Food Lust Versus Food Need: What Are You Craving?

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

It’s tempting, when you come home from a lousy day at work, to stand in front of the refrigerator as you down a container of creamy ice cream.

A recent Newswise report posted by Texas A&M University looked at food cravings to discuss the difference between what we think our body may want in the moment and what our body really needs, from a health perspective.

Could you have a true nutrient deficiency?

Most experts think that our diets fulfill our basic nutrient needs. Clearly, though, a healthier diet is more likely to be truly rich in the vitamins and minerals that we need. According to the Texas A&M report, developing a sudden intense desire for chips could potentially mean that you are iron deficient. Craving fast food could possibly mean a deficiency of omega-e fatty acids. A chocolate craving could potentially suggest a magnesium deficiency. And when we think we are having hunger pangs, it could also be thirst.

Emotions can drive you to junk foods

According toDeborah Forman M.S., R.D., Professor of Nutrition at California State University Northridge, most cravings are not indicative of a true deficiency. That is to say, they are psychological, not physiological, in origin. “I have found that most people with (true) deficiencies do not have food/nutrient-specific cravings,” she says. “Instead, they are wracked with generalized symptoms of distress, e.g., fatigue, difficulty sleeping, mild depression, etc. I wish it were otherwise. It would be much easier to recognize and address deficiencies if all we had to do was obey certain of our cravings. Unfortunately, my experience (and the overall body of pertinent research) has shown otherwise.”

So it appears that most individuals may have emotional cravings for food and habitually turn to foods high in fat, sugar and salt to satisfy these hankerings.

Why do we crave these foods?

Recent studies confirm the addictive nature of highly processed foods.

Highly processed foods and junk foods typically contain high levels of sugar, salt and fat. These ingredients seem to provide especially rewarding sensations to specific areas in the brain. Researchers have found that highly processed foods were likely to have the same effect on the brain as hardcore drugs, when compared to non-processed foods such as wheat, fish, and other healthy whole foods.

A 2002 study also found that foods high in sugar and fat affect the brain just like heroin, opium or morphine. Obese individuals, like drug addicts, may have lower dopamine receptors in their brain which means they are also more likely to crave these foods that boost dopamine levels.

If you think about your own food cravings, you rarely crave cauliflower or brown rice. You mostly want to stuff yourself with chips, or ice cream or pizza. Food cravings are far more likely linked to emotional or psychological needs, rather than nutrient deficits.

Is it hunger or thirst?

Despite the assertion in the study that individuals should separate hunger from thirst, Forman does not really subscribe to that suggestion being a common problem. Still, she does encourage her clients to stay well hydrated through the consumption of water and water-dense fruits and vegetables. Forman uses a food diary to help identify any nutritional deficits. Once they are addressed with a food action plan, the person can then be confident, knowing cravings are truly psychological in nature and then use strategies to overcome those cravings.

Let cravings lead you to healthier snack foods

Emotional food cravings are common.

When Forman identifies the issue to a client, she creates a personalized list of healthier snack options. “Generally, I suggest a nutrient-rich, low-calorie snack. A personal favorite is berries (one cup of strawberries is only about 40 calories), a one ounce, low-fat piece of cheese (50 calories, 5 grams of protein), plain yogurt (about 100 calories, 18 grams of protein), and a small handful (10 to 12) of almonds (70 calories, fat, and 3 grams of protein). I also recommend vegetables; carrots, snap peas, and peppers are low-cal, filling, and full of phytonutrients.”

Most dieticians and nutritionists recommend that meals and snacks contain a serving of healthy protein and healthy fat, and a carbohydrate such as a fruit or vegetable. In the case of a meal, adding a whole grain carbohydrate offers more filling fiber. The combination of the different food groups will help to keep you satiated for several hours and also limit dramatic blood sugar shifts.

Also, seek healthier swap outs for your go-to junk foods. Try berries or grapes with a yogurt dipping sauce for a sweet craving, and fresh, raw broccoli or carrots sprinkled with seasonings like curry when you crave crunchy chips. If all else fails, a new study suggests that a supplement, inulin propionate, may be the next tool in the battle to deal with food cravings.

Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for more than 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”