Deconstructing Cravings- Nutrient Imbalance

A few weeks ago, I started a series on understanding our cravings.  If you missed it, the first piece was about addiction and you can catch up here.

Deconstructing our cravings

The second reason we can crave food (especially salt and sugar) has to do with the energetics of food and imbalances of nutrients in our bodies.

Are you getting what your body needs?

An imbalanced diet can off set your cravings and send you looking for the “extremes” which are sugar and salt.  In eastern medicine, the extremes are considered ‘energizing’ and ‘grounding’ (or expanding and contracting).  The expanding foods are the lighter foods- fruits, simple carbs, sugars, the things that give us quick energy and pick us up.  On the contracting side, it’s meat, animal protein, eggs, dairy and salt- the grounding foods, things that give us power, satiety, even aggression.  In the middle are vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts  and legumes- some of the foods that have the least impact on our mood and energy levels.

This makes sense, right? We’ve all had the experience of the sugar rush from an ice cream sundae, or the sluggish, stuffed feeling after a big Thanksgiving meal.  And as for the more balanced foods in the middle, I’ve never had extreme energy affects from a veggie stir fry- no sugar high or sluggish too-full feeling.

When we are imbalanced to one side of the other, our body will crave the extreme other side (usually sugar or salt).

I had extreme sugar cravings when I was a vegetarian, and learned that as hard as I tried to eat well, I was missing a few nutrients.  Making some small adjustments to my diet made a huge difference.

Did you know that the #1 missing food in the American diet is greens?

Any kind of green vegetables are lacking, but especially green, leafy ones. If you make one change to be healthier, make it the addiction of greens in your diet (every day!)  They are nutritional powerhouses. 

Many times cravings (sugar and salt in particular) can be tied to a lack of greens.  Think of your body as having this check list it needs to hit with nutrients.  Greens nail SO many of them so your body can quickly go down the list- check, check, check.  When you’re not hitting the nutrients your body is looking for, it looks elsewhere and sugar, fat and salt ALWAYS sound good.

There can be other imbalances in your body too, such as:

-ignoring the seasons in your food choices

-craving salt due to a lack of iodine

-craving sugar due to a lack of protein

-craving salt or sugar due to lifestyle factors: too much stress, too much or too little physical activity, dehydration, or not enough sleep

Here’s a fun graphic on some of the additional nutritional deficiencies that can lead to cravings:

Taking care of yourself on EVERY level can help your body maintain ultimate balance for health, well-being, and can get your cravings back under control.

There is one more reason linked to our cravings, which I’ll cover next time.

Is your body well balanced with nutrients, sleep, exercise, and stress management?

What foods does your body ask for when you’re out of balance?

If you think you could benefit from one-on-one coaching to deconstruct and mange your cravings and take back control of your health, contact me to see if health coaching is a good fit for you!

68 thoughts on “Deconstructing Cravings- Nutrient Imbalance

  1. Have you done any research on Shakeology by Beachbody? Do you think it holds a lot of nutrition?

    • Hi Ashley,

      I really don’t know enough about it to say. One of my clients uses it as an afternoon snack, which I think is generally better than a meal replacement as whole foods are always best!
      Laura recently posted..Madeover Taco Bean DipMy Profile

  2. I feel like I should print that chart out and put it on our fridge at home! This was SO helpful. I’ve been trying to cut back on sugar not just for me, but for my whole family. Unfortunately I feel like I can’t escape it — it seems to be everywhere! I love your comment about becoming addicted to leafy greens.
    Amanda @ All Day Activewear recently posted..Motivation Post 🙂My Profile

  3. Laura, this post couldn’t have been more timely for me! I’ve just switched to a diet much higher in veggies and quality protein and have been tracking my nutrients (thanks to MyFitnessPal) and noticed an increase in all important nutrients! And…very few cravings! I checked out your “craving: table in great detail and almost everything you listed fit with the changes I’ve seen in myself lately. I’m no longer craving potato chips (my personal nemesis) and refined carbs! I’d love to see more nutritional info like this from you! Thanks!!
    Marnie @ SuperSmartMama recently posted..Workout Recap + Meal Planning Week of 2/16My Profile

    • I’m so glad to hear it was helpful! Yes- I’d love to write more posts like this… it takes a little more time to pull it all together, but I love this stuff and find it all so fascinating!
      Laura recently posted..Madeover Taco Bean DipMy Profile

  4. This is so interesting! I do find when I’m diligent about making sure I get enough protein that my sugar cravings are less–now I know they are linked! I should print that graphic out and stick it on the fridge!

