They’re part of daily life for many people, but what exactly are food cravings and why do we get them? Defined as being both intense and specific, put simply, cravings are strong urges for particular foods – regardless of hunger – and can be difficult to resist.
Nutritional therapist Hannah Braye explains that: “A commonly-held view is that food cravings are expressions of bodily wisdom, whereby we crave foods containing certain nutrients in which we are lacking”. However, she adds, “others maintain that food cravings are more about what the brain wants, rather than what the body actually needs.”
Braye says if you are prone to cravings but want to resist them, one trick to avoid succumbing is to drink a glass of water, “as often dehydration can be misinterpreted as hunger, which can lead you to the food”. Another is to change activities, “as food cravings most commonly occur at home or work when we are bored”. However, if your cravings still persist, here are some things she thinks your body might intuitively be trying to tell you.
“Sodium is a necessary part of our diets and helps to keep the body’s fluids in balance. Sodium deficiencies are relatively rare (overconsumption of salt is more common in western diets). However, certain medications, and dehydration from diarrhoea, vomiting or sweating can lower sodium levels, and individuals with low levels often report cravings for salty foods. Aim to drink around 2.5 litres of water a day to stay well hydrated. You could try flavouring water with cucumber, lemon slices or fresh mint for a new twist.
“Craving salty foods can also be an indication that our adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys and control our stress response, might be flagging. When we are chronically stressed, our adrenals continuously pump out high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to a condition known as ‘adrenal fatigue’. This can have a knock-on effect on blood pressure, causing it to get too low leading to symptoms such as light headedness or dizziness on standing. It is hypothesised that individuals suffering with adrenal fatigue may therefore crave salty foods in order to help increase their blood pressure. Meditation, breathing exercises, or other stress management techniques may be of use here, as research suggests that taking a break to breathe deeply or meditate before reaching for salty snacks could help reduce stress hormones and curb bingeing.”
“Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide, especially in women of menstruating age, in pregnancy and children, and there are many anecdotal reports of increased cravings for red meat in those suffering with iron deficiency anaemia. Haem iron from animal sources is more bio-available to the body than iron from plant-based sources, so cravings for red meat could potentially be your body trying to increase iron stores. Another unusual symptom associated with the iron deficiency anaemia is cravings for non-food items such as dirt, ice and starch. This is a condition known as ‘pica’ and is most common in pregnancy when maternal iron levels can be easily depleted.
“To rectify iron deficiencies, eating organic grass-fed meat is preferable as they have been shown to contain higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and are not exposed to routine antibiotics. Vegetarian sources of iron include dried fruit such as prunes, figs and apricots (opt for unsulphated products if possible), beans, legumes and green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach. As iron is better absorbed by the body in the presence of vitamin C, squeezing lemon juice over iron rich foods or eating them alongside vitamin C rich fruit and veg may help increase absorption.”
“Carbohydrates are a common craving, with many people pining after cereals, bread and pasta. Glucose, which we derive from carbs, is used preferentially by the body and brain as we are able to turn it quickly into energy. This could be why people tend to reach for carbohydrate-heavy foods when feeling tired and sluggish. Conversely however, eating lots of refined and simple carbohydrates can actually lead to blood sugar crashes, making tiredness worse. Opting for wholegrain, complex carbohydrates rather than white refined versions, and having a small amount of protein or healthy fats each time you eat should help reduce cravings for carbs and sustain energy for longer.
“There is also a strong correlation between carbohydrate cravings and mood, with many reporting an increase in positive mood shortly after eating a carbohydrate-rich meal. One hypothesis is that carbohydrate cravings are caused by lowered activity of serotonin (our ‘happy hormone’) in the brain. This could explain why people tend to reach for the snacks between 3-5pm, when serotonin levels are naturally less active. Serotonin is made in the brain from the amino-acid tryptophan. Whilst tryptophan is found in protein rich foods, consuming carbohydrates increases the amount of tryptophan which is able to cross the blood-brain-barrier to be converted into serotonin.”
“Chocolate is the most commonly reported craving (especially by pre-menstrual women), thought to account for nearly half of all craving episodes. Cravings for chocolate also tend to be stronger and to disappear more slowly than cravings for other foods. Some argue that as cacao is high in magnesium, cravings for chocolate can indicate a deficiency in this important mineral. However, a number of other foods, such as leafy green vegetables, are also high in magnesium and do not tend to be the fixation of food cravings and research so far has been unable to substantiate that chocolate cravings are linked to any physical imbalances in the body.
“In fact, most studies conclude that cravings for chocolate are more likely to be linked to emotional and social triggers or cultural factors. Having said that, many people are low in magnesium and good quality dark chocolate is a rich source, so having a couple of squares isn’t going to do you any harm. Just go for the 80%+ cacao variety and make sure you eat your leafy greens too!”
“Sugar, or ‘sweet things’, are the second most common food craving after chocolate. Studies in animals have shown significant similarities between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including binging, craving, dependence, reward and the release of opioids in the body, leading some to believe that sugar has addictive properties. We often crave sugar when we are tired and stressed. This may be because it is a fast acting energy source for the body. However, giving in to sugar cravings too often can play havoc with our blood glucose balance, creating further cravings for sugar and other stimulants and subsequent health problems such as type II diabetes.
“Those with a particular sweet tooth could be lacking in chromium, which is an essential mineral shown to help support healthy blood sugar balance and reduce cravings. A diet high in sugar can also negatively affect the gut microbiome. Imbalances of bacteria and other organisms (such as yeasts which thrive on a high sugar diet), contribute to food cravings by effecting reward and satiety pathways, producing toxins that alter our mood, changing taste receptors, and hijacking the vagus nerve which links the gut to the brain.
“One solution to help manage sugar cravings is to take a supplement such as Lepicol Lighter (£17.99 lepicol.com), a high fibre product containing 7 strains of live bacteria, chromium for the maintenance of normal blood glucose levels, glucomannan, a plant fibre which contributes to weight loss in the context of an energy restricted diet and psyllium husk, which contributes to maintaining normal bowel transit.”
There is no one easy answer as to what could be causing particular food cravings – or how to ‘cure’ them. Braye points out that attempted restriction or deprivation is often associated with an increase in cravings for the unavailable food, “and craving experiences reported by dieters have been found to be stronger than in those not dieting”. On the other hand, fasting has been shown to diminish food cravings. “This suggests a variety of underlying cognitive, conditioning, emotional and physical processes may be at play,” Braye says.
How much specific food cravings can tell us about the nutritional needs of the body is debatable. However, eating a balanced diet, high in fruit, vegetables, good quality protein and healthy fats, switching to complex carbohydrates, and taking steps to reduce stress could help keep cravings at bay.
From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK