Healthy Eating: What your food cravings mean

Discover the meaning of these five food cravings and how to satisfy them - the healthy way.

Chocolates  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yearning for some chocolate or maybe some salty potato chips? We have all experienced food cravings and while most are purely psychological, there may be some scientific evidence as to why some people crave certain foods more than others and why food cravings can suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Your body may not actually be craving that specific food, but rather something in the food. So find out what your food cravings may really mean, and how you can satisfy them before reaching for those unhealthy (non nutritious) treats.
Dying for some potato chips, pretzels or popcorn? While these treats are certainly tasty, it may not be the food that you are actually yearning for, but rather the salt. Unlike other minerals, most people are not low on sodium or deficient in it for that matter. So why do we crave it sometimes? There are many reasons, such as pregnancy, an electrolyte imbalance, or another mineral deficiency; or perhaps you are just addicted to salt, as the more you eat it the more you want it. However, one of the main causes of a salt craving is simply dehydration. Now while dehydration is commonly associated with not drinking enough liquids on an excruciatingly hot summer day, most people can easily become mildly dehydrated when they do not drink enough water – period. In fact, 75% of Americans suffer from chronic dehydration – a condition that occurs over time when a person does not drink enough fluids day after day.
So what does this have to do with salt? It’s pretty simple - salt helps the body hold on to water, and therefore our bodies crave it when they are trying to retain it. So the next time you have an urge to grab a bag of potato chips, try a glass of water first and see if your craving goes away.
There are not many people, especially women, who can say that they have never experienced an urge to eat chocolate. Now if you are craving some chocolate, it doesn’t mean that you have a chocolate deficiency, although most of us would probably prefer that, but it may mean that you are running low on magnesium.
The fourth most abundant mineral in the body, magnesium is needed for every single one of our organs to function properly. It is required for proper nerve and muscle function, for the immune system to stay strong, for the control of blood pressure and for the regulation of other minerals, including calcium, within the body, in addition to being necessary for more than 300 biochemical reactions. While magnesium can be found in several different foods, many people, especially women, do not consume enough of it and may even be deficient in it. So why do we crave chocolate? As surprising as it may sound, the cocoa bean is one of the foods with the highest amount of magnesium. However, there is a small catch – while the cocoa bean is high in magnesium, most chocolate is not. In order for the benefits to outweigh the cost of eating chocolate (i.e. calories and fat) you need to consume dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa (by weight.) While this bitter chocolate won’t satisfy your sweet tooth, it will certainly help you increase your levels of magnesium.
Apart from the cocoa bean, you can load up on magnesium by increasing your intake of spinach, whole grains, almonds, cashews or halibut.
Craving a can of coke or another fizzy drink? While this probably means that you are thirsty, and therefore should be reaching for a glass of water instead, a new theory suggests that there could be another reason you are yearning for a carbonated beverage – low levels of calcium. While calcium is commonly associated with proper bone growth and maintenance, it is also vital for many other essential body functions including blood clotting, nerve conduction, muscle contraction, regulation of enzyme activity, cell membrane function and blood pressure regulation. In fact, calcium’s role in the body is so important that when one’s dietary intake of calcium is too low, the body will draw calcium from its bones, a situation that can lead to osteoporosis after many years. So what does this have to do with soda? As you have probably been warned, soft drinks leech the calcium out of your bones. So when you are craving a fizzy drink, it’s your body trying to get the calcium out of your bones. While this theory may sound a bit far-fetched, and it probably is, most adults are low in calcium so there is no harm in increasing your daily intake of low fat-dairy products and other foods that are rich in this mineral.
This may sound like an odd craving, but it exists – many people do crave ice. So what is the craving all about? Oddly enough, studies have shown that craving and chewing ice is often associated with iron deficiency anemia. Like calcium, iron is absolutely essential for life. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout the body; it is also needed to remove carbon dioxide from the body as well as for muscle development and proper function. However, despite iron’s importance in the body, it is the number one nutritional disorder, globally. So what’s the connection with ice? Scientists haven’t fully understood the link between ice and anemia. However, some experts believe that ice may relieve inflammation and tongue pain in the mouth caused by an iron deficiency.
Iron can be found in (lean) red meat, chicken and fish and are great sources of heme iron. Plant foods such as nuts, dried beans, legumes, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach are excellent sources of non-heme iron (the plant form of the mineral.) Unlike heme iron, non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the body. To increase your absorption, eat non-heme iron foods in conjunction with Vitamin C, as it helps the body absorb the mineral better.
It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon – a good three hours after lunch and a few to go till dinner – and you are craving something sweet – a “pick me up” food that will carry you through till you’re next meal. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone; most people crave something sweet whether it be a candy bar or another sugary snack only a few short hours after they eat a meal. This is caused by a blood sugar imbalance. When it comes to breakfast and even lunch time, most of us fill our plates with refined starches, such as white bread, little protein and unfortunately little fiber. These foods are high on the glycemic index scale as they are digested quickly, causing our blood sugar levels to spike and thus giving us that energy boost. Unfortunately, what goes up must always come down, so only a few short hours later our blood glucose levels come crashing down, causing us to feel tired, irritable and in need of something to eat. Most of us, again, will reach for something with sugar, and the vicious cycle will start all over again. One solution is to include more protein, such as chicken or low fat meats and cheeses as well as high fiber foods, such as quinoa, old fashioned oatmeal or bulgur during meal time. If you still need a mid morning snack or a late afternoon pick me up, reach for a fruit, such as an apple or some berries, as they are not only packed with essential vitamins, but are loaded with fiber which will keep you feeling full until your next meal.