Late-night food cravings are sometimes just that: a craving. But sometimes, a craving means more. Seema Sarin, M.D., an internal medicine doctor for EHE Health, says what we are hungry for can serve a purpose. And more importantly: It could point to deficiencies our bodies may be experiencing.
“There’s a wide network of components in our brain that are involved with food cravings. Lots of research has suggested that specific cravings have a useful function when it comes to regulating our diets,” she explains.
But how do we know what our hankerings actually mean? After all, being in the mood for something once in a blue moon probably does not mean you are lacking vitamins. However, if you simply can’t get enough of something or find yourself salivating for an extended period of time, it is time to think carefully about what it could mean. However, Sarin says food cravings are not an exact science, so if you find yourself lusting after these specific nibbles frequently, it is worth a discussion with your doctor to make sure your levels are solid.
Here, a guide to what your taste buds could be saying about your health:
If you crave chocolate: you could have low magnesium levels.
Hot fudge sundae? A milk chocolate caramel bar? A three-layer chocolate cake? Are you drooling yet? Probably, since Samantha Wineke, a health coach for Physio Logic, says Americans tend to want this sweet treat more than anything else. “What many people don’t realize is that your chocolate craving may be a sign of a magnesium deficiency,” she explains. When you are not getting enough of this essential nutrient, you may have extreme fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, and you could find it difficult to sleep or to concentrate. Because chocolate in pure form has magnesium, your body wants it to fill up the void. But do not go for the high-calorie, nutrient-less options, Wineke says. Instead, she suggests a square or two of dark chocolate that contains 70 percent or more cacao or adding a bit to a morning smoothie for an extra magnesium boost.
If you crave carbs: you may need more fiber.
Registered dietitian and nutritionist Vanessa Rissetto, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. says when the only thing on your mind is carbs, your body could be suffering from low levels of fiber. Because fiber regulates our blood sugar levels, when we don’t get enough, we seek the instant “rush” from carbs. After all, when you break most carbs down, they are basically sugar. To combat these cravings and to get your system regulating in the right, healthy direction, Rissetto says to turn to chromium and magnesium-rich foods, like bananas, apples, apricots, spinach and broccoli. These will balance your blood sugar levels in a nutrient-rich way, thus, lowering your need for carbs.
If you crave meat or cheese: you may need more calcium or iron.
Sarin says people who crave meat or cheese have often been told they need more calcium or iron in their diets, or potentially, they could have a vitamin D deficiency. And because protein itself — no matter what cut or food you choose — is an excellent source of iron, it makes sense why burgers or steaks become top of mind. This could also be why women tend to want red meat when they are having a menstruation cycle: blood is leaving, and thus, your body is working overtime to try and get it back. Cheese also has plenty of calcium, since it is made of milk, making it a common craving for those who are not getting enough of this vitamin.
If you crave salt: you may be experiencing an electrolyte imbalance.
Excessive sweating drains much of the sodium within our bodies, leaving us depleted of our levels. While you will initially be really thirsty, Wineke says your taste buds will begin to want salt instead if you become dangerously close to dehydration. This electrolyte imbalance can be caused from working out rigorously in the heat, drinking heavily or by following a strict low-carbohydrate diet, according to Wineke. The answer is not to grab a bag of chips, though. She says it is better to reach for coconut water, which is super-hydrating, or add electrolyte powder to a glass of water.
If you crave non-food items: you may have pica.
Have you ever craved strange items like chalk? Or maybe even wanted nothing more than to chew ice? This is not abnormal, but it could point to an extreme iron-deficiency called pica, according to Wineke. This can happen when you are not eating enough iron-rich foods, like leafy greens and meat, if you are newly vegetarian and have not mastered your protein levels, or if you are a woman who has super-heavy menstrual cycles. In some extreme situations, pica can also be an indicator of an eating disorder. If you are suffering from this, you may also have an upset stomach or in the worst cases, bloody stool. “If you find yourself craving any of these, it is advised to see your health-care practitioner to get further testing and determine the root cause of your cravings,” says Wineke.
If you crave coffee: you may need more sulfur or iron.
Here is the deal: craving coffee or tea does not necessarily mean you have a sulfur or iron deficiency, according to Rissetto. Because many people work this pick-me-up beverage into their morning routine, it could just indicate you are used to the caffeine fix that they provide. But are you constantly reaching for cup after cup? That is when it could indicate a lack of nutrients. She suggests eating more greens like kale and spinach, and considering pairing them with vitamin C, since that helps your body absorb nutrients easier. A good switch may be a mid-afternoon snack of spinach, hard-boiled egg and orange slices, instead of that iced latte you are used to.
If you crave something specific: it could be tied to your memory.
Sarin says when you are not in the mood for various food groups but a very specific recipe or food item, it is your mind’s way of getting “a fix.” In other words, you keep going back to dishes that make you happy. “Recent studies have confirmed that cravings can be attributed to a mixture of lifestyle and psychological factors. They see cravings as a conditioned response to our past experience,” she explains. “If we enjoy a specific type of food, we want that endorphin boost again, so we have a craving.”
And while it is OK to give into cravings occasionally, if you find yourself constantly tying emotion to your food, consider seeking the help of a therapist or doctor who can help you better manage your feelings.
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