What Do Your Food Cravings Really Mean?
UPDATED JULY 2020
Despite common misconceptions, chocolate cravings aren’t a sign of a magnesium deficiency. As nutrition and weight loss expert Louise Parker explains, “The levels of magnesium contained in chocolate are too low to suggest craving chocolate indicates a deficiency.” However, chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a molecule that triggers the brain to release feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which explains why our brains may be programmed to crave it when we’re feeling low – and why it’s so tricky to stick to just one square of Dairy Milk. “When we eat chocolate, an enzyme breaks down phenylethylamine, reducing the quantity released to the brain, resulting in us desiring more of it. Interestingly, higher amounts of this molecule can also be found in many other foods that we don’t crave nearly as often, including dairy products,” Louise adds.
Consultant dietitian Ro Huntriss reckons chocolate cravings are synonymous with PMT because of its mood-boosting properties. “Cravings tend to kick in during the luteal phase, which is the time running up to your period, and this is due to the change in the hormones that your body is producing. Along with the cravings can come heightened emotions.”
Cravings for salty foods such as crisps or popcorn could be a sign of dehydration, according to Ro. “When you’re dehydrated, you lose sodium, i.e. salt, which is a key electrolyte. However, drinking too much fluid can also lower your sodium levels, so it’s important to try to get the balance right. Sometimes, craving salt may just be because you like the taste of it and want a salty snack. Government advice is to consume no more than 6g salt per day, but if you are looking for a healthier salted snack, consider olives in brine, a small portion of salted nuts or a portion of roasted chickpeas.”
Louise adds that, more often than not, craving salt is simply caused by fancying something savoury. “Salt isn’t bad for you and there’s nothing wrong with eating it, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Eating regular, balanced meals throughout the day can help sustain blood glucose levels and control the urge to snack. Popcorn with paprika dusted on top, roasted veg and crunchy crudité are all good savoury snack options,” she says.
Both Louise and Ro say there are different reasons as to why you might be hankering after stodgy carbs. Carbs boost our levels of serotonin, the happy hormone, which has a calming effect on the brain, which explains why we tend to crave them when we’re burning the candle. “Carb cravings can be a sign of sleep deprivation and tiredness,” Louise says. “When we are tired, levels of a hormone called ghrelin increase, stimulating appetite, and levels of leptin decrease, meaning it’s harder to feel satisfied after a bad night’s sleep. We naturally turn to carbs as these provide the quickest and most efficient source of energy.” Louise also explains that if you’ve recently upped your exercise, it’s natural to crave carbs, as they’re the body’s preferred source of energy. “If there’s an increase in your activity and you’re craving carbs, this could be a sign you are under-fuelling. It’s also your body’s way of telling you to replenish your energy stores.”
Craving a Krispy Kreme or packet of Haribo? Ro explains sugars are a type of carbohydrate, so if you aren’t eating enough carbs, this could trigger sugar cravings. “If this applies to you, try to include enough starchy carbohydrates at each of your meals. We can also find that we crave the things we restrict. So, if you are being too restrictive with yourself, just relax a little and your cravings should diminish. We can also crave food when we are in an altered emotional or psychological state, e.g. when we are feeling upset or anxious, so be aware of your moods and don’t be so hard on yourself – if you fancy something sweet, just go for it, but all in moderation.”
If you’re looking for healthier ways to indulge a sugar craving, Louise says finding alternatives to your favourite foods is easier than you think. “If you’re a cookie monster, try oatcakes with a bit of peanut butter and a few slices of banana, keeping the rest of the banana in the fridge for a mid-morning smoothie. Dried fruit like dates or figs are also a great option – the trick is to combine it with a source of protein such as yoghurt or nuts to avoid a big hit of glucose and insulin into your bloodstream. Dusting cinnamon on a baked banana, steamed pears with nutmeg or a handful of frozen berries alongside yoghurt can all be delicious ways to enjoy a fruit-based sweet hit. Alternatively, consider adding stevia to add a subtle sweetness. Sweeteners such as stevia don’t increase blood sugar levels as they are calorie free.”
But when it comes to supplements that claim to control sugar cravings, studies say the jury’s out. “Chromium has been linked to sugar cravings but there’s very little evidence it’s a viable solution. It can, however, regulate insulin in people with diabetes. To control sugar cravings, the best thing you can do is choose foods with a lower glycaemic index, which will keep you fuller for longer, making you less likely to snack on foods that may be higher in sugar,” Louise says.
“Red meat is a good source of both protein and iron and some people have linked craving red meat to a deficiency in either of these nutrients; however, there isn’t any strong evidence to back this up,” Ro says. So if you’re craving a steak, chances are there’s little more to it than it being something your taste buds fancy. Just remember to eat red meat in moderation, advises Ro, “Red meat can help to improve intake of protein, iron, Vitamin B12 and zinc, but is higher in saturated fat and high intakes have been associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer. Therefore, recommendations state that red meat intake should be limited to no more than 500g per week.”
THE BOTTOM LINE:
It’s pretty unlikely your cravings are a sign of a deficiency. If anything, the experts claim the answer could well be psychological. “If you experience an overwhelming desire to eat, or find you still have food on your mind even after eating a substantial meal, you might be experiencing one of two types of hunger: physical hunger, or psychological hunger,” Louise says. “ Physical hunger is our body’s way of telling us that we need a resupply of fuel in the form of food, while psychological hunger is often triggered by our emotions. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference, but paying close attention to how your body experiences hunger, and being mindful of the signals and internal sensations you feel, can be a helpful way to increase your awareness. Some people find that food cravings arise due to emotional triggers such as stress and anxiety. The earlier on we identify the source of a craving, the sooner we can respond by giving the body what it really needs.”
To book an appointment with Louise Parker or for more information, visit LouiseParker.com. Follow Ro @DietitianRo.
*Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programmes.
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