Healthy Body  >  What Do Your Cravings Really Mean

What Do Your Cravings Really Mean

Peanut Butter and Jelly on Toast

“I have no willpower.” “If only I didn't have such a sweet tooth, I would be so healthy!” “Why can’t I stick with my clean eating plan… What’s wrong with me??”

Do you struggle with food cravings? If so, you’re not alone. Some of the healthiest people I know still find themselves craving brownies and fries once in a while — or even all the time!

So often, well-meaning experts offer advice on how to “beat” or “conquer” cravings, as though they’re a personal failure to overcome. But that’s far from the truth! Why? Because our bodies are really smart, and they know exactly how to stay in perfect balance to feel good. In other words, your strong urges for cookies, cheese, or bread might actually give you insight into what your body needs at that moment. That’s why it’s so damaging when we meet cravings with negativity, rather than curiosity.

Think of your cravings as a message carrier for your body, instead of something to control, conquer, ignore, or even feel bad about. When a craving for sugar, salt, carbs, or caffeine strikes, it’s your chance to tune in and pay attention to what your body is trying to say. The key is to set aside any judgment and adopt a lens of authentic interest.

Here’s how to discover what your cravings might be telling you: Ask yourself a few questions, starting with the obvious.

Am I thirsty? When was the last time you had a glass of good, old-fashioned H2O? Your body might communicate dehydration with hunger pangs, so what you interpret as a food craving could actually be a plea for more water. And if you’re bored with plain old water, load up on hydrating foods as an additional thirst quencher. (Think: chia pudding  and hydrating soups!)

Fall Foods Cravings

Am I hungry? Did you eat enough, or wait too long between meals? Were your macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) properly balanced? When you look back at what you’ve had to eat, notice whether your meal provided everything you need. For example, a smoothie that’s mostly fruit without protein or healthy fats is refreshing, but it won’t keep your blood sugar stable or your body satisfied for very long. You’ll likely find yourself searching for food shortly after drinking it.

Am I tired? When you’re over-tired, hunger-controlling hormones like leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol can all be affected, which impacts your satiety levels and can cause a strong desire for carbs and sugar. If there’s a pattern to your cravings (for example, they hit every day at 3 p.m.), your body may be looking for a pick-me-up because you’ve simply run out of energy.

Did I start my day right? Your mother was right: a balanced breakfast, with an adequate amount of protein and fat, is essential to preventing cravings before they start. (Find lots of my favorite ideas here.)

If you can honestly rule out these physiological reasons for cravings, then it's time to dig deeper.

Am I stressed? After paying attention to my cravings over time, I realized that I crave crunchy foods when I’m stressed. Of course, I could swap celery or carrot sticks for chips; ultimately, I found that movement actually works even better, engaging more than just my jaw to burn through those uncomfortable, anxious feelings. Try these unconventional forms of meditation to get grounded and create a sense of calm.

Am I bored? A classic cause of the afternoon munchies! If you find yourself staring blankly at your screen and dreaming about snacks all afternoon, consider what else you could do. When I was logging extra long days while writing my book, I craved lots of chocolate; in my calmer moments, I realized that I was really seeking pleasure fun, rather than the strenuous schedule of work I had laid out for myself. Instead of just sitting in front of my computer tapping away for hours on end, I scheduled in playtime, like walks in the woods with my pups. It worked like a charm to reduce my chocolate cravings.

What Do Your Cravings Really Mean

Am I looking for a treat? One client of mine, a busy mom of three, had a very healthy diet, but every day around 3 p.m., she had an overwhelming urge for a sugary blended coffee drink. When she and I dug into what was really going on, we figured out that it was a “treat” that she felt she deserved, as a respite before her kids got home. When we replaced the caffeine with things like a loud music dance break, a different kind of physical treat, she realized it was never about the coffee (or food!) at all, and found other ways to “reward” herself for a productive afternoon.

When you slow down and open the lines of communication to connect with your body, you’ll understand exactly what you need. Remember, it’s hard to go wrong when you’re listening.

Now it’s your turn: I challenge you to tune into your inner wisdom by filling in the blanks below.

I crave ____________. But what I’m really craving is____________.

My personal example: I crave chewy chocolate chip cookies as an afternoon pick-me-up. But what I’m really craving is an energy-boost for my sleep-deprived body and a good night of rest.

Post your answer in the comments. Let’s inspire one another to get curious about our cravings – without judgment, of course!


  • Your first question, “Am I thirsty,” almost always proves true when I seek the answer to a craving. I don’t always want cold water, but I’ve found a cup of hot water to slake my thirst and feel good too.

    I didn’t realize that fatigue can affect our hunger-controlling hormones. I do tend to eat sweets when I’m tired and the next meal is a couple of hours away, hoping for that short-term sugar boost to keep me focused on my work. Seldom do I find a “healthy” snack as satisfying at that time. Think I’ll give your loud music dance break a whirl. Um, pun unintended. Thanks for the tips!

  • Beverly Rosenstein says:

    I crave salt so often! When I exercise, I always have my water on hand, but that’s not enough. I will eat anything that isn’t walking faster than me when I’m tired too!
    I changed by seeking healthier snacks like almonds, mango, celery, carrots, hummus. I choose to manage anxiety, not by eating treats, but rather by meditating & taking more control of my life. Noshing on naughty nibbles at night is another no-no.! Chai tea or lemon in warm water is so good for you! I’m inching closer to being more mindful with the advice from Elise! Kudos to Elise!

    • Beverly,
      Thank you so much for sharing all the wise ways that you have dealt with the cravings and mindful eating. You’re such an inspiration to this community!

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