by Marc McCallister

When you are looking for a snack, what do you usually reach for? Does your food craving change if you are at the movie theater, in the middle of a tough work day, or settling into a comfortable chair or couch after a big meal?

While the scientific literature is not conclusive as to whether individual food cravings can be causally linked to nutrient insufficiencies, an individual’s relationship with food cravings clearly represents a unique biopsychosocial matrix. Like anything, it can be complicated.

The human body is no different than a piece of machinery. We are powered by the food we eat, much like a car is powered by gasoline or electricity. If you want your mind and body to function at peak performance, science has demonstrated again and again that a balanced diet and plenty of sleep are a must. Obviously, this is not new information. So why is it we suffer from food cravings? What is behind the cravings that tempt us in the middle of the work day or at the end of a long day?

There is a significant physiologic component to food cravings. Anecdotally, an individual’s preference for snacks can be easily identified by asking them to choose between a salty snack and a sweet snack. In both instances, sweet and salty foods trigger physiologic responses that activate regions of the brain linked to emotional, cognitive, and chemical stimuli associated with food cravings. For instance, sweets trigger the release of dopamine, an organic chemical, and salty foods trigger the release of serotonin, a monoamine neurotransmitter. Both dopamine and serotonin have been linked to mood improvement. Over time, the human body builds a tolerance to sweet and salty foods, and in turn, more of that food is required to feel satisfied. Before long, a problematic cycle develops that results in the taste buds magnifying one’s craving for either sweet and salty foods.

If you prefer sweet snacks when given the choice, it could mean a couple of things. First, it could mean your diet lacks in tryptophan, chromium, sulphur or phosphorus. Sweets also tend to correlate with emotional eating and diets with limited carbohydrates. Lastly, sweet cravings are also associated with skipping meals. If the body is deprived of fuel, it will start to crave foods it can break down the fastest—refined grains and simple sugars.

If you prefer salty snacks when given the choice, the first thing you should consider is your stress level. A 2011 study found that salt was not only addictive, but it affects the brain in a way that is similar to being addicted to cigarettes or drugs. Additionally, it is known that stress can have a negative impact on the adrenal glands, which regulate sodium levels within the body. An imbalance in sodium levels can in turn lead to salt cravings.

Regardless of your personal snack preference, the next time you experience a craving for something sweet or salty, stop and evaluate what factors might be driving your desire for your favorite snack. If you’re still in the mood for something satisfying, try one of these healthful options to the right.