  5. Love all the information here. When I’m running a lot I find I start to crave salty carbs (hello pretzels). I typically don’t crave sweets except for after dinner, but it’s not like cookies or chocolates that I want. I’m happy with a bit of PB2 and stevia on a rice cake or apple. So maybe it’s still more carbs …
    Heather (Where’s the Beach) recently posted..Massaged Kale with Citrus Tahini DressingMy Profile

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  7. That chart is very interesting! Since I’ve become a runner and focused more on fitness/health over the past several years, my “cravings” have significantly decreased. I still get them sometimes, but not anywhere near what I used to. Coffee for example, is only a strong craving when I first wake up. After a couple sips, I don’t crave much anymore. I also get a good amount of eggs/fish/poultry in each week 🙂
    Christina recently posted..Strength exercises and gluten free browniesMy Profile

  8. Great post!

    I recently had a personal experience with this during pregnancy. I’ve never had strong cravings but about a month or two ago I was feeling a desperate need for meat. I craved red meat like none other! Obviously this led to concerns about my iron levels and I started taking an awesome vitamin supplement and the cravings disappeared and my energy levels are WAY up.

    It was the first time I was physically able to feel a difference with supplementation.

    What are your thoughts on vitamin supplementation? I am a HUGE advocate of food first, but am starting to be more open to the idea of taking vitamins, too.
    Brittany (Healthy Slice of Life) recently posted..My Favorite Green ProductsMy Profile

    • Wow! I’m so glad the supplement helped with the meat cravings. I agree with you- whole foods are always best, but there are times when supplements can be really helpful, particularly when there is a deficit OR for women who have damaged their gut lining from years of poor eating or eating something their body couldn’t tolerate. It takes a while to be able to absorb nutrients properly again. But supplements are tricky too, since there are some sketchy brands out there!
      Laura recently posted..Madeover Taco Bean DipMy Profile

  9. Interesting how many of the “what to eat” items are healthy fats! I wonder if the “low fat” culture of “dieting” in America isn’t actually driving us toward these cravings then.

    When I’m out of whack, it’s almost always because I’m on a sugar rollercoaster. I’ve worked pretty hard to make my sugars less frequent and more natural, but at the end of a meal or at the end of a day, I look at my numbers and still see protein lacking. Eg) split pea soup still has 2x the carbs over protein.

  10. I love that chart!! I need to pin it asap. The only time I really crave salt/sweet is after a really long run when I’m feeling depleted. I know that means I probably didn’t fuel properly on the run and I try to eat something “balanced” instead of a bar or another quick fix. Great post today – so informative!!

    • Oh yes, it’s so tough with kids! Sundays are the worst for us because in SS L gets crackers and juice then afterward, there are cookies (or other treats) and more juice/coffee for everyone and then she’s not hungry for lunch and the afternoon is a sugar high and crash nightmare!
      Laura recently posted..Madeover Taco Bean DipMy Profile

  11. Really interesting chart – I’ve noticed on your blog and others the “kick sugar cravings” thing and it totally confuses me because I NEVER crave sugar. I like sweet treats, sure, but I have never once craved sugar or been unable to resist sugar. But now I see why – I’m a long-time vegetarian who eats a ton of greens (multiple times a day) and has always made sure I get more than enough protein, so I’m not going to be depleted in the ways that lead to sugar cravings! (Though I admit that last week during my nasty cold, I did crave bread+cheese, two things I try to limit normally, but I gave in while I was battling that illness!).

  12. I love how you break this down– the body and mind are such amazing machines, giving it the right nutrients is so important– I think we go around unconsciously eating, this really clears the way for balancing the body- thank you for helping us see again.

