Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Craving carbs, chocolate, or a big, fat steak? If it happens all the time, it may mean you’re lacking in nutrients, or struggling with a health issue. Here are six common cravings, and what they may tell you about your health:
Most of us love chocolate. But if your fudge-y thoughts border on obsession, you may be depressed. In one study, participants who screened positive for depression had significantly higher chocolate consumption than those who did not screen positive. Other studies have found either an improvement in mood state or a lessening of negative mood after eating chocolate. The effects aren’t just psychological: dark chocolate has been shown to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. And chocolate’s high magnesium content has been shown to boost mood and alleviate anxiety.
Crave this: Choose dark chocolate—70 percent cacao or higher contains less sugar and more nutrients. Better yet, munch on raw cacao nibs; they’re pure chocolate, sans sugar. To be sure you’re getting enough magnesium, try a magnesium powder or supplement; the RDA is at least 400 mg/day for men and 310 mg/day for women. And if you suspect your cocoa consumption is linked to deeper issues, seek professional help.
2. Potato chips
If you really can’t stop thinking about potato chips (or pretzels, popcorn, or tortilla chips), it might mean you’re stressed: chronic tension depletes the adrenal glands, which release cortisol, a hormone that impacts your body’s response to stress. Studies suggest people with higher blood levels of sodium release lower levels of cortisol when they’re under stress—so chips and other salty foods could be your body’s way of dealing with tension. It may also signal where you’re at in your menstrual cycle: in one study, women in the last two weeks of their cycle showed the strongest cravings for salt, while women in their menstrual week preferred little or no salt. Researchers suggest that changes in estrogen and progesterone levels may increase salt appetite. And a craving for chips may also signal stress in another way: biting down and chewing can release tension in the jaw, lessening frustration, anger or tension.
Crave this: Instead of munching on chips, try calming your brain: meditation, yoga, tai chi, and breathing exercises can help when cravings strike. To curb the craving to chew, chomp on carrots, celery, apples or low-sodium, whole-grain crackers. Or try soothing supplements. Passionflower, lemon balm, and chamomile are safe and effective herbs to relieve tension; L-theanine or a B-vitamin complex can curb anxiety. Rarely, a salt craving may indicate a more serious disease, like Addison’s. If it runs in your family, or you have any symptoms, check with your doctor.
Constantly craving carbs like noodles, bread, bagels, rice, and other starches? You may need more sleep. Studies show people who fail to get enough restful slumber tend to crave and eat too many starchy carbs. A lack of sleep affects hormone levels that regulate hunger, leading to an increase in appetite and a preference for high-carb foods. Other studies show similar links between lack of sleep and higher intake of carb-rich foods and snacks. If you’re tired from lack of sleep, you may crave carbohydrates simply for the quick energy boost they offer. And if burnt toast is part of your carb-craving regimen, consider this: cravings for burned food are thought to indicate a deficiency in carbon.
Crave this: If you’re craving carbs, skip the white-flour versions; choose whole-grain, higher-fiber varieties and pair them with fat and protein. If you struggle with sleep, try supplements. Sublingual melatonin, most commonly used for jet lag and adjusting sleep cycles in people on night shifts, is great for occasional insomnia. GABA, valerian, and 5-HTP shorten the time to fall asleep and lessen night waking. And flower essences, made by infusing spring water with various flowers, and homeopathic combination remedies are safe and gentle enough for continued use.
4. Ice cream
If you consider a full pint of butter pecan (or a bag of cookies or a box of chocolates) just a warm-up, you may be suffering from blood sugar imbalances. Craving sweets can be an early sign of insulin resistance, which may lead to diabetes. Even worse, you may be hooked: research has proven sugar is highly addictive, and behaviors around sugar—like cravings, withdrawal and increased tolerance—mimic those observed with drugs of abuse, like opioids and cocaine. If your cravings focus specifically on ice cream and milkshakes, rather than any old sweets, you may have mild heartburn or acid reflux, or you may be taking too many NSAIDs like Motrin or Tylenol—and because cold, creamy dairy tends to be soothing, your body may be craving relief.
Crave this: To bust blood sugar imbalances, focus on high-protein, low-carb meals and snacks, with lots of fiber and moderate fat; some people benefit from eating several small meals throughout the day, rather than three big meals. Try blood-sugar-balancing supplements like chromium picolinate, bitter melon, berberine, or gymnema sylvestre; a combination blood-sugar formula may be the most effective approach. If you suspect heartburn or stomach irritation is driving your cravings for creamy, cut down on fatty and spicy foods, and try a heartburn formula that contains magnesium, calcium, aloe vera, L-glutamine, papain, and/or ellagic acid. And swap NSAIDs for less-irritating pain relief options, like white willow bark, boswellia, or a homeopathic combination formula.
If your obsession centers around gooey, melty pizza (or cheesy lasagna or Philly cheesesteak), you may be lacking in tryptophan, an amino acid that creates calming neurotransmitters like serotonin. Because tryptophan needs carbohydrates to easily enter the brain and convert to serotonin, pizza is the perfect combo. If your pizza cravings are more about the cheese itself, you may be lacking in healthy fats: low levels of omega-3 are thought to trigger cheese cravings.
Crave this: Get tryptophan from whole-foods sources like chickpeas, sunflower seeds, yogurt, and beans. Or take an L-tryptophan supplement, usually in the range of 500 mg. Be sure you get enough omega-3 fats; boost your intake of salmon, sardines, and eggs from pastured chickens, and take an omega-3 supplement in the range of 1,000 mg. For vegans, the best sources are chia, flax seeds, or algae-based omega-3 supplements. And be sure you’re getting enough healthy fats in general; hemp or flax oil are easy to drizzle over salads and cooked vegetables.
6. Red meat
You’d drive to the next state for a burger? It may mean you’re lacking in iron, which can lead to anemia—a condition in which your body is lacking in healthy red blood cells. Red meat is also exceptionally high in vitamin B12, another nutrient that’s associated with preventing anemia. And if you order a soda with that burger and find yourself crunching on the ice, it may be a further indication of an iron deficiency: ice chewing can be a sign of pica, an eating disorder marked by craving ice, clay, hair, and other non-food items, that’s strongly linked with anemia.
Crave this: If you suspect an iron deficiency, load up on beans, legumes, and dark leafy greens, with smaller amounts of molasses, prunes, figs, and other dried fruit. If you know you’re iron-deficient, take an iron supplement; look for a non-constipating formula or a liquid blend with herbs. To boost B12, balance your red meat intake with lean poultry, fish, and eggs; or take a B12 supplement or sublingual to cover your bases, especially if you’re vegan.