For a long time, many scientists denied that food cravings had any relevance. There was some logic to their claim. After all, Americans frequently crave chips, candy, and soda—foods that are detrimental to the body rather than helpful.
However, a close observation of many animals shows that they have an innate ability to select foods that contain nutrients that they are lacking. Could it be that mankind can do the same?
Newer research says yes! While we may attempt to satisfy our cravings in ways that are not beneficial (e.g., chips, candy, and soda), it does not negate the fact that a craving is our body’s plea for some inputs. Many cravings are associated with real mineral deficiencies or imbalances. Others are cravings are associated with various parts of the brain and may therefore suggest lifestyle changes that need to be made.
Let’s take a look at some common food cravings and what they mean.
- Refined carbohydrates. Foods in this group include bread and pasta. This type of craving is associated with many different things, including nitrogen deficiency, yeast overgrowth, and low estrogen or progesterone levels. Another possibility is that you have been restricting your carb intake too tightly. A super-low-carb diet may cause your body to rebel and seek out more carbohydrates. A carb craving may also suggest that your mood is too low and that you could use the serotonin boost that comes from eating carbs. Note, however, that caving to the craving in this case may be counterproductive, as the boost will be short-lived and will eventually leave you wanting more.
- Sugars. Sugary foods are a rather broad category. Not surprisingly, a craving for sweets may therefore indicate a need for one of several nutrients. Common deficiencies associated with sugar cravings are chromium, carbon, phosphorus, sulfur, and tryptophan. Sugar is also frequently associated with pleasant memories and happy feelings, making it a go-to for many who could use some positivity. Factors that can contribute to a sugar craving include stress, lack of food, or lack of sleep. But watch out—because sugar stimulates dopamine release, it is addictive!
- Meat. Craving meat may mean more than just a need for more protein—it may be this craving could be signaling a vitamin or mineral deficiency, such as B12 or iron. Meat cravings are also observed in those who are eating a diet disproportionately skewed toward carbohydrates.
- Dairy. Craving dairy products of all types often suggests a calcium or magnesium deficiency. However, it may also signal emotional stress, because these nutrients can be depleted under such circumstances. Full-fat dairy products are particularly appealing at such times because they contain tryptophan, which in turn stimulates serotonin release.
- Fatty or oily foods. Surprisingly, fat cravings can be associated with calcium deficiency. But even more intriguing may be the effects of such foods on the brain. Fatty foods remain in the stomach for a while, taking a long time to digest relative to other foods. At the same time, many people who crave fat are extremely busy, perhaps even hectic. Some nutritionists speculate that the constant fullness that fat provides may offer a sensation of stability. Finally, eating a diet too low in fat may cause fat craving, so make sure you include some healthy saturated fats in your diet.
- Crunchy foods. For many, chewing on something crunchy is a way to relieve stress. Those who regularly go to crunchy foods may be dealing with a great deal of frustration in their lives.
- Caffeinated beverages. The primary cravings associated with this category are for tea or coffee, but may include soda. Caffeine cravings can signal several different deficiencies, including iron, phosphorus, sulfur, and sodium chloride (salt). Caffeine is also a go-to for many who are dealing with stress, mental exhaustion, lack of sleep, or adrenal fatigue, as it tends to keep the mind feeling sharp. Keep in mind, too, that caffeinated beverages are habit-forming—you may simply be craving coffee today because you had it yesterday.
- Carbonated drinks. Craving carbonated drinks suggests a calcium deficiency.
- Salty. Salty food cravings may indicate either dehydration or a deficiency in silicon, chloride, or both nutrients. Some women may experience salt cravings prior to menstruation. An ongoing need for salt can be associated with anemia, adrenal fatigue or insufficiency, or a renal problem. Note that many people who regularly go for salty foods may actually be seeking the crunch, rather than truly craving salt or salty flavors.
- Acidic. People who crave acidic foods may need more magnesium in their diet, or they simply might need more acid. Your stomach acid is designed to be super-acidic, and an incorrect pH can lead to a great deal of digestive discomfort.
- Spicy. A craving for spicy foods like salsa and chili may suggest that the body could use some assistance in regulating its temperature. The hot peppers that give food its heat contain capsaicin, which speeds up the metabolism and prompts the body to produce more heat. Still crave spicy foods when it’s hot outside? The heat-producing effects of capsaicin can, paradoxically, help the body cool off by prompting a sweat.
- Celery. Craving celery is most common among people who are anemic due to iron deficiency.
- Onions. Onions may be related to a sulfur deficiency. Sulfur is necessary for liver function.
- Pickles. Pickles and pickle brine are highly acidic. Believe it or not, acid is actually good for your stomach (after all, your stomach is made to be filled with extremely potent acid), helping ease indigestion. The sodium in pickles may have the added benefit of helping you stay hydrated.
- Nuts and cashews. If you are craving salted nuts only, then you might actually be experiencing a salt craving. If, however, you can’t get enough nuts in any form, you might need more magnesium.
- Beef. If the food you want most is a steak, you may simply need a little more protein in your diet. But another possibility is that you need more vitamins and minerals. The most common deficiency associated with craving red meats such as beef is iron deficiency. Other deficiencies to watch for include folic acid, vitamin B12, and magnesium. If you are still craving beef after your meal, it is possible that your digestive system is not working efficiently, perhaps due to a slow metabolism.
- Fish. Craving all types of fish may mean that you need more protein in your diet. Craving oily or salty fish (e.g., sardines) specifically may mean that your body could use some calcium or sodium.
- Cheese. Cheese may signal a need for more protein, fat, calcium, vitamin D, or tryptophan.
- Cinnamon. Cinnamon craving may actually be a sign of a sugar craving if the treats you are craving are ooey, gooey cinnamon rolls and the like. If this is not the case and you are truly craving cinnamon, then it is possible that you need more manganese, about the only nutrient cinnamon is known for.
- Chips. Chips typically fall into the crunchiness category, although a craving for chips could alternatively be a salt or fat craving.
- Candy. This is a manifestation of a sugar craving.
- Chocolate. Chocolate cravings are most commonly reported in people who are deficient in magnesium. Magnesium keeps the nerves on an even keel, producing a sensation of relaxation. Other nutrient deficiencies associated with chocolate craving include copper, chromium, B vitamins, and various fatty acids. Chocolate is also a mood-boosting food that activates the pleasure centers of the brain, prompts serotonin production, and encourages the body to relax despite stress. Premenstrual hormone shifts may cause a chocolate craving, although oddly enough these cravings do not typically abate after menopause.
A Little More Unusual…
- Burnt food. While this craving may seem a little bizarre to the uninitiated, it is actually quite simple when you get to the bottom of it. People who can’t seem to get enough burnt food need more carbon in their diet.
- Vinegar. Not surprisingly, craving vinegar may suggest a pH imbalance in the body. But there are other possibilities, too—a desire to actually drink vinegar may signal an overgrowth of fungus in the system or perhaps a potassium deficiency.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG tends to create its own cravings. Besides being delicious when added to savory foods, it stimulates appetite, keeping you coming back for more over and over again.
- Ice. People who find chewing on ice cubes to be irresistible may benefit from more iron in their diet. This urge may be more common in children or pregnant women. Here’s a hint—you will probably satisfy your craving much faster by going for some spinach, beans, or red meat rather than ice cubes.
- A liquid diet. Preferring to take in your meals in the form of a beverage to the exclusion of solid foods may suggest that you are dehydrated.
- More! Some people just crave food and lots of it, often continuing to eat even after they feel full. These people might benefit from more silicone, tryptophan, or tyrosine. In some cases, continuing to want food despite feeling full can suggest a condition that is impairing proper nutrient absorption, such as a food intolerance or insulin resistance.
- Less. Finally, those who crave nothing more than the absence of food could probably use some additional chloride, manganese, vitamin B1, or vitamin B3 in their diet.
How to Use This Information
While hyper-analyzing your dietary preferences is not usually productive, being aware of your body’s needs can be very helpful. If you find that you repeatedly crave something, there could be a reason. Likewise, if you find that you have several cravings that point in the same direction, you may want to take note.
Needless to say, going to junk food to satisfy your cravings is generally not a good idea. Besides the long-term ramifications of a poor-quality diet, many sugars and processed foods tend to be habit-forming, leaving you wanting more without ever really satisfying the need. It is best to supply your body with whole foods, and a wide variety of them. So if you are craving vegetables or real meats, dig in! But if your preferences tend toward potato chips, candy, or ice cubes, you may want to find a high-quality source of the nutrients you are most likely needing.
Also pay attention to cravings that may suggest a lifestyle change is needed. Do all the signs point to excess stress? Consider the likely causes of your stress and seek to remedy them. Are you frequently in need of a mood boost? Try incorporating moderate exercise and some pleasurable activities into your daily routine.
As long as your body is not addicted to processed foods and the like, it can tell you a great deal about what it needs. Listen up!