It’s a hot summer afternoon, and suddenly you’re dying for a banana split with chocolate sauce dripping down the sides. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to justify giving in to your craving because your body actually needs an ice cream sundae? Like, if you don’t eat it, you’d be causing your body harm—meaning you have an obligation to eat that ice cream.
We’re not recommending that you indulge all your crazy cravings, but it is possible that your intense desire might be your body trying to tell you something! And you may want to listen.
Studies done by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have shown that extreme desires to eat certain foods can often be blamed on nutritional inadequacies. For example, when you’re craving chocolate, it’s not the actual chocolate that your body wants—but some of the micronutrients in the chocolate.
Here’s a list of the most common food cravings and what they may mean for you. Learn what your body is truly asking for—and how you might give it what it needs.
It probably doesn’t surprise you that chocolate is the most commonly reported craving in the U.S. But did you know that this craving is associated with a mineral that a lot of us are deficient in? That nutrient would be magnesium! Less than 30 percent of adults living in the U.S. get the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of magnesium.
Ever wonder why you feel so relaxed and happy after eating chocolate? Chocolate is full of magnesium—the super important micronutrient that’s often called the “relaxation mineral.” It’s needed for more than 300 enzyme reactions in the body, which translates to thousands of biochemical reactions. This includes things like muscle contraction, blood coagulation, nerve transmission, and energy production. Oh, and it also helps you relax.
Don’t have enough magnesium in your body? You could be feeling anxious, irritable, and unable to sleep. You might notice a facial tic and/or muscle pain, and your blood pressure may be on the rise too. Cacao contains large amounts of magnesium, and people who are deficient in it feel slightly better after eating it.
As delicious and satisfying as your hot chocolate may be, however, it should be noted that a product has to contain more than 75% cacao to provide the benefits of magnesium.
There are other less calorie dense (and still nutritious) sources of magnesium, such as fish, beans, dark leafy greens, and blackstrap molasses. Daily consumption of these foods can help you get some magnesium back in your body (and get your chocolate cravings under control!)
Bread and Pasta
Does your mother’s homemade garlic bread have your mouth watering? Can’t get a big bowl of rigatoni out of your mind? Your blood sugar may be taking a nosedive, or you may be deficient in chromium or nitrogen.
If you haven’t eaten in a while, your body may be giving you a little nudge that things are about to go nuts if you don’t eat soon. Carbohydrates provide your body with an easily digestible form of energy that can boost your blood sugar quickly, and your body knows that.
If your blood sugar is all over the place, a deficiency in the nutrient chromium may be to blame. Since it’s responsible for stabilizing your blood sugar, if your body is low in it, you’ll crave a way to boost it.
Not having blood sugar issues but still craving carbs? A nitrogen deficiency may be to blame. The role of this micronutrient is to be a protein building block. Your body uses nitrogen to build and strengthen muscles, skin, blood, hair, and DNA.
It’s also really important in the making of new cells (i.e., growing and healing). Instead of opting for high fat, dense carbohydrates, try choosing whole grains, unprocessed foods, and foods that are high protein, such as lean meats, nuts, beans, poultry, and fish.
Guess what’s next on the list? You guessed it! Sugary foods. Donuts, ice cream, candy, cakes, and soft drinks…if you want sugar, any (or all) of these may be on your “gotta have” list.
Unfortunately, as common as this craving is, the reason for it is quite complex, as there are a slew of nutrient deficiencies and other factors that may be to blame. The top five micronutrients that you may be low in if you’re craving sugar are: chromium, carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, and tryptophan.
Chromium helps regulate your blood sugar (it’s found in grapes, cheese, broccoli, and chicken). Sulfur helps remove toxin from your body (find it in dairy, eggs, garlic, and cruciferous veggies). Carbon helps your body get energy (fresh fruit is a good source). Phosphorus helps keep your bones and muscles healthy (look for it in fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, beef). Tryptophan helps to regulate your body’s serotonin (good sources are cheese, turkey, sweet potatoes, and spinach).
If you crave sugar often, try to incorporate more of these nutritious foods in your daily meals. Something to keep in mind is that nutritional deficiency may not be the only reason that you’re craving sugar. Low blood sugar (not chromium related) and dehydration may trigger a sugar craving response as well.
We’re not talking about your first-thing-when-you-wake-up-gotta-have-a-caffeine-fix type of coffee craving (because don’t we all have that?) If you typically crave the taste of coffee, you may not be just a café connoisseur. You may also be in need of any or all of these nutrients: phosphorous, sulfur, sodium, or iron.
In the case of phosphorous and iron deficiencies, the intense need for coffee usually signifies that you’re looking for a boost of energy that these minerals would normally provide.
If your obsession with your corner coffee shop is bordering on ridiculous, try increasing your intake of fish, eggs, dairy, spinach, fruits and veggies high in vitamin C, and/or oysters, and see if your craving starts to subside.
You may be needing a little extra fat in your diet (or just a bit of comfort via comfort food), but often a craving for fatty snacks indicates that your body needs more calcium.
This nutrient is responsible for healthy teeth and bone development, blood clotting, moving muscles, releasing hormones, and keeping a normal heartbeat.
Milk and products that contain it are great sources of calcium, but you don’t have to eat dairy to get your daily dose. Calcium can also be found in kale, legumes, broccoli, sardines, and turnip greens.
Stuff That’s Not Food
Are you dying to chow down on something unusual, like ice, ashes, or chalk? This is actually not that weird. It is known as pica and is characterized as an intense desire to eat non–foodstuff.
Kids and pregnant women seem to report higher incidences of it. Many pica cravings are due to low level mineral deficiencies, especially iron.
Studies of people with pica showed that most who craved ice, dirt, or clay were anemic. Another study found that soap cravings indicated both iron and zinc deficiencies. If you’re having pica cravings, it would be helpful to get your iron (and other micronutrient levels) checked.
If You Have No Idea What You’re Craving
If you’re hungry and you’re not sure why…you actually may be thirsty! The same part of your brain that controls hunger also controls thirst. So sometimes when you think that you’re hungry, you may need to hydrate instead of eat.
The best thing to do when you start feeling hungry (when there’s no good reason that you should be) is to try drinking a glass of water. Then wait 15 to 20 minutes and see if your hunger goes away.