15th October 2018
Your body is pretty clever. There is a lot going on under the surface that you don’t consciously control, from simple everyday tasks such as regulating blood flow, to more circumstantial functions like fighting off infection when you are ill. But you already know this. You might not think about it too often, but you know it goes on.
This is impressive enough, but the human body also becomes acutely aware of what it needs and doesn’t need to keep it performing at an optimal level. One such way it does this is through letting you know the nutrients it requires – usually through initiating cravings for foods that contain such a vitamin or mineral. Even though you might not know the full nutritional breakdown of every item of food that you consume, your body can recognise through experience what certain foods can provide.
But what the human body already knows on a basic level, science is still catching up on. It’s a tricky business – as you soon discover after reading through completely contradictory information from different sources on the same dietary topics – although there are some things that are generally agreed upon; the following food cravings for example. Here’s what these common cravings indicate your body is in need of, along with alternate foods you can use to satisfy those cravings.
Probably the food that is craved more often than any other, a desire for chocolate could mean that you have a magnesium deficiency. Chocolate is a rich source of magnesium, which goes someway to explaining why some women yearn for chocolate so much – as magnesium levels drop halfway through the menstrual cycle. Whilst this obviously isn’t something that affects men, drinking too much tea, coffee, alcohol, or fizzy pop might, as these all lower the magnesium levels in your body too.
The problem with this craving is that chocolate isn’t the healthiest of options; its sugary, sweet taste is likely the reason why chocolate is pined for over other magnesium-rich foods though. If you do cave to your chocolate-based cravings then make sure you choose something with a high percentage of cocoa. Pure chocolate is too much for some people, but a bar with over 70% cocoa is a much better alternative to milk, white, or even standard dark chocolate. Better still, eat a handful of nuts or some leafy green vegetables, as these can also provide you with the magnesium you need.
Ice doesn’t sound like something you would ever be craving, but if you are then you may be suffering from an iron deficiency – you could even be anaemic. In fact, there is a name for when you crave a nutritionally void substance like ice, it’s called pica. Short-lived pica is common in children, but in adults it can be a sign of anaemia, or even emotional problems like stress or OCD. It’s not just ice either, as the chewing of clay, cornstarch and paper can also be an indicator of low iron.
If you ever find yourself feeling sluggish and craving ice then your best bet (along with visiting the doctor) is to eat red meat. Red meat is high in iron and is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based iron sources.
As we’ve just seen that meat can improve an iron deficiency it should be no surprise that craving the red kind can also signify said deficiency. But meat cravings can indicate that you have low levels of zinc too. Zinc is vital for immune functioning, which is why some vegetarians find themselves much more susceptible to illness than meat-eaters, and why they may even crave meat despite not wanting to eat it for moral or ethical reasons.
Ideally, if you are craving meat you should eat meat; but not everybody wants to or even can do. If you are avoiding meat for any reason, there are other ways to get some zinc into your system. Shellfish is a good source if you are open to seafood, or cheese if you can eat dairy. If neither of these options appeals to you then lentils, spinach and wholemeal bread will do the trick.
If you constantly find yourself with an urge to hit the sweet shop, or yearn for the long gone pick ’n’ mix display in Woolworths, then it could be because you are low in chromium. It’s not a mineral that gets a lot of attention, but chromium, like insulin, aids glucose uptake and helps regulate blood sugar.
Since the sugar in sweets also causes an insulin spike, this will eventually lead to a sugar crash and you’ll probably feel worse than before. Instead of opening a bag of Haribo, eat some liver. Not an appealing swap, admittedly, but liver will give you the chromium you need. If you can’t stomach the thought of liver, then beef, chicken or eggs can work, as can carrots, potatoes and broccoli.
Another one that shouldn’t come as a surprise, a craving for cheese can be a signal of low calcium. Calcium is well known to be important for the development of teeth and bones, but it also plays a part in nerve and muscle function.
Obviously, dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt can satisfy your calcium fix. You can also turn to broccoli, almonds or tinned fish – like salmon and sardines. Your body absorbs calcium best when it has a plentiful supply of vitamin D, so making sure you get enough sun also helps in this area.
Some people won’t touch carbs, whilst others don’t feel a meal is complete without them. Either way, a craving for them can indicate a lack of tryptophan – an amino acid that synthesizes serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps regulate your mood, and therefore a lack of it can causes mood problems, anxiety or issues with sleep.
Carbohydrates don’t actually contain tryptophan, but the increase in blood sugar that they provide allows for more tryptophan in your body to make its way to the brain. So strangely the best way to satisfy carbohydrate cravings might be to eat protein, as things like turkey, eggs, and cottage cheese do contain tryptophan. Milk, nuts, and bananas are also good sources of the amino acid.
As you can see, whilst your body is incredibly efficient at recognising what it is lacking, it can be tricked somewhat by countering cravings with alternative, healthier options. This is good to know, as it makes it easier to curb cravings and still keep on track with your dietary goals. Some of the swaps might not taste as good, but they are better for you in the long run and can put your short-term cravings to bed.