Why do we sometimes yearn for sugar or salt? Experts break down the reasons for these cravings.
Dying to munch on some fries? Or maybe a donut? There’s more to these cravings than just hunger. Nutritionist Pooja Vig and dietitian Jaclyn Reutens tell us more.
When you crave salt …
It’s usually because your body is trying to manage stress.
“Salt is thought to reduce the hormone cortisol, which is produced as a response to stress,” says Pooja from The Nutrition Clinic. “Raising your body’s sodium levels by just one to two per cent is enough to suppress your stress hormones. Salt also increases the body’s oxytocin (also known as the feel-good hormone) levels.”
She says you’re also likely to crave salt when you’re mildly dehydrated – like when you sweat a lot but don’t replenish your water levels – but adds that there’s more to salt cravings than an appetite for all things high in sodium.
“Many salty foods such as chips are also high in carbs. So it isn’t just the salt that’s being craved, but the high salt-high carb combination,” she explains. Fries, pizza, fried chicken and burgers are packed with both types of compounds, so it’s no surprise that they’re popular comfort foods.
Why having too much salt is a bad thing
“Having too much salt in your diet increases blood pressure and water retention,” says Pooja. “Also, many convenience foods that are rich in salt are processed, high in trans fats and often also high in carbs.”
What you can do about it
“You need to re-programme your taste buds,” says Jaclyn from Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants. “It takes two weeks to train your taste buds to be satisfied with a lower salt level. This may seem like a long time, but you’ll find it easier after a few days.”
Jaclyn also recommends having a warm drink whenever you have a salt craving, as cold drinks may intensify the craving.
“To satisfy your salt craving in a healthier manner, go for foods that are highly flavoured,” she says. “Your taste buds aren’t really asking for salt per se, but for more flavour, so you should experiment with adding more herbs and spices to your meals, like paprika, rosemary, thyme, pepper, chilli, nutmeg and cinnamon.”
When you crave sugar …
You just might be caught up in a toxic pattern.
“Sugar is highly addictive, as study after study has shown,” says Pooja. “Research has shown that our blood sugar levels fall dramatically after eating ‘bad’ carbs such as sweets and biscuits. This can affect the part of your brain that controls your impulses and lead to a craving for more sugar.”
So if you start your day with sugary foods, you’ll not only find yourself craving more a couple of hours later, but also find them particularly hard to resist. Pooja points out that sugar cravings can also be an indication of yeast overgrowth in the body. “If there’s an overgrowth of yeast in the gut, your craving for sugar might be heightened. And because sugar makes yeast multiply, the craving might intensify, and it’ll result in a vicious cycle,” she adds.
Why having too much sugar is a bad thing
“Obesity and diabetes are associated with having too much sugar in your diet. It also has a tremendous impact on your immunity and gut health,” says Pooja. “Plus, sugar is inflammatory, and inflammation is linked to almost every chronic illness.”
What you can do about it
“Sugar cravings come in waves and last about 20 minutes, so hang on and wait till it passes” suggests Jaclyn.
To keep yourself from reaching for a chocolate bar, Jaclyn recommends drinking some water as dehydration can lead to sugar cravings too. She also advises doing something that isn’t food-related to distract yourself.
“Just because you have a sugar craving doesn’t mean you have to substitute it with a healthier sweet option. A craving calls for food that isn’t necessary, so why eat?” she says. “Instead, take a walk to the restroom or out of the building. Or call or message someone.”
If you absolutely need to eat, Jaclyn says it’s OK to have a piece of fruit. Dried fruit is a good option too – just be careful to have no more than two tablespoons of raisins or cranberries.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Cleo.