Does chocolate start calling your name around 2 p.m.? Does that bag of potato chips start talking to you an hour after dinner?
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
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 Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD.
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.
Consider 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 Ms. Taylor. “If you go too long without eating, your body will crave the fastest fuel it can think of — refined grains and simple sugars.”
Cramming them into your body late in the day means the calories will get stored as fat.
Another popular trap: Skipping meals or waiting too long between meals. “This leads to significant hunger, which makes you crave anything sweet or salty you can get your hands on,” says Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD.
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 Ms. Patton. “But eventually, most people tend to give in and resume eating the foods they’ve restricted. That often leads to binging.”
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. Manufacturers 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 Jennifer Willoughby, RD, CSP, LD. “Sugar, in particular, releases brain chemicals that make us feel good.” This leaves us wanting to experience that good feeling over and over again, day after day.
“Many of my patients say they are ‘sugar addicts,’ consuming real sugar and artificial sweeteners in various forms,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD.
Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD, adds that “sweet and salty foods and beverages 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.”
Having fewer receptors for dopamine can trigger overeating. One study found fewer receptors for dopamine in the brains of obese individuals.
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 Ms. Titgemeier. “This creates a vicious cycle, because our taste buds typically crave what we 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 Ms. Willoughby.
Ever drink a diet soda or try sugar-free candy to satisfy your sweet tooth without adding calories? “Many people do, but that only compounds the problem,” says Ms. Kirkpatrick. Study after study shows that switching to diet beverages does not affect weight loss.
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,” says Ms. Patton.
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,” says Dawn Noe, RD, LD, CDE. “If it’s over 200, try exercising, drinking lots of water or, if your doctor prescribes it, take insulin.
“If your blood sugar is less than 70, eat 15 grams of carbohydrate to bring it up.”
Understanding that starving yourself can boomerang, that sugar and salt can be addictive, and that your body may be trying to tell you something can help you reduce cravings and embrace a more balanced diet.