar. Sugar cravings post-meal are a result of high blood glucose levels and they dissipate about 1-2 hours afterward, or once your insulin kicks in to bring that glucose back down to normal levels.
Steps to Interpreting and Making Sense of Cravings:
1. Think: What is your body wanting?
2. Why is your body wanting it? Have you had a stressful day/week/month? Are you hungry? Bored?
3. What nutrients does this food have that will benefit me?
4. Is there a healthier food that could give me equal benefit? Or is this food worth eating?
5. How do I feel after eating this food?
6. Consider your health goals. Does this food fall in line with what you’re trying to achieve?
The bottom line is this: You don’t have to constantly deprive yourself of every craving you experience. Take a moment to be more mindful and understanding of your needs. A food that makes you feel bad physically, psychologically or emotionally is best avoided. No one ever feels remorseful about eating broccoli.
Want a guide to some common food cravings? Check this out:
Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel* , Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/