We all crave ‘bad’ foods from time to time, but your cravings could mean more than just simply wanting some tasty treats. Check out these hidden meanings behind five common food cravings and find out how you can overcome them.

1. What you crave: Chocolate

What you need: Magnesium

Chocolate is one of the world’s most commonly craved foods, appearing at the tills of every cornershop and petrol station, and while you may feel as though you are addicted to the sweet treat, it is believed that what many of us are actually craving when we are hankering after some chocolate, is in fact the mineral magnesium. Chocolate does provide a source of magnesium, however when trying to lose weight, healthier alternatives can be much more sympathetic to your waistline. Magnesium is used in over 300 enzyme systems including the regulation of chemical reactions, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control and protein synthesis, vital for many different areas and functions in the body. 

Healthy food swaps: Dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, medjool dates

To help ease chocolate cravings, make sure that you are getting enough magnesium in your daily diet through healthy sources such as nuts, seeds and pulses.

Soybeans, pumpkin seeds and a whole array of nuts provide a rich source of magnesium, helping you refrain from indulging in chocolate. But if nuts and seeds just don't satisfy the calling for chocolate, switching from milk or white chocolate to dark chocolate will provide a richer source of magnesium, whilst still fulfilling your chocolate cravings. Although chocolate can be high in fat, dark chocolate also has plenty of health benefits due to its abundance of antioxidants. A few of the health benefits found from dark chocolate include its ability to slow down muscle ageing, fight disease, prevent wrinkles, boost brain health and prevent heart disease. If dark chocolate doesn’t hit the spot, try snacking on medjool dates, which are rich in magnesium and a natural solution to sugar cravings.

2. What you crave: Pasta and bread

What you need: Serotonin

Research has found that eating carbohydrates stimulates the brain’s production of serotonin – the happy hormone. This may be why many of us crave stodgy ‘comfort’ foods such as pasta and bread when we are feeling blue. Although you may be in need of a sugary energy fix, craving carbs may be due to low levels of tryptophan, an amino acid needed in the synthesis of serotonin. Low moods, anxiety and sleeping issues can be caused by low levels of this acid, and increasing your blood sugar, as carbs do, will increase levels of tryptophan to the brain, improving your mood. 

Healthy food swaps: Sweet potatoes, lentils, milk, eggs and bananas

To get a healthy fix of carbs, without the blood sugar crashes and energy slumps, opt for nutritious and low GI carbohydrates that will release a steady supply of energy and keep you feeling full for longer. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include beans, lentils, oats and sweet potatoes. Replacing carbs with protein can satisfy the carb cravings, and taking in foods naturally rich in tryptophan, which carbs aren't, can also increase your mood without taking on the carb calories. These include milk, eggs, turkey, cottage cheese and bananas. As well as switching your carbohydrate sources, you can also reduce cravings by boosting your serotonin levels through exercise and mood-boosting activities. Try using uplifting essential oils such as neroli and lemon which also stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain.

3. What you crave: Sugar

What you need: Chromium

We are all tempted by sugary treats and desserts from time to time. However, if you find yourself experiencing regular, intense cravings for sugar, this could be a symptom of low levels of the mineral chromium from your diet. This mineral works with insulin in the blood to take glucose to the cells, even helping out unstable blood sugar levels for those with diabetes. So when sugar is low because of deficient chromium, it is simple to understand why you crave those easily available sugars. 

Healthy food swaps: Grape juice, whole grains, green vegetables and apples

Despite the fact that vegetables don't provide the same satisfaction of sweets can, these foods provide a natural source of chromium instead of filling your body with more insulin, resulting in sugar crashes. Apples and whole grains are good sources of chromium and can also provide healthier solutions to sugar cravings. Snack on apple slices or porridge sweetened with honey and dried fruit next time you are tempted to indulge. Try also replacing your sugary carbonated drink with a glass of antioxidant-rich grape juice, which is also a great source of chromium, helping you avoid sugary snacks that can inflame deficient chromium levels. An array of vegetables and greens provide a good source of chromium and so it may be worth throwing in a vegetable rich salad to your diet, reducing the need for sugary sweets.

4. What you crave: Meat

What you need: Iron

Craving burgers, sausages or steak? Intense and frequent cravings for red meat could be a sign that you are deficient in iron – an essential mineral which is required for the production of healthy red blood cells. Low iron and people suffering with anemia find an array of accompanying symptoms; including tiredness, shortness of breath, restless legs or pain and many others. Iron is used for the absorption of oxygen and if deficient can have significant problems to your health. 

Healthy food swaps: Lean meat, fish, pulses and spinach

Unless you are opposed to eating meat for ethical reasons, craving meat is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you make healthy choices. Rather than filling up on highly processed and fatty sources of meat such as burgers, opt for quality lean meats such as chicken or turkey. Alternatively, oily fish is a good source of iron and contains many other health-boosting nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. For those who wish to refrain from eating meat, vegan sources of iron such as beans, lentils and nuts can help to ease your cravings. Even spinach, wholemeal breads and nuts can provide a healthy source of iron, popeye didn't eat cans of spinach for nothing.  

5. What you crave: Salty snacks

What you need: Relaxation

You may think that your cravings for savory snacks are simply based on how good they taste, but research suggests your salt cravings could in fact be a symptom of stress . When stressed the adrenal glands release hormones, sodium slows down the release of these hormones and so craving salt, high in sodium, can help encourage the reductions of these stress hormones. Stress is a normal part of our lives, but sometimes our bodies are producing stress hormones when we arent acknowledging the fact that we are stressed. If salty treats are an issue for your weight, replacing these foods or taking up some regular relaxation techniques can significantly reduce stress and swerve salty cravings. 

Healthy food swaps: Popcorn, beans, potatoes, herbal teas and yoga

The best way to overcome stress-induced salt cravings is of course to find a healthier way to deal with stress. Experiment with different relaxation techniques, such as exercise, meditation or aromatherapy , to help find one that works best for you. Herbal teas, particularly chamomile tea, is known to have beneficial effects for relaxation and sleep, important for the reduction of stress. If you are still craving salty snacks, opt for those nutrient rich low-fat foods, lightly salted popcorn and experimenting with different vegetables for example, serve as a healthier option. As potassium can help to reduce the harmful effects of sodium on blood pressure and the heart, choose foods which are rich in potassium too, such as salted edamame beans or a lightly seasoned baked potato.

If you are still a bit lost as what you are craving and what you should be eating, here is a basic table addressing what foods you can substitute to keep up on your healthy diet. 

What you’re craving What you need What to eat
Chocolate Magnesium Nuts, seeds, fruits, dark chocolate.
Carbohydrates Serotonin (Tryptophan) Beans, lentils, oats, sweet potato, milk, eggs, banana.
Sugar Chromium Grape juice, apples, whole grains, vegetables eg. broccoli and lettuce.
Meat Iron Lean meat, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, spinach.
Salt Relaxation Popcorn, potato, beans, herbal tea, relaxation techniques.