It can strike when you least expect it—an overwhelming desire to satisfy a food craving. You may be desperate for a burger, cake, chocolate, pizza or some other specific food.
Even though food cravings seem harmless enough, they are often a red flag that a person’s diet needs attention. Strong food cravings generally don’t occur unless the body is crying out for particular nutrients—ones that can almost always be found in more healthful foods than what we may initially desire.
Five common cravings—and what each may mean…*
Burgers and steaks. A craving for red meat is often a sign that you’re lacking iron and/or conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that helps your body burn stored fat.
Healthful alternative: To satisfy your body’s need for iron, try dark leafy greens, such as spinach or Swiss chard. These vegetables may be a more healthful option if your diet is high in fat and carbohydrates.
An occasional steak (once a week) is OK, but try incorporating small amounts of red meat into your regular diet so you don’t go overboard when you indulge this craving.
Consider adding small amounts of lean beef into a vegetable soup or a sprinkle of lean ground beef into a bean chili. Lacto-vegetarians can get CLA in butter and low-fat milk.
Baked goods. If you’re desperate for a rich, gooey brownie, a piece of cake or a glazed donut, your blood sugar (glucose) levels are probably fluctuating, often in response to surges of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol triggers the release of glucose, thereby causing the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin to spike then drop precipitously.
Because baked goods are essentially sugar and carbohydrate, they provide a quick boost in energy and serotonin (a brain chemical that invokes feelings of happiness) when blood sugar levels are waning.
Healthful alternative: Try a piece of fruit or a glass of antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice. These natural sources of sugar provide nutrients that baked goods can’t, such as vitamin C. To curb your craving for carbohydrates, consider trying the dietary supplement chromium picolinate (200 mcg, three times daily).
Caution: Check with your doctor if you have diabetes. Chromium picolinate may alter drug requirements.
Physical activity, such as walking, also will allow your body to use up some of the excess cortisol. Exercise activates the body’s relaxation response to maintain healthy cortisol levels.
Chocolate. People who crave chocolate may be deficient in phenylalanine, an essential amino acid found in chocolate that the body converts into another amino acid, tyrosine. Tyrosine plays a key role in the production of the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which enhance mood and reduce pain. You may also crave chocolate when you need an energy boost.
Healthful strategy: Eat dark chocolate or cocoa powder with at least 75% cacao. Limit amounts of lighter chocolates, which contain more sugar and less cacao. Avoid all chocolate if you have phenylketonuria, a condition in which the body cannot process the phenylalanine found in chocolate.
Another option: Mix unsweetened cocoa powder with skim milk to taste (or follow the instructions on the cocoa powder container). Add the all-natural sugar substitute stevia and/or top with a small amount of whipped cream.
French fries. A craving for fries usually means your body is lacking sodium and/or serotonin or experiencing a blood sugar imbalance caused by high levels of cortisol.
Simple carbohydrates in potatoes break down into glucose, boosting your energy and serotonin levels. The salt used on fries satisfies your need for sodium, and the oil used for frying helps keep you satiated.
Healthful alternative: Eating about 20 salted nuts (two ounces)—such as almonds, pecans or walnuts—each day provides healthful omega-3s and sodium. (People with high blood pressure should eat unsalted nuts.) Nuts also provide a sustained glucose boost that helps stabilize blood sugar. A diet rich in proteins, vegetables, fruits and whole grains will naturally keep cravings for greasy, high-fat foods at bay.
Pizza. A craving for pizza usually means that you may be low in calcium (which is found in the cheese) and/or lacking in essential fatty acids (which are found in the cheese and olive oil).
Healthful alternative:Make your own pizza with a whole-grain crust, organic low-fat cheese, fresh tomatoes and veggies. Try adding to your diet more foods that are rich in essential fatty acids, including walnuts, avocado, flaxseed and fatty fish, such as salmon.
*If you continue to crave a certain food, consider getting tested for deficiencies in vitamins A, B-12, D and folic acid (these tests have been clinically proven, whereas the accuracy of other nutritional deficiency tests is questionable).