Got a Craving? Here's What Your Body Actually Wants You to Eat

Stop cravings in their tracks by decoding what they really mean.

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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 have to leave the house to go and buy it, 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," explained Lisa Cohn, RD, a New York City-based dietitian.

"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 eight expert-approved solutions and substitutes for every kind of craving.

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. 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," explained Jessica "Chef Jess" Swift, RD, a Washington, DC-area dietitian 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 eaten pizza and then craved ice cream an hour later, this is what's happening to your body.

Some research also suggests that stress and anxiety can lead to carb cravings. When you start to feel on edge, your brain might trigger carb cravings as part of your stress response.

If you're craving carbs and nothing else will do, opt for whole grains—they're rich in fiber and take longer to digest, so they'll keep you feeling full longer than simple carbs. Plus, there are plenty of other health benefits of whole grains.

When you crave carbs, try whole grains and other foods rich in fiber instead.

If You’re Craving Something Sweet

Research suggests that when stressed, we release the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to the desire for sweet foods.

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, you're already eating way too much sugar; the average person takes in 17 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, heart disease, and—of course—excess weight gain. Plus, a sweet treat can cause a blood sugar spike and crash, leaving you feeling sluggish and moody.

Reach for a piece of fruit instead. "When you're craving something cold, creamy, and sweet, think healthier options like frozen bananas, grapes, organic fruit purees, or homemade frozen yogurt pops," suggested Natalia Levey, certified health and nutrition coach and author of Cravings Boss.

Low-fat Greek or plain yogurt with some fruit is another nutrient-packed option. "The yogurt provides calcium which is good for your bones, and the berries are packed with immune-boosting antioxidants," said Keri Gans, RD, New York City-based dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet.

When you crave sugar, try these foods instead:

  • Fruit
  • Frozen yogurt
  • Plain yogurt

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," said Ashvini Mashru, RD, nutritionist and owner of Wellness Nutrition Concepts, LLC in Malvern, Penn. That's why stress often drives weight gain.

Another reason you could be experiencing salt cravings is that your body needs sodium. Everybody needs sodium, and research suggests that when the body is low in the nutrient, the brain triggers specific appetite signals to eat sodium.

But most Americans eat more than enough sodium, to the point it can become detrimental to their health, increasing the likelihood of stroke, heart disease, and hypertension.

You can satisfy salty cravings without tacking tons of extra calories—or a surplus of sodium—onto your day. Gans recommended 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," said Gans. "And olive oil is a healthy fat that contains a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid, important vitamins, and antioxidants."

When you crave salty foods, try roasted chickpeas instead.

If You’re Craving Something Hearty and Filling

Try eating 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 break down protein, it will satisfy you for longer and keep hunger pangs at bay," explained Mashru. It also helps promote lean body mass, which is essential for boosting your overall metabolic rate and healthy weight maintenance.

When you crave hearty/filling foods, try these foods:

  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Turkey

"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."

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," said 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 potato.

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 it in the microwave for approximately 5 to 8 minutes, rotating halfway through.

When you crave savory foods, try these foods:

  • Lentil soup
  • Sweet potatoes

If You’re Craving Something Chocolatey

Chocolate is a sweet that many of us crave when we are stressed. In addition, research has found that some people experience a significant increase in appetite and cravings for chocolate, sweets, and salty foods during the later stage of their menstrual cycle.

Another reason? Magnesium. Adults often consume less than the recommended amount of dietary magnesium, which may explain why many of us reach for magnesium-rich chocolate. "If you must, choose dark chocolate—about 75% cacao or higher," said Mashru.

"Additionally, opt for 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, suggested Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Flexitarian Diet and 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."

Certain chocolatey granola bars offer vitamins without an overload of sugar, but this is a situation when it's important to look at the packaging, since some granola bars contain much more added sugar than others.

Chocolate milk can satisfy your chocolate craving while reaping the health benefits of dairy. But be mindful of the added sugar—19.3 grams in a typical cup made with light syrup and whole milk, which isn't far from the recommended daily limit.

When consumed in moderation, chocolate milk offers nutrients that aren't in many other chocolatey snacks, such as calcium and vitamin A. You can also use a no-sugar chocolate milk powder or make your chocolate milk with less sugar. Of course, plain milk would be even better.

When you crave chocolatey foods, try these foods instead:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Chocolate/nut/coconut mix
  • Granola bars
  • Low-sugar chocolate milk

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.

"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," said Gans.

Add some cinnamon and almond butter to air-popped popcorn for the perfect balance of salty and sweet. Some research suggests the spice might help reduce blood glucose levels, which can also help ward off cravings, and almond butter brings healthy fat that makes popcorn taste extra decadent.

Try popcorn with cinnamon or almond butter when you crave salty and sweet foods.

If You Have No Idea What You’re Craving

Hydrate. Some experts believe our bodies may occasionally confuse thirst with hunger, which is why it can be so difficult to tell 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,'" explained Blatner.

As it turns out, when your body needs 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.

A Quick Review

Sometimes, cravings come out of the blue, and the first options that come to your mind aren't necessarily the healthiest. Fortunately, there are healthy ways to satisfy your cravings—sweet, salty, or otherwise—and provide yourself with nutrients in the process.

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