  13. Totally makes sense that we’re missing greens, because 500 years ago I bet they ate a LOT of them. I know a family that has a salad EVERY NIGHT w/ dinner. I need to think about that. How hard is it to toss some greens & veggies together for a small side salad??
    jan recently posted..Record-Breaking WinterMy Profile

  14. Okay so honestly, I usually yada yada yada deconstructing your craving posts and articles…I’m pretty careful with my micro and macro nutrients and sometimes I still want chips or chocolate.

    But I went veg about 2 months ago and for the first time in my life have wanted a LOT of sugar, so this definitely caught my attention. I’ve been working to boost my protein, but it definitely caught my eye here! Why does lack of protein make you crave sugar?
    Heather Barnstein recently posted..Why do you run?My Profile

    • So interesting! I definitely had the same experience when I quit eating meat. I don’t know all of the reasons, but partly I think it’s because protein provides more long lasting energy than carbs and if we don’t get enough of it, our bodies look for “quick” energy- which is either sugar or simple carbs.
      Laura recently posted..Madeover Taco Bean DipMy Profile

      • Yeah you definitely have had me thinking. Like I said, I manage both macro and micro nutrients and for years have not had huge sugar cravings – not really an icecream, candy, doughnut, whatever person. My husband is but I really have never been into it. But the last couple months he even commented on me going for the candy and the ice cream. I’m still eating healthy food too – it’s not to the exclusion – but it’s so /weird/ because I have never in my life been a sugar person and yet, I see icecream lately and it’s like, “Get in my BELLY!”

        Your energy theory sounds good to me. I’m not really sure either, but I definitely have noticed it’s much harder to get protein now than it used to be – I used to keep it around 90g a day and have been about 2/3 that. A protein shake helps make up the difference but I can tell it’s not quite the same.

        How long did it take to get better for you?
        Heather Barnstein recently posted..Why do you run?My Profile

        • I was off meat (off and on) for about ten years but finally got to the point where I realized that for my body, I did need some animal protein. I don’t eat it every day, but it made a huge difference.
          We’re all different, and I know many vegetarians who feel great without meat for good. It depends on you- and paying attention to your bodies messages. Do you have any eggs or fish? Those can help a lot.
          Laura recently posted..Madeover Taco Bean DipMy Profile

          • I can’t eat eggs 🙁 My 4 1/2 month old is EBF and if I eat eggs, it triggers a horrible eczema outbreak for him. I do eat fish occasionally, but only very occasionally. It is expensive so it’s hard to work it in a lot!
            Heather Barnstein recently posted..Why do you run?My Profile

  15. So much good information Laura. Thank you for sharing this. I definitely struggle with sugar cravings and know that I don’t get enough greens or probably protein most of the time. I need to print this whole post out and pin it to my fridge!
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted..Click. Snap.My Profile

  16. This is so fascinating. I have been craving salty foods, which is really weird for me as usually I am all about the sweet stuff. I love greens, my kids don’t mind them, but it is hard to get them to eat adequate amounts!
    Jess recently posted..Weekend ThingsMy Profile

  17. My schedule is pretty flexible so it is easy to keep my life balanced. I do find that if I’m not getting quality sleep (these days from my allergies), I crave salt like a madwoman. There definitely is a delicate balance of a lot of things when being healthy.
    Karen recently posted..Alaska Dreamin’My Profile

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  19. Great post Laura! This will be very beneficial! I am pretty in tune with my eating as I need to be to hit the times I need in races, but I still crave a lot of sweets and sugar, and I wonder how much of that could be improved even further. A few seconds could lead to an international qualification for me! Every little helps right?

    Thanks for the insight 🙂
    Tina Muir recently posted..Sweet Potato Stir FryMy Profile

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  24. I love these posts Laura and they are such a nice reminder to be aware of when cravings occur. I definitely notice that when I increase my running, my body needs healthy carbohydrates. If I don’t feed my body those, I end up eating lots of sugar and put myself at risk for injury when I do train. Thanks for sharing!
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