Sugar, Salt, Fat: What Are Your Cravings Trying to Tell You?

When was the last time you had a craving? What was it for? And the $100,000 question: did you give in to it?

Just about everyone struggles with temptation when it comes to delectable sweets, salty chips, or comfort food like creamy macaroni and cheese or fluffy mashed potatoes—especially when it comes to pregnancy cravings. Some of us are more successful at resisting that temptation than others!

It turns out, however, that the siren song of snacks might have some substance to it. Read on to find out what your cravings are trying to tell you — and whether or not you should heed their call.

Why We Crave What We Crave

A 2010 study discovered that rats who were fed cake and bacon became so addicted to their sweet, sinful meals that they chose to withstand electrical shocks rather than stop chowing down. Surely, us sophisticated humans would have more willpower in the face of immediate negative reinforcement, right? Well, if you’re ever taken “just one more bite” — or three — even when you were already uncomfortably full, you know that sugar and fat are powerful drugs indeed.

According to Juban Cowen Dental, there’s a very good reason that our bodies respond this way to high-calorie foods: we’re hard-wired to. And that’s why dental practices around the world have experienced a rise in cavities. Simple carbohydrates and foods high in fat give our bodies the boost of energy we need to achieve what we want during the day. But there are drawbacks.

Naturally, now that humankind usually only runs for recreation and has 24/7 access to a huge variety of food, these biological imperatives are a lot less, well, imperative. That means until evolution catches up with our pampered, sedentary lifestyle, we’ll have to keep striving to eat fewer calories and exercise regularly to keep the pounds off.

The Link Between Food and Reward

It would be a mistake to chalk up cravings entirely to biology, however. There’s also an incredibly powerful connection between eating and our emotional state. From a very young age, most of us are accustomed to getting dessert as a reward for eating dinner, or otherwise being treated to our favorite food when we “earn” it through good behavior.

Food helps us celebrate but also cheers us up when we’re in the dumps. It’s completely acceptable to eat ice cream by the pint after a breakup or recover from a bad day at the office with Chinese takeout.

Even when we are actively trying to eat in a way to benefits our bodies, we give ourselves the occasional splurge or cheat day — often as a reward for having successfully deprived ourselves for a period of time.

Do Cravings Really Signal a Nutritional Need?

You’ve probably heard the theory that when we’re craving a specific food, it’s because that food provides a nutrient our body truly needs. While this notion definitely holds some water, it’s not entirely true, and it’s never a good excuse to pig out.

Let’s take a look at the most common cravings, and how to tackle them sensibly.

Salty, Savory Foods

Have a hankering for potato chips, salted nuts, pickles, and similarly sodium-rich snacks? This may indicate that your body is missing the trace minerals found in natural salt — minerals that are stripped away when table salt is processed. Try seasoning your food with unrefined mineral or sea salt instead.

Other foods that contain valuable trace minerals are roasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, dark chocolate, and sea vegetables. Snacking on nori or dulse will satisfy that yen for salt in a way that’s actually good for your health.

Sweets to the Sweet

When we consume sugar, we get a jolt of energy — and one of endorphins. There’s a reason it’s called a sugar rush. Sweets, perhaps more than any other food, are strongly linked to our emotional well-being. So before you rip into that box of Girl Scout cookies, try a little non-edible self care: a soothing bath, mini-massage, or five minutes’ worth of meditation.

Still craving something sweet? You could be dehydrated; have a big glass of water and wait a few minutes. Or nosh on a naturally sweet treat like dried plums or dates, a roasted sweet potato, or whatever fruit is in season. Another good choice is a sensible portion of matcha chocolate, which can provide heart-healthy antioxidant benefits along with the mood boost.

High Fat, Huge Flavor

There’s a reason that state-fair food vendors deep fry everything from Oreos to beer: fat is delicious. Whether you prefer a rich triple-creme cheese, a slice of meat-lovers’ pizza dripping with grease, or a doughnut fresh from the fryer, you’re probably seeking comfort when you reach for a high-fat snack.

The thing is, our bodies do need fat. Our brains thrive on it. It’s just a matter of eating the right sort of fat. Instead of red meat, butter, chips, and chicken wings, indulge in “good” fats — from olives, nuts, fish like salmon and mackerel, or avocados. That’s one surefire way to calm those cravings while still doing your cardiovascular system a solid.

Wrapping Up

Cravings aren’t inherently good or evil. They may be communicating a physiological need, but it’s equally likely that your hankering for a particular food is rooted in your emotional state. Rather than giving in immediately, step back and take stock to see if you could be satisfied in another way. You just might find that your body can get along just fine without that bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or sour gummy bears!

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