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What are your food cravings telling you?

Your body has a way of telling you when it’s not getting what it needs, but how often do you listen?
A constant craving for something sweet indicates you might be magnesium-deficient. Jean-Philippe CHARBONNIER / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
A constant craving for something sweet indicates you might be magnesium-deficient. Jean-Philippe CHARBONNIER / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

We all know that feeling when your need for a biscuit goes from non-existent to all-encompassing. This all-too-familiar sensation is known as a food craving and we can often feel powerless against its gastrointestinal demands. While it would be nice if we craved kale and quinoa, usually we long for something sweet, salty or fried — unhealthy food. Even if we think our minds are more powerful than our stomachs, we still find ourselves reaching for that tub of ice cream or bag of potato crisps.

And though it may seem that there is no escaping these pesky yearnings, like most complicated relationships it takes a level of understanding to see any change. By simply taking a moment to examine your overwhelming urges, you can start to fight them off or satisfy them in a healthier way. “Most cravings indicate a deficiency in the body,” says wellness expert Robyn Youkillis. “It’s all about cracking the code.”


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As one of the most sophisticated organisms on the planet, our bodies are designed to run efficiently on certain fuels, which come in the form of foods and the nutrients derived from them. So, while you may be eating a lot, your body can still be malnourished because it’s not getting the nutrients it needs. That is how people can get into a feeding frenzy — your body sends the signal that you’re hungry, even if you’ve eaten a whole bag of pretzels, because you aren’t getting what your body requires for optimal health.

The first step is to dissect your craving. The majority of cravings stem from dehydration. “Whenever I get a craving, I first drink a glass of room-temperature water — it diffuses into your blood quicker that way,” Youkillis says. “When the craving sticks around after drinking water, though, it’s time to play detective.”

If you’re not just thirsty, then begin to ask some important questions to get further into the dissection. Want a slice of cake? Then you’re craving sugar. Want potato crisps? Then you’re craving salt. Look at the elements of the foods you’re craving, rather than a particular item. Once you’ve done that, you can start to understand what those underlying urges really mean.

In conjunction with understanding physically and biologically what your body needs, there is an emotional aspect to the reasoning behind your cravings as well. Just as our bodies can be imbalanced, so too can our emotions, leaving us feeling stressed, sad or tired. When those feelings strike, we often turn to food to fill the void. Just as you try understanding the bodily cravings, ask yourself similar questions about your mood. Am I hungry, or just bored? Do I really need that chocolate, or am I just sad?

By taking a moment to evaluate both your mind and body, you can paint a picture of what you really need in your life and body. Here are a few tips to resolve some of the most common food cravings.

Sweets: “This craving indicates you may be deficient in magnesium,” Youkillis says. “Try adding more nuts, seeds, leafy greens and sustainably caught fish to your diet.” Also, incorporating healthier sweet food, such as fruits (apples and grapes) and vegetables (sweet potatoes and carrots) into your diet, will help to balance your blood sugar, preventing you from becoming ravenous later in the day.

You could also be reaching for the sugar if you’re feeling unhappy or stressed, because sugar releases endorphins that temporarily lighten your mood. “Sweet snacking is a frequent behaviour in times of stress,” reads one study published in the Brain Research Bulletin. “Recent evidence suggests that sugar can lead to increased beta-endorphin production in obese subjects.” Instead, do something to pamper yourself that doesn’t involve food, like a massage or bath.

Salty foods: When you want salt, your body may actually need chloride, according to the Nutritional Wellness website. While a quarter of a teaspoon of salt contains the recommended daily allowance of chloride, it’s important to vary your diet and get the nutrient from more nutritious foods, such as goat’s milk. But, could you just be stressed? “Usually cravings for salty foods come from stress,” Youkillis says. “When you’re stressed out, your adrenal glands produce an excess of cortisol, which causes you to crave high-fat, simple-carbohydrate foods. When you’re experiencing a lot of salt cravings, try incorporating more meditation, conscious breathing or another stress-management technique into your lifestyle.”

Cheese and fried foods: It might be counterintuitive, but craving fatty foods may actually mean you need more fat. “This craving hints at a deficiency in fatty acids,” Youkillis says. “Instead of binge-eating a block of cheese, try snacking on walnuts, wild salmon or make a smoothie and add flaxseeds.” Use healthier oils, such as coconut oil, which will give you the fats your body needs without the partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats. Like salt, fat and fried foods are usually craved when someone is stressed. “Once ingested, fat-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions,” according to a Harvard Medical School study. “These foods really are ‘comfort’ foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.” Instead, try some form of low-intensity exercise like walking as it lowers cortisol levels and that stressed feeling.

Bread: Craving bread can mean you need nitrogen, so add more high-protein foods such as fish, meat, nuts and beans to your diet.

Coffee or tea: You could need phosphorous and should eat chicken, beef, liver, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts or legumes instead.

Soft drinks or carbonated drinks: Your body might want calcium. Try eating mustard and turnip greens, broccoli, kale, legumes, cheese or sesame seeds to reduce the craving.

Updated: May 28, 2015 04:00 AM