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Food cravings are funny things—once the desire for a certain food strikes, it can be hard to think about anything else until you give in. You can spend your weekend meal prepping and have a ton of nutritious food ready for the week, but when a craving for salty food sets in it’s easy to push those balanced meals and snacks aside and reach for a bowl of boxed mac & cheese or a bag of chips, instead.
Research reveals that cravings can pop up for a lot of different reasons, many of them psychological—nostalgia, memories, emotional attachments, pleasure, and reward all play a role here. But psychology isn’t the only factor behind cravings. Hormonal changes and nutrient deficiencies play a role in some situations, too.
To learn more about what drives some of the most common food cravings—salty, sweet, caffeine, and more—we reached out to some leading nutritionists. Beyond lending some insight into why our cravings appear, they also shared some helpful advice for curbing cravings. Did you know that staying hydrated may be a good way to keep salt cravings to a minimum? Keep reading to see what else they had to say about some of the most common cravings.
Salty Food Cravings
What Salty Food Cravings Mean: According to our experts, if you’re craving salty foods, there’s a good chance you’re dehydrated. This might be from sweating, illness, exercise, chronic stress, drinking too much alcohol, diuretic medication, or even from stomach troubles that have you in the bathroom a lot. Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition, says these cravings are often a sign your body is trying to rebalance electrolytes and water.
“Our body naturally craves fluids and salty foods to help replenish the electrolyte balance that can easily get unbalanced,” says registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman. “The best way to curb a salty “junk food” craving is by eating foods that are higher in salt naturally like beets, celery, and carrots, or adding quality salts such as pink Himalayan salt to meals or vegetables.”
You also might crave salt because you regularly eat salty foods. “You tend to crave what you eat a lot of in your diet,” Shapiro says. Take a look at what you normally eat on a daily or weekly basis, and if that includes a ton of salty and processed foods and a heavy hand on the salt shaker, try cutting back to see if your salt cravings subside.
How to Curb Cravings For Salty Food: Hydration may be the key to kicking your salt cravings. You’ll want to make sure you drink enough water each day, and add in electrolytes if you’ve lost a lot of fluids through sweating or sickness. Steven Reisman, a cardiologist and director of New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center recommends drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. Another common rule of thumb to make sure you’re drinking enough water each day is to divide your weight (in pounds) in half and drink that amount in ounces.
If stress might be the culprit that’s driving your cravings, make an effort to decrease your stress levels with exercise, a healthy diet, and rest. “Before submitting to a food craving, consider your stress levels and try to reduce them through alternate methods rather than binge eating,” Beckerman says.
Keep a water bottle with you at all times to encourage regular hydration throughout the day. Team Byrdie loves this BKR option, which comes with lip balm built-in to the cap.
Sweet Food Cravings
What Sweet Food Cravings Mean: "We crave sugar in response to imbalanced blood sugar levels,” Shapiro says. “As they go up cravings subside, but as they come down our body craves more.” Blood sugar imbalances can happen for a lot of reasons, including not eating enough, and eating too many starchy foods and not enough protein and healthy fats. Sugar cravings are also common when we’re tired, because sugar tends to be a go-to source of energy when our body needs it quickly.
“It would make sense that your body craves high-calorie foods when it’s not getting enough calories,” says registered dietitian Alix Turoff. “If you’re on a low carb diet, it’s possible that you’ll crave sweets because your body is asking for the most simple form of glucose to fuel itself.”
How to Curb Cravings For Sweets: Keep your sugar intake to a minimum and make sure to eat balanced meals containing protein and healthy fats. ”Curbing sugar cravings can be as easy as eating fulfilling, nutritious meals including a hearty and balanced breakfast and drinking plenty of water,” Beckerman says. “Turning to vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, naturally sweetened foods such as coconut, grapes, and berries, or high-fiber foods like garbanzo beans and lentils can also help curve these cravings.”
If sugar cravings keep popping up because you’re tired, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. You can also try to incorporate calming activities like meditation and yoga into your day. Shapiro recommends finding ways to improve your sleep cycle and stress levels rather than reaching for sugar.
What Caffeine Cravings Mean: Does the idea of a morning without coffee leave you nervous? Or maybe you’re overly familiar with that pesky afternoon slump that has you heading out for a latte to make it through the rest of the work day. Coffee cravings can happen for a number of reasons—sometimes it’s simply just a habit, while other times we’re reaching for it to help fight the exhaustion we feel when we’re stressed. “It can also show that we have low iron levels since symptoms include fatigue and weakness,” Shapiro says.
How to Curb Cravings For Caffeine: To fight coffee and caffeine cravings, you’ll want to stay hydrated, make sure you’re getting enough rest, and eat iron-rich foods like beans, shellfish, spinach, red meat, quinoa, tofu, and broccoli. If you have a feeling your craving may be habitual, try changing up your habits and starting your day with a glass of tea or lemon water before reaching for caffeine.
What Chocolate Cravings Mean: “Chocolate is high in both sugar and fat and can be craved for a multitude of reasons including a sugar fix, PMS, hunger, caffeine craving, habit, stress, or if your body is in need of magnesium,” Beckerman says.
Meanwhile, sometimes your body develops a habit of reaching for certain foods when you’re in a specific mood. “If you always go for chocolate when you’re sad, you create a conditioned response,” Turoff says.
How to Curb Cravings For Chocolate: Dealing with a chocolate craving is going to depend on its source. One option is to look for a healthier food that’s high in fat and sugar—Beckerman recommends avocado toast or an apple with almond butter. Balanced meals and snacks may help you maintain energy levels and keep cravings at bay. If your craving is because of a magnesium deficiency, try eating magnesium-rich foods like avocado, beans, almonds, tofu, fatty fish, and even dark chocolate.
Remember that it’s also okay to give in and eat the chocolate you’re craving. Especially if you’re not making a habit of eating a chocolate bar a day. “The best way to get that chocolate fix is to pick up a dark chocolate bar with a high cocoa percentage—85% or higher—as it will have more antioxidants and less sugar,” Beckerman says.
Junk Food (Processed Foods) Cravings
What Junk Food Cravings Mean: Sometimes we crave junk food because we eat it all the time and have become addicted to it. Eating junk food can stimulate a reward system in which the brain releases dopamine and other chemicals that our brain interprets as pleasurable. “Eating modern junk foods can cause a reward system that is more powerful than consuming any whole food,” Beckerman explains.
Sometimes nostalgia and memories of positive or negative times in our lives drive our junk food cravings. “For example, we crave popcorn when we go to the movies because we remember going to see a movie as a child and getting popcorn,” Turoff says. “Or we crave certain cookies around the holidays because our mom always made them.”
How to Curb Cravings For Junk Food: Overcoming junk food cravings can be tricky because sometimes it’s all you can think about. The best way to minimize junk food cravings is to limit the amount of processed foods you eat, and focus on balanced meals that contain a variety of nutrients.
Beckerman advises eating healthy, nutrient dense food from the start of the day. “If your body has enough micro and macronutrients to sustain energy levels, your body won’t signal you to binge on sugars or salts,” she says.
You’ll want to keep in mind that despite what you’ve heard, many food cravings aren’t driven by specific nutrient deficiencies. Turoff says that more often, they’re driven by inadequate intake of calories or specific macronutrients, which includes fat, protein, and carbohydrates. In many cases, undereating or restricting certain foods can leave you wanting them even more, she explains.
Healthy Food Cravings
What Healthy Food Cravings Mean: Healthy food isn't exactly what you think of when the word "cravings" comes to mind, but there are definitely instances where your body will crave healthy food. “When our body craves healthy food, we are most likely experiencing a nutrient deficiency that is signaling our brain to consume foods containing these nutrients,” Beckerman says. “Consistent intake of healthy foods can also lead your body to recognize a pattern and habitually crave healthier meals.”
How to Curb Cravings For Healthy Food: This is one craving you don’t need to fight. If you’re body is asking for healthy foods, follow your cravings and eat something nutritious. It really is as simple as that.
Wehling H, Lusher JM. Cognitive and emotional influences on eating behaviour: a qualitative perspective. Nutr Metab Insights. 2019;12:1178638819855936. doi:10.1177/1178638819855936
Cleveland Clinic. Here's the deal with your junk food cravings. Updated December 14, 2020.