When it comes to food cravings, you probably fall into one of two categories. You might crave sweet things like cookies or chocolate. Or you might crave a big bag of potato chips or salty pretzels. Maybe you crave both? But a lot can be said about the types of food you crave.
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The reasons we crave sugar and salt are partly physiological, partly psychological and partly because of the environment in which we live.
“The human body functions a bit like a car – you put fuel in the tank, and then you drive. If the body doesn’t get the fuel it needs, then strong physical cravings can manifest,” explains dietitian Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDCES.
What kind of fuel does your body need? A balanced intake throughout the day of high-fiber carbohydrates, lean protein and heart-healthy fats, she says.
Are you guilty of these three factors that can contribute to cravings?
1. You’re starving yourself
Think you’re being “good” by having coffee for breakfast and a garden salad for lunch?
“Truly, you’re setting yourself up for failure in the afternoon and evening,” says Taylor. “If you go too long without eating, your body will crave the fastest fuel it can think of — refined grains and simple sugars,” she says. These are also known as empty carbs such as chips, as well as candy and cookies.
Cramming them into your body late in the day means the calories will get stored as fat.
Another popular trap you may be guilty of is meal-skipping or waiting too long between meals to eat. “This leads to significant hunger, which makes you crave anything sweet or salty you can get your hands on,” says Taylor.
Having an all-or-nothing mentality — forbidding all foods with sugar or salt — can backfire too. “Some research suggests that eliminating sweet and salty foods makes you crave them less,” says Taylor. “But eventually, most people tend to give in and resume eating the foods they’ve restricted. That often leads to bingeing.”
2. You don’t realize how addictive sugar and salt can be
Why do we crave sugar and salt, in particular?
For one thing, they taste good. Many food companies conduct research to determine which food components will tempt consumers’ taste buds the most.
“Our brains are wired to enjoy things which make us happy,” says Taylor. “Sugar, in particular, releases brain chemicals, like serotonin, that make us feel good.” This leaves us wanting to experience that good feeling over and over again, day after day.
“Many people say they’re ‘sugar addicts,’ consuming real sugar and artificial sweeteners in various forms,” says Taylor. And some sweet and salty foods and drinks are incredibly addictive. That’s why many processed foods are loaded with them. They trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that motivates us to engage in rewarding behaviors.
Over time, our tolerance for sweet and salty foods builds up, and we need more to reward ourselves. “We’re basically feeding our taste buds,” explains Taylor. “This creates a vicious cycle, because your taste buds typically crave what you feed them.”
It doesn’t help that sugary and salty foods — especially processed foods — are highly accessible. “It’s extremely challenging for kids, in particular, to ignore the natural temptation of these addicting foods and to fight cravings in the school environment and at home,” notes Taylor.
3. You’re not listening to your body
Jonesing for a sweet or salty treat? Before you indulge, check your fatigue level. “Research shows that when you’re tired, you’re more likely to turn to whatever you crave to get more energy or to wake up,” Taylor says.
Perhaps you find yourself bingeing on salty snacks. The next time it happens, pay attention to your stress level. “Stress may impair your adrenal glands’ ability to regulate sodium, which may lead to salt cravings,” she says.
Take thirst into account, too. Some research suggests that mistaking dehydration for hunger may trigger cravings as well, she adds.
Finally, if you have diabetes, you probably know you get hungrier than other people. But excessive hunger can mean your blood sugar is too high or too low.
If you find yourself craving sweets, check your blood sugar first,” Taylor suggests. “If it’s over 200, try going for a walk or other light to moderate cardiovascular exercise, drinking a big glass lots of water or, if your doctor prescribes it, take insulin. If your blood sugar is less than 80, eat 15 grams of carbohydrates to help bring it back up to a safe range.”
Understanding the reasons why you crave these sweet and salty foods can help you reduce those cravings and work toward a more balanced diet.