What Your Biggest Comfort Food Cravings Really Mean

What Your Biggest Comfort Food Cravings Really Mean

Experts share how to address cravings in a healthy, balanced way.

By: Maressa Brown

For some, it’s pizza. And for others, it’s chocolate chip cookies. But we all have weaknesses in the form of food, and more often than not, it’s because these familiar foods bring us comfort. Of course, letting our emotions drive our eating is a no-no, but sometimes, your craving isn’t necessarily triggered by your heart or mind.

“Cravings may or may not be an indicator of a nutrient deficiency,” explains Rebecca Solomon, MS, RD, CDN, director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York. “A craving can be a psychological connection with a food, perhaps related to positive memories of eating it, or the events that surround it (for example, craving Thanksgiving stuffing or Grandma’s apple cake). It may also just be the desire for a simple and easily accessible pleasure, which food often is for us, in addition to providing us with calories and nutrients.”

That said, having a hankering for a certain dish could be your body telling you to address a particular imbalance or need. Here’s what experts had to say on some of the most common cravings women experience.

1. Chocolate: Many women report a desire for chocolate at all different times, but it’s the stereotypical PMS craving. “Chocolate is known to have somewhat of an anti-depressant effect, and dark chocolate in particular has antioxidant benefits,” explains Solomon.

Some researchers believe that when we crave chocolate, what we’re really looking for is the physiological effects of its nutrients and antioxidants, like anandamide, which has been shown to have a calming effect.

The fix: “Addressing your chocolate craving with a small square or two of high quality dark chocolate -- rather than a big piece of cake or several servings of milk chocolate -- is a great way to deal with and even benefit from the craving,” Solomon advises.

2. Cheese: If you’re dreaming of cheese and crackers, mac and cheese, or pizza, your body may be lacking certain nutrients. “A cheese craving usually [happens] when the body is deficient in fatty acids,” says nutritionist Christina Towle, CN.

The fix: “Incorporating nuts, seeds, wild caught salmon, and avocado are all important to conquer cheese cravings,” suggests Towle. “A daily omega-3 supplement and/or flax seeds are also key for protecting against cravings.”

But if that doesn’t cut it, you may want to simply enjoy cheese in the suggested portion size (typically 1 oz.) And choosing a strong or savory cheese with more flavor (like grated parmesan or crumbled feta or sharp cheddar) may make you more satisfied with less.

3. Bread: Sometimes, you just want a sandwich, a bagel, or maybe even pasta. “This is usually when the body wants fuel and is suffering from sugar imbalances,” explains Towle.

The fix: “The key to prevention of high and low sugar levels is sticking to a low-glycemic diet to stay in balance,” Towle recommends. “Get comfortable with low-glycemic foods like berries, green apples, most veggies (except for carrots), sweet potatoes, and high-quality grains like millet, quinoa, and brown rice.”

But it’s possible to give in to this craving and make a consciously healthy choice. “When nothing but bread will do, choose a living-grain bread or high-quality gluten-free bread,” advises Towle. If you opt for less healthy types of bread, “don’t eat an entire loaf. Limit yourself to a piece or two, and enjoy it,” says Solomon.

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4. Fries: Even if you’re nowhere near a burger joint, it’s not uncommon to suddenly find yourself craving a side of hot, crispy fries. This could mean you need salt. “This may mean dehydration or hormone fluctuation,” says Towle.

The fix: “Drink water or herbal tea throughout the day to keep hydrated, especially when exercising,” she says. “Coconut water will also help replenish electrolytes.” If the craving seems linked to your monthly hormonal shift, “try to regain balance by nourishing with high-quality alkaline foods -- veggies, high quality meat, grains.” You’ll also do well to try to manage stress and anxiety by meditating, taking a relaxing bath, etc.

After that, if you can’t kick the craving, “portion control and moderation is key,” says Solomon. “Also, make the proper nutritional adjustments to make room for them in your calorie budget. That is to say, if you want 300 calories’ worth of fries, then only eat half your burger. There are always ways to make the foods we want fit into our diet, but we have to be thoughtful and creative.”

5. Caffeine: We may tell ourselves our favorite flavored lattes are just part of celebrating the change of season, but if we’re actually craving that boost from a caffeinated drink, chances are some better sleep hygiene may be called for.

The fix: “There is nothing wrong with a cup of coffee or two a day, but if you are relying on caffeine at all times of day -- especially late afternoon/evening -- to stay awake, then it is more than likely you are not getting enough good quality sleep,” says Solomon.

And not getting enough sleep may make you more susceptible to bad-for-you cravings! So it’s key to try to get seven to eight hours each night.

To reenergize, you can try alternatives like water with lemon, green tea, or physical activity. “Get some fresh air and take long breaths to refuel instead of reaching for that coffee cup,” suggests Towle.

What craving is the toughest for you, and why?

Maressa Brown is a senior staff writer for The Stir. She loves writing about and reading up on health/fitness, relationships, and pop culture -- preferably on a beach somewhere.

Image ©iStock.com/Photolyric

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