There's no surefire way to figure out exactly why you want to eat a particular food at a particular time. But some food cravings can hint at nutritional deficiencies or other health issues, according Joseph Colella, MD, weight-loss expert and author of The Appetite Solution.
So while food cravings aren't the best diagnostic tools on their own, listening to what you crave—and putting those cravings into context—can help you give your body what it really needs. So consider these triggers the next time you experience a common food craving:
- You're getting your period, you're pregnant, or you're having a shitty day. Because society vilifies chocolate as high in calories and fat, people tend to crave chocolate at times when they think it's socially acceptable to eat it, explains says Julia M. Hormes, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. So if you've heard that raging hormones make you crave chocolate or that chocolate contains special chemicals that improve your mood, you may crave it when your period is on its way or after a particularly bad day. "We attribute cravings to whatever is obvious to us—we use any excuse to indulge," Hormes adds.
- You're on a diet that's too restrictive. "Cravings can be the result of our intent to stay away from things that are pleasant and pleasurable to eat," Hormes says. And when you're hungry from restricting calories, your body registers chocolate—a food that's calorically dense—as a perfect food to fill up on. It helps that chocolate melts at body temperature for an orgasmic mouthfeel—it really doesn't get better than that.
- You're pre-diabetic. This is only a real risk if your candy cravings are accompanied by the increased urgency to pee, and if your sugar cravings are extreme and chronic, Dr. Colella says. (If you're concerned, see your doctor for a blood test.)
- You're getting or you have your period. Any change in hormones levels can increase sugar cravings. (So it's not an urban myth!)
- You're overdosing on processed carbs. Oftentimes candy cravings are related to what you ate at your last meal: white bread, white rice, and pasta contain simple carbs that spike your blood sugar for instant boot of energy that lands you in a lazy slump—and leaves you searching for your next sugar fix.
- You're stressed as hell. Sugar activates your brain's reward center. In nail-biting situations, you might subconsciously crave candy (or donuts or cake) for some sweet relief.
3. Carbs like bread and pasta
- You're actually craving sugar. (See candy above.) "Once a starchy food gets past the back of your tongue, your body treats it the same way as sugary sweets," Dr. Colella says. You might reach for a bagel or a bowl of pasta before dipping into your candy stash because eating foods feels more socially acceptable than eating sweets.
4. Ice cream
- You may have heartburn or acid reflux. Creamy dairy foods tend to be soothing, Dr. Colella says.
- You might be taking too many over-the-counter pain relievers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen and Motrin may seem harmless, but they can actually cause low-grade inflammation in the stomach, according to Dr. Colella. An ice cream craving could be your body's way of expressing irritation—and a sign it needs a break.
- You're tired. Ice cream (and healthy-sounding dairy foods like skim milk and yogurt) contains natural milk sugars that can give you a quick boost of energy. If you need a pick-me-up and happen to <3 <3 <3 ice cream, it might be first food you reach for. (Ditto for fro-yo: Even fat-free flavors tend to be pumped up with sugar.)
5. Salty foods like chips and pretzels
- You're dehydrated. Thirst is often masked as hunger. So a craving for salt, which helps your body retain water, could mean you aren't drinking enough or you are losing water (through sweating, diarrhea, or vomiting) faster than you're ingesting it.
- You're stressed. Many salty foods—like chips, crackers, and pretzels—are crunchy. Eating crunchy foods can help relieve stress, Dr. Colella says.
- You've been eating mostly soft foods. Many salty foods—like chips, crackers, and pretzels—are crunchy. When your diet consists of mostly mushy stuff—like smoothies, soups, and yogurts—your salivary glands and the muscles in your jaw get (understandably) bored, Dr. Colella says. After a day or two, they need a little stimulation—so a crunchy craving is born.
6. Meat like steaks and burgers
- You're not eating enough protein—especially if you eat mostly vegetarian or work out a ton. Few people who resistance- or weight-train eat enough protein, Dr. Colella says. On days when at least 50 percent of your workout involves resistance-training, try to eat about one gram of protein for every pound you weigh, he suggests. (And if you're trying to lose weight, eat one gram of protein for every pound of your goal weight.)
- You have a chronic iron or vitamin B deficiency. If you get heavy periods, menstruation can leave you short on iron. If you don't eat quite enough protein (a good source of iron) in the first place, and skimp on it throughout the course of a few cycles, your hankering for meat could mean your body is short on essential nutrients.
7. French fries and other fried foods
- You're sleep-deprived. Because lack of sleep leaves you low on energy and food provides energy to fuel your every move, it's easy to confuse exhaustion with hunger. (It's why you might crave a greasy breakfast after a sleep-deprived night and gravitate toward late-night fries.) Your brain knows these deep-fried foods activate your reward center for a satisfying sense of fullness, Dr. Colella says—although he warns this feeling is only temporary and you'd do better to indulge in foods prepared with healthy fats rather than frying oils.
- You're actually craving sugar. You might think of cheese as a potent source of fat and protein. But your brain knows better: Cheese also contains natural milk sugars. (See candy cravings above.)
- You're not getting enough calcium or vitamin D. Cheese and other dairy foods serve up calcium and vitamin D, and it's not uncommon to eat insufficient amounts of these nutrients. Luckily, your body produces vitamin D when it's exposed to direct sunlight. But if you work indoors or live in a cold climate, you might still fall short on D—which means your body might crave it in the form of grilled cheese.
- You don't eat enough fat. Cheese is a good source of this essential nutrient—and it's only natural to gravitate toward the gooiest and most delicious source.
9. Any other super-specific food
- You're reacting to a sensory cue or an emotional trigger. When you develop a late-night craving for white pizza after a big bar night out, it's probably not because your body needs calcium from the mozzarella. More likely, it's because you ended every sloppy Saturday night in college at the campus pizza joint eating that same slice.
- You're denying yourself that food. Obviously cutting specific foods out of your diet makes you want that food even more. It's why you should allow yourself at least a little bit of every food you love.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.