What do you crave? Sweet or salty? Cravings are irresistible urges for a particular type of food, experienced every once in a while. Women tend to crave sweets, chocolates and dessert much more than men, and binge-eat depending on their mood, menstrual cycles and weight status. Men, on the other hand, tend to enjoy eating more when they are happy.

People can either have a “sweet tooth", or/and crave carbohydrates, salty food, even ice, in the case of an extreme iron deficiency. Hormonal and blood sugar imbalances that are a result of erratic, hectic lifestyles cause sweet and salty cravings. Cravings, unlike addictions, are brief, primarily linked to the senses of taste and smell, and pass once satisfied. An alcohol or caffeine addict, on the other hand, must consume alcohol or caffeine several times every day in increasing quantities.

Sweet cravings are more common and are caused by an imbalance in blood sugar levels. Those who skip breakfast and have irregular meal patterns tend to have sugar cravings more than those who have a wholesome breakfast and eat at regular intervals. Stress also causes a need to eat something sweet. Stressful situations and depression use large amounts of the hormone adrenalin, drain energy reserves and set up a sweet craving. The sugar in sweet food and carbohydrates releases the hormone serotonin that is significantly linked with satiety, mood and sleep, but only for a short time. That’s why after a sweet binge one soon feels hungry again.

Double trouble: Excessive salt and sugar intake can lead to many health problems.

Adrenal fatigue also leads to sweet or salty food cravings. If you feel tired on waking, and are too stressed to sleep well, “don’t feel quite the same", fresh and raring to go like you used to, or fall ill frequently, then chances are that your adrenal glands have been overworked and are tired. Adrenal glands located just over the kidneys are responsible for the secretion of the hormones adrenalin and cortisol, among others. Adrenalin is the fight or flight hormone, and cortisol, the alarm hormone. Adrenalin provides us with instant energy to handle sudden physical and mental stress, such as making it to the airport in time even when you have overslept, or meeting impossible deadlines and frantic, last-minute preparations for an exam. Cortisol controls our sleep/wake cycle and helps us stay alert through the day. Extreme stress, smoking, partying and alcohol dependence depress the function of the adrenals, maintain suboptimal levels of adrenalin and cortisol, affect energy levels, thirst, sleep, hunger and blood pressure. Since salty or sugary food provide instant energy and satiety, the body craves them in these situations.

A few simple steps to control sweet and salty food cravings, balance hormones and combat stress:

• Make a wholesome breakfast a priority, never skip it. Oats, eggs, multigrain bread or chapatti are wholesome food choices.

• Eat at regular intervals of 4 hours to maintain balanced blood sugar levels, ensure sustained energy release, avoid sharp spikes in hormonal levels and mood swings.

• Focus on making complex food choices. As a rule of thumb foods that are high in fibre and not refined are good. For instance, apples and papaya are more complex than grapes and bananas because of their high fibre content. White sugar and maida (refined flour), found in cakes and chocolates, are refined carbs. These are the foods that raise serotonin levels quickly and make you hungry quickly. Wholewheat, brown rice, oats and bajra (pearl millet) are complex foods with a lot of fibre. They also raise serotonin but do so gradually, controlling hunger and preventing cravings.

• Ensure that you have at least 200g of multicoloured vegetables at least three times a day in any form you like, steamed, grilled or as juice.

• Have at least a fist-size serving of protein for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eggs, poultry, fish, low-fat paneer and whey protein shake are high-quality protein.

• Exercise at least six days a week from moderate to high intensity for a minimum of 45 minutes to 1 hour.

• Replace a sugar-based dessert with fruit, or two-three pieces of dry fruit such as apricot or fig, or a piece of low-fat granola or fat-free jaggery and til, or groundnut chikki.

• Add additional herbs and spices such as garlic and/or ginger, basil leaves, freshly crushed black or white pepper or oregano to control salty food cravings.

Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets.

Write to Madhuri at dietdesk@livemint.com