What Your Food Cravings Are Really Trying to Tell You

A nutritionist explains how to handle your hankerings.

Food cravings can really pack a wallop. A desire for red meat may come on so strong that you veer off the highway in search of a burger joint. Or perhaps all you can think about is a homemade brownie. But it turns out these impulses are sometimes more than simple urges—they can also offer intel about what your body really needs.

"We live in a culture that vilifies cravings,” says Marci Evans, a registered dietician and eating disorder specialist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We think of them as forbidden desires that must be squashed. And that's unfortunate, because cravings aren't the enemy, Evans says. Rather, "[t]hey’re a communication from our body."

Here, she explains how to interpret and heed those signals in a healthy, mindful way. And keep in mind, of course, that your hankerings are just one piece of a larger puzzle. As Evans puts it, "not everything about our health is going to be communicated to us in a food craving."

Note unusual and persistent cravings

Examine whether your yearning is a huge departure from the norm. If you continue to have a “strong, unusual, insistent” desire that doesn’t get resolved by meeting it—say, by eating a steak when the pining for red meat strikes—“it’s a great idea to check in with your doctor.” Something like unquenchable thirst, for example, makes Evans think, “Do we have something going on with blood sugar levels, and it might be diabetes?” (And if you suspect hydration is the issue, make sure you’re getting electrolytes in addition to water.)

Listen to your gut

Craving a bit of chocolate after dinner? Pay attention to that, and really listen, suggests Evans. “For so long, people were taught, ‘If you want a dessert after dinner, have a piece of fruit instead!’” Some of her clients have that sort of psychological restriction, and for some, it’s been problematic. “They have a piece of fruit, another piece of fruit, more fruit… and then they binge on chocolate.”

The challenge, Evans says, is getting out of the restriction mentality. “Listen closely to what your body is chasing, and meet that need. We fear that all we’re going to crave [if we “give in”] is chocolate. But truthfully if we only ate chocolate all day, we’d be so desperate for something else.”

Evans experienced this firsthand on a road trip she took with girlfriends. “We ate burritos and candy, and by the end of the trip, my friend was like, ‘I just want to bury my face in a bag of kale.’” Every person in the car was craving fresh food. “Our bodies are genuinely interested in homeostasis,” says Evans.

Denial can intensify desire

“Our physical craving and mental preoccupation is often heightened when we avoid food,” says Evans. “The more the food is denied, and we say, ‘No, no, no,’ the more our brains actually become more excited about those foods.”

Imagine a toddler in a room surrounded by tons of toys. If that toddler spies your cellphone, and you quickly move it out of sight, what does she want? You guessed it: Your phone. “Your brain is no different,” says Evans. “The moment you’re like, ‘No, don’t have that Snickers bar,’ the craving for that Snickers bar is what we’re consumed by.”

It's usually okay to give in

So is a small amount of a chocolate bar better than six pieces of fruit, when you’re obsessed with a chocolate bar? Generally, yes, says Evans. “If you push the beach ball beneath the water, eventually it’s going to pop right out of the water, or explode.”

Not listening can backfire

Evans isn’t a fan of this “diet trick”: “If you think you’re hungry, just have a glass of water instead; maybe you’re just thirsty!” She thinks this exemplifies “being taught to dodge or avoid when in reality you’re just setting yourself up.”

She also mentions a common lack of mindfulness when we’re eating as potentially problematic. “Having a craving for a Snickers and then mindlessly shoving three [of them] in your mouth is very different from eating one, paying attention, and saying, ‘How does this taste?’”

People cast a lot of blame on cravings, she says, but “if they were really, really listening, the cravings aren’t the problem.”

See your cravings in a new light

If you view your yen for specific foods as a demon you have to face, or feel guilty when you “cave,” try to flip the way you think about cravings, suggests Evans. “One of the roots of the problem is the notion that we have in our Western culture, particularly dieting culture, where food is a bad thing, pleasure is a bad thing, cravings are a bad thing to be gotten rid of, and we respond to them as though they’re a threat.”

Just remember that road trip that left Evans and her girlfriends craving leafy greens. "The beauty [is] that our body demonstrates a yearning for balance.” So listen.

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