Got a Craving? Here's What Your Body Actually Wants You to Eat
Stop cravings in their tracks by decoding what they really mean.
February 15, 2017
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The best snack for every craving
Ever find yourself rummaging through the fridge or kitchen cabinets for that delicious, satisfying something—except nothing seems to fill that void? Maybe you know what you’re craving, but would actually have to leave the house to go and buy it (who wants to do that?), or your craving is so ambiguous that even browsing the supermarket aisles might leave you stuck. Turns out, there’s more to your hankering than just hunger. “Often a food ‘search’ can arise when you’re in need of a break from work or sitting, so by nature you get up and stir around,” explains Lisa Cohn, RD, a New York City-based nutritionist. “Other times a quest can be triggered by an emotional or physical reaction that leaves us feeling frozen or out of control, and the act of searching for something to eat gives us a determination to take control.”
While there are several other potential reasons for sudden cravings, including a nutrient deficiency, sleep deprivation, and low blood sugar, there are healthy and satisfying snack choices you can make to quench a craving until your next meal. Here are nine expert-approved solutions and substitutes for every kind of craving.
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If you’re craving carb-rich foods
When you crave carb-heavy eats like bread and pasta, it may be because your energy levels have taken a nosedive. Thing is, these same empty carbs can make you crave even more unhealthy foods. “When you go too long without eating, or consume too many simple carbohydrates, your blood sugar drops, triggering your body to reach for starchy foods that are quick and easily digestible,” explains Jessica "Chef Jess" Swift, RD, a Washington, DC-area nutritionist and classically trained chef. “This will allow your blood sugar to spike and get back to normal quickly, but not make you full.” If you’ve ever eaten pizza and then craved ice cream an hour later, this is what’s happening to your body.
If you’re craving carbs and nothing else will do, opt for whole grain—they're rich in fiber and take longer to digest, which means they'll keep you feeling full for longer than simple carbs. (Plus, there are plenty of other health benefits of whole grains.) This overnight oats recipe is a Health staff favorite.
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If you’re craving something sweet
It’s easy to get a quick sugar fix from foods that might be lying around (hello, blueberry muffins in the office kitchenette). Chances are, though, that you're already eating way too much sugar; the average person takes in 22 teaspoons of sugar daily—more than three times the amount suggested by the American Heart Association. A growing body of research links the sweet stuff to high cholesterol and blood pressure, increased risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and—of course—excess weight gain. Plus, a sweet treat can cause a blood sugar spike and crash, leaving you feeling sluggish, moody, and hungry (again).
Reach for a piece of fruit instead. You'll be satisfied—we promise. “When you craving something cold, creamy and sweet, think healthier options like frozen bananas, grapes, organic fruit purees, or homemade frozen yogurt pops,” suggests Natalia Levey, certified health and nutrition coach and author of Cravings Boss. Low-fat Greek or plain yogurt with some fruit on top is another nutrient-packed option. “The yogurt provides calcium which is good for your bones and the berries are packed with immune boosting antioxidants,” says Keri Gans, RD, New York City-based nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet
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If you’re craving something salty
“When you're overly stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol, which can make you ravenous for high-fat, salty foods,” says Ashvini Mashru, RD, nutritionist and owner of Wellness Nutrition Concepts, LLC in Malvern, Penn. That's why stress often drives weight gain. But you can satisfy salty cravings without tacking tons of extra calories on to your day. Gans recommends roasting chickpeas tossed in heart-healthy olive oil and sprinkled with herbs and salt. “Chickpeas are a great choice when you don’t know what you want to eat because they’re a light snack, you can eat them on the go, and you can also experiment with different seasoning combos, depending on your mood,” says Gans. “And olive oil is a healthy fat that contains a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid, important vitamins and antioxidants.”
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If you’re craving something hearty and filling
Pack a punch of pure protein to reduce hunger and keep future cravings at bay. “Because it takes more work and a longer time for your body to digest and breakdown protein, it will satisfy you for longer and keep hunger pangs at bay,” explains Mashru. It also helps promote lean body mass, which is essential for boosting your overall metabolic rate and healthy weight maintenance. Some leaner options include eggs, chicken, and turkey (you could also try this recipe for no-bake energy bites). “Eggs are a pure, high-quality protein that clock in at just 75 calories a pop,” says Gans. “I like to hard boil them and add a drop of salt and pepper when I don’t know exactly what I’m craving.”
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If you’re craving something deep-fried
If you’ve had a low intake of fat for a few days your body can crave fatty things such as fried foods and butter. If you find yourself reaching for the crisps, try some nuts or avocado toast instead (here are four unique avocado toast recipes), as these foods are a far healthier way for you to get essential fats, says Chef Jess. Avocados are actually loaded with fat, which can help curb your craving for it, just not the type of fat you’re craving. “They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are considered 'healthy fats' thanks to their heart- and brain-boosting benefits,” she explains. Nuts are also packed with omega-3s as well as vitamin B6, which is responsible for regulating hormones and fighting cravings. If you’re really looking to limit snacking in the midst of squashing your craving, opt for pistachios, which provide a barrier and visual cue of high volume with their shells.
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If you’re craving something savory
A bowl of lentil soup can be a winner if you're craving a hot, savory dish. “Lentils are a good source of fiber and protein and this winning combination may help stabilize your blood sugars, keeping your appetite in check until your next meal,” says Gans. Another quick and easy sub? Sweet potatoes. Not only are they an excellent source of fiber, which means they take longer to digest, but they get your vision in check by providing over 400% of your daily vitamin A requirement in one medium-sized tater. If you’re stretched for time or don’t have access to an oven, simply pierce an uncooked sweet potato several times on each side and pop in the microwave for approximately 5 to 8 minutes, rotating halfway through.
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If you’re craving something chocolatey
Most adults consume less than the recommended amount of dietary magnesium, which may explain why so many of us reach for magnesium-rich chocolate. “If you must, choose dark chocolate—about 75% cacao or higher,” says Mashru. “Additionally, eat foods high in magnesium, like nuts and seeds.” A great way to mix the two is to combine almonds, dark chocolate chips, and unsweetened coconut flakes together on a plate and pop it in the microwave, suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author ofThe Flexitarian Dietand The Superfood Swap. “The almonds will help you feel less munchy with their satisfying triple threat of protein, fat and fiber and the chocolate chips will hardly add calories when used sparingly.” Thirsty, yet craving something sweet? Pour yourself a glass of chocolate milk and reap the health benefits of dairy. Packed with nine essential nutrients, its benefits far outweigh the added sugar.
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If you’re craving something salty and sweet
Can’t decide between the two tantalizing flavors but can’t think of one food item that satisfies both cravings? Grab some popcorn (try these 10 healthy flavored popcorn recipes). “I love popcorn because it is a 100% whole grain which is also heart healthy, and there are so many great ways to add flavor to it,” says Gans. Try adding some cinnamon and almond butter to air popped popcorn for the perfect balance of salty and sweet, as research shows the spice can reduce blood glucose levels, which can also help ward off cravings, and almond butter brings healthy fat that makes it taste extra decadent.
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If you have no idea what you’re craving
Hydrate! Many times our bodies confuse thirst with hunger, the key reason it can be so difficult for us to decipher exactly what food item will satisfy the craving. “The same area of your brain that controls hunger also controls thirst, so sometimes signals get crossed when you haven’t had enough to drink during the day to confuse you into feeling the sensations of ‘hunger,’” explains Blatner. As it turns out, when your body is in need of water, it doesn’t particularly care if you get it from an actual glass of H2O or your favorite pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Your best bet is to drink a quick glass of water when cravings strike and then wait 15 minutes to see if you’re still craving something to eat.
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