Overcoming Food Cravings - Ask a Nutritionist

January 25, 2024

This podcast often talks about sugar cravings, but what about when you crave other things? What causes you to reach for the dark chocolates, avocados, or that bag of nuts even after eating a well-balanced meal? Find out about why you crave what you crave, what you can do about it, and get your serotonin kick with Kristi on this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist.

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KRISTI: Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's Ask a Nutritionist podcast brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. I'm Kristi Kalinsky, a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. We're thrilled to be celebrating 20 years on air discussing the connection between what you eat and how you feel while sharing practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition.

Thank you for your support and listening over the years. If you're enjoying the podcast you've been listening to, let us know by leaving a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Now, let's dive into today's question. Today's question is from one of our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners, and it reads as follows:

“Why do we have different food cravings, other than sugar, and what can be done about it? For example, craving fats such as nuts and grabbing a handful of them even after eating a healthy, well-balanced meal.” This is a great question. Almost everybody I counsel has some kind of craving. Sometimes the cravings are for healthy foods and some cravings are for foods that aren't so good for us.

Before I answer this question, let me give some background on cravings in general. I know for the most part, it's believed that cravings are due to a lack of willpower and that we just cave to eating or drinking something we shouldn't. Or even gravitate towards a healthy food such as nuts when we should be satisfied after eating a meal.

The lack of willpower actually isn't the case. There are various reasons why we have cravings. So we're going to dive into those different reasons why and how we go about fixing those underlying issues.

Balanced blood sugar = reduced cravings

So the first thing we want to look at are our blood sugar levels throughout the day. Have you ever noticed that your cravings are worse when you've gone a long period of time without eating? Say three or four hours or more? When your blood sugar levels dip low, your body's main job is to get it back up into that normal or more comfortable range.

You will crave foods that break down into sugar or glucose rapidly so your blood sugar rises as fast as possible. So the foods that, break down into sugar quickly are processed carbohydrates, either in a salty form, think chips, popcorn, crackers, or bread. Or more sugary forms like candy, ice cream, cookies, or chocolate.

So one way to combat these cravings is to eat a balanced snack or a balanced meal every three to four hours to keep blood sugar levels stable. And when I say balanced, I'm referring to eating an animal protein, a vegetable carbohydrate, and a healthy fat.

So let's look at what our listener was craving. He or she was craving or gravitating towards salty nuts. When we're rummaging around in the pantry and looking for something such as salted nuts, we’ll crave fat from the nuts to help us balance our blood sugar. I would ask this person, has it been more than three or four hours since their last meal or snack?

Or, did they indulge in too many of those starchy carbohydrates or sugary ones like I listed, and their blood sugar now is too high? Low blood sugar and high blood sugar may be making this person gravitate towards a fat, such as nuts. Other things that people may crave when their blood sugar is out of whack are sour cream, peanut butter, and fried foods.

Sufficient protein intake = reduced cravings

Speaking of foods to eat, another thing to reflect upon in regard to cravings is how much protein you're eating daily. Not getting enough protein leads to cravings. So you may be asking yourself, what does eating enough good quality animal protein have to do with cravings? Well, proteins break down into amino acids in our body.

The amino acids are the building blocks for making the feel-good chemicals in our brain known as neurotransmitters. A few neurotransmitters you may have heard of are serotonin and dopamine. When we have adequate and steady levels of those feel-good chemicals in our brain, it can really help minimize our cravings.

The goal is to get a minimum of 12 to 14 ounces of animal protein spread throughout the day in increments of 4 to 5 ounces at meals and a few ounces at snacks to maintain those adequate levels of those neurotransmitters or feel-good chemicals in our brain. Men may need slightly more protein than this at approximately six ounces of protein at meals and two to three ounces at snacks.

So for the person that asked the question about wanting nuts after a meal, it could be that they didn't eat enough protein at that meal, or they didn't eat enough protein earlier in the day.

The salt piece of it can indicate that they're trying to hit those feel good sensors up in their brain, particularly the serotonin sensors. When the serotonin sensors light up in our brain, we feel calm, it lessens our anxiety, and it provides us some inner peace.

People will also gravitate towards starchy carbohydrates, like bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, chips, French fries, and chocolate, to get the same effect with the rush of serotonin in their brain. We're going to take a quick break, and when we return, I'll be sharing two more common reasons why people have cravings.


Welcome back. We've discussed two reasons why individuals have cravings for healthy foods, and those unhealthy foods, which are related to a blood sugar imbalance and low protein intake. Let's look at two more reasons.

Gut health connection to cravings

Let's reflect on gut health next. If your gut is unhealthy, There are a few problems you might experience. First of all, you may struggle with symptoms like heartburn, feeling full quickly, bloating, gas, constipation, and or diarrhea. When you're placing good healthy foods in your body, your gut may not be able to break down and absorb the nutrients from your body properly when you have an unhealthy gut, leaving you with deficiencies in the body.

With these deficiencies, you're going to crave certain kinds of food. So, for example, if you haven't extracted and absorbed enough magnesium from your foods, you might experience chocolate cravings. If you aren't getting enough zinc in your diet, you'll experience cravings for sweets after meals. If you're low on iron, you may start chewing on ice, or of all things, you may crave and want to eat dirt.

I actually saw this occasionally when I worked at WIC, where I counseled quite a few pregnant women that were low on iron. And they actually told me they wanted to eat dirt. If you crave salt, such as the person that asked about the nut craving after a meal, that can indicate a potassium deficiency. It's interesting how our bodies respond when we're deficient in something we need.

The second thing that happens with an unhealthy gut is that unhealthy gut microbiome, or those bad gut bugs, will chirp at us to eat more unhealthy foods so they get fed, and they can continue to grow and proliferate. If we stop eating those foods, they no longer can grow and eventually they die off.

In addition to no longer eating processed unhealthy foods, you can also take a good quality probiotic to ensure there are enough good gut bugs or a healthy gut microbiome so you're interested in eating the good or healthy foods your body needs. It will also help you digest and properly absorb your foods, so you don't experience some of the deficiencies I mentioned. In addition, the probiotic can also help you with the uncomfortable gut symptoms you may be experiencing.

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Lack of sleep can lead to more cravings

Lastly, if you don't get adequate amounts of sleep, which is considered 7 1/2 to 8 hours nightly, you will on average eat 600 more calories per day. 300 of those 600 calories will be good or healthier foods, such as the nuts that our listener was craving, and the other 300 of the 600 calories are typically bad or unhealthy foods.

We gravitate towards those unhealthy foods like sugar and caffeine and the like for a pick me up due to the sluggishness or low energy we have from the lack of sleep. I would also ask the listener if they're getting adequate sleep. Do they notice that the cravings for nuts are worse when they didn't get enough sleep the night before?

Low dopamine can lead to more cravings

As a side note, for those that crave other things such as sugary rich foods like ice cream, Twizzlers, Smarties, Mike and Ike’s, maybe caffeinated beverages, nicotine and alcohol, they're all trying to light up their dopamine receptors in their brain.

People with low dopamine often experience low motivation, difficulty concentrating, ADD, or ADD like symptoms, low self-esteem, and/or depression. They will reach for these kinds of foods and beverages or other unhealthy substances to temporarily feel better, to only experience a crash shortly thereafter.


When a craving strikes, I would reflect back and look at how balanced is the blood sugar at the time of the craving. You may need to eat more often than you currently are to keep your blood sugar balanced. Are you eating enough protein? Four to five ounces at meals and a few ounces at snacks, and a little more than this if you're a male, to build those feel good neurotransmitters for the brain. How healthy is your gut, and are you getting adequate amounts of sleep?

I hope this provides a better understanding of why people have cravings. The next time you think it's just lack of willpower, look to the other things I mentioned today to see if you can address the underlying problem and help tackle those unwanted cravings so they go away for good.

Thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition’s “Ask a Nutritionist”. If you found this episode helpful, be sure to leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, so we can help even more people discover the connection between what they eat and how they feel. If you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our private Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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