Have you ever wondered why some people have a sweet tooth, while others are all about savory/salty foods? Maybe it’s just personal preference? Like for those that claim they simply don’t like sweet foods—must be nice. But more likely it’s the fact that cravings are a reflection of our overall health and everyday habits—diet, exercise, sleep and other health conditions, like vitamin or nutrient deficiencies. This isn’t to say that craving salt and sugar is a bad thing, though. Despite what you’ve heard about these two dietary demons, they aren’t all bad. "In fact, both of them are essential for normal bodily functions," explains Tik Pau, MD, a primary care provider with GMG's Bostock Family Medicine. "For instance, salt (aka: sodium) is vital for muscle fibers, nerve impulses and fluid balance, says Dr. Pau, "whereas sugar (aka: glucose) is crucial for every single cell in your body, it’s what provides your body with energy.
But this doesn’t mean that eating excess amounts of either will translate into extra health benefits, but it’d be nice if it did. Like all things, these health benefits should be taken with a grain of salt. So the next time you’re hankering for a post-meal sweet treat or a salt fix mid-afternoon, here’s what you should know:
Salt: You may not see yourself as a Salty Sally, but chances are you consume more than the recommended amount of sodium daily (which is less than 2,300 milligrams or one teaspoon). Heck we all probably do since the average amount consumed is closer to 3,400 milligrams (which is 1/3 more than the recommended amount). What drives cravings: The first and most-obvious reason for your salty cravings, it’s just a habit. You may be one of those people that sprinkles on salt before even tasting your food (guilty). Or you may eat so many salt-filled foods—bread/rolls, lunch meat, pizza, soup and sandwiches—that non-salty foods taste bland. You may also be misinterpreting your body’s signals. "When you have a hankering for something salty, your body may actually be calling for minerals like calcium, magnesium or zinc," notes Dr. Pau. "Or your body may actually be calling for more salt, especially if you’re dehydrated from not drinking enough water, spending time out in the heat or drinking alcohol." There’s also a chance you may have an underlying health condition, like low-functioning adrenal glands (a result of chronic stress) or low blood pressure, both of which may spur on salt cravings.
Sugar: If you thought salt consumption was bad, brace yourself for the amount of sugar most of us eat. It’s estimated that Americans consume roughly 60 pounds of sugar per year—yes, you read that correctly—which averages out to approximately 77 grams per day (which is much higher than the recommended 24-36 grams). But make no mistake; all sugar is not created equal. "For instance, natural sources of sugar, like fresh fruit, are not nearly as unhealthy as highly-processed sources (which of course is how many of us get our daily sugar intake)," says Dr. Pau.
What drives cravings: Why is it when a sugar craving strikes, it isn’t a fresh mango that sounds good? Instead it has to be a glazed cruller donut or a gooey brownie. "It’s because these sweet treats are filled with refined sugar, which causes a spike in dopamine—a pleasure hormone," explains Dr. Pau. "But when dopamine levels dip back down, this leaves you wanting more (and more)." Other key reasons you’re always craving something sweet: you’re probably stressed, tired or both. Recent studies have found that stress, which raises cortisol levels, can spur on sugar cravings. "Plus, if you’re low on energy, your body is naturally going to crave quick-energy food sources: enter sugary foods," adds Dr. Pau. This one’s for all you ladies out there—your cycle does affect your cravings. So, if you feel like you have an extra-strong sweets drive leading up to and on your period, you’re definitely not imaging it (or alone). Some experts believe that these period-related cravings may be the result of changes to insulin and blood sugar levels. Craving better health. Say what you will about cravings, but they can be tough to overcome—especially on your own. But the fact is, we all need to be better about resisting the urge to indulge our cravings and instead, look for healthier alternatives. That’s where your primary care provider comes in. As the health expert that knows you—and your body—best, they can offer helpful dieting suggestions and nutrition resources to help you achieve lasting health from the inside out.