If our bodies know what they need, why do we crave junk food?
Distinguishing between a craving and true hunger is all about learning to read the messages your body is sending, according to Taylor Newhouse, registered dietitian with the Texas A&M School of Public Health.
"When you're hungry, your body needs nutrition. You need food for energy and to keep going throughout the day," Newhouse said. "A craving is different."
Lots of foods can fill you up, but a craving is a very specific, gnawing desire. It can be fueled by an emotional memory (remember how good it felt when grandma served PopTarts?) or an advertisement. Newhouse says that when we eat regular, nutritious meals, it's easier to ignore these craving triggers. Skipping meals leaves us more vulnerable to them.
"We're such a busy society, and a lot of times we work through lunch," Newhouse said. "When we are hungry, we can have even more intense cravings because we're starving, so we're drawn to high carb foods like cookies and chips."
The more we feed our cravings and ignore our hunger, the harder it is tell the difference between what we want and what we need. The language of cravings is similar to that of addiction, and as with any addiction, habitual indulgence often impairs good judgement. If you eat a plate of cheesy fries on a daily basis, for example, it can be harder to kick the cheesy-fry habit.
"When we have a high sugar, fat, and salt diet for a long time, we want more of it. They give your body a high and trigger endorphins and high dopamine levels, and we like to feel that," Newhouse said. "Typically, foods that are high in sugar and salt have a higher carb count, so we can digest them easier, and they get us that high faster."
Some foods have additional drug-like qualities, making the propensity for addiction even stronger. Coffee and chocolate, for example, are stimulants that give us extra energy to get through a busy day. However, this energy comes from caffeine, not nutrients, and daily consumption takes a toll.
"If it's part of what you do every morning, it becomes a routine, and you can become addicted to it. If you stop drinking coffee, you can experience withdrawal. You have a headache, you're irritable. All you can think about is needing coffee," Newhouse said.
"If you're addicted, you need to take a step back and think about whether you really need it every morning, or do [you] just prefer it?"
Hungry for Nutrients
Sometimes a craving is a nutrient deficiency in disguise. Certain treats offer a quick fix, when what we really need is something more substantial.
"When [you] crave salty foods—chips, pretzels, or popcorn—your body could be deficient in nutrients like calcium, potassium, or it's a sign of dehydration," Newhouse said.
"If you're craving chocolate, you could be potentially deficient in magnesium, copper, or iron. If you crave fried foods, you could be deficient in your essential fatty acids (omega 6s and 3s), or fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K."
Women are especially vulnerable to these types of cravings. "Women in general are more iron-deficient than men," Newhouse said. "When a woman is pregnant or menstruating, she needs more iron, calcium, and magnesium. That's why she may be craving chocolate or a steak."
Drinking more water and eating more nutrient-rich meals is the key to keeping these types of cravings at bay.
Tips to Curb Cravings
To make sure you get enough of what your body truly needs, Newhouse recommends eating the rainbow (colorful fruits and vegetables, not Skittles). She says that when our plate lacks color, it leaves us starving for certain nutrients, and that's when craving temptations kick in.
"If you look at the food on your plate, and it's all brown, like meat and potatoes or rice and beans, you need to put some other colors in there: reds, greens, oranges, blues, and purples.
"We need a variety of colors on our plate in order to cover all of our nutrients," she said. "Not one food can cover everything, so try something new. It may give you some nutrients you don't normally get."
One of the major reasons it's so easy to succumb to cravings is that junk food is so readily available, while making a balanced meal takes time and effort. Newhouse advises that we make healthy foods more accessible so we're not so easily tempted.
"Keep healthy snacks around. Try some slices of bell pepper or homemade kale chips if you're craving something salty and crunchy," she said. "Having those kinds of foods available will keep you from grabbing the candy bar from the vending machine."
Still, sometimes the heart wants what it wants. Newhouse says that a small indulgence is fine. Just don't go overboard.
"What typically happens is that we crave chips, so we eat the whole bag. When we overconsume, that's where we get into trouble. Having a little bit and then moving on and having something else is a much better way to go," she said.
"So if you're craving chocolate, have a little, but eat a healthy snack to go along with it, plus a glass of water. You're not depriving yourself of that craving, but you're doing it in a balanced way."