Are cravings all in our mind, or are our bodies trying to steer us towards consuming certain nutrients?

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD

Photo: Getty / Vesna Jovanovic / EyeEm

Food cravings are real, even intense at times, and they stem from the parts of the brain that involve, memory, reward, pleasure and emotions. But could some cravings also be our body's subconscious way of telling us that we need certain nutrients? You're not alone if you've ever wondered if a cheese craving might mean you need calcium, and I checked out the research behind six common food cravings to see what they really mean.

You're Craving Chocolate

A popular theory is that craving chocolate is a sign our body needs magnesium. While I'm always on board for a reason to eat more chocolate, I could find little science to support that a chocolate craving indicates a true physiological need for the micronutrient. This doesn't mean the theory has no basis-just that there's no data specifically looking at magnesium status and chocolate cravings to suggest a connection.

However, some individuals do say their chocolate urges seem to decrease when they get more magnesium through food or a supplement. While magnesium is found in chocolate (1 ounce of dark chocolate supplies about 10% of our DV), nutrient-dense foods like almonds, cashews, peanuts, edamame, beans and spinach contain that same amount or even more.

Related: How to Get More Magnesium (and Why You Should Care)

You're Craving Dairy

Foods from the dairy group are top sources of calcium, a mineral that's essential to bones yet under-consumed by most Americans, and for a long time I've wondered if my sudden craving for cheese, milk or even ice cream is a sign that my body needs calcium. When I dug into a little research, I could find nothing to contradict this craving theory, but I also couldn't find much to support it. And I even found a few health professionals who used cravings during pregnancy as a way to dispute a connection. The reason is that during pregnancy, most all nutrient needs are higher-including calcium. If the nutrient need-craving theory held true, one would expect cravings during pregnancy to be for healthy nutrient-dense foods like milk, leafy greens and beans (which often isn't the case).

You're Craving Carbs

Unless you've been eating a low-carb diet, cravings for starchy foods like pasta and rice probably don't mean the body needs carbs for energy. However, those cravings may mean the brain is low in serotonin and searching for a little pick-me-up. The reason is that carbohydrates encourage production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the brain.

Carb-rich foods also increase blood sugar to provide a burst of energy (particularly if they contain added sugars), so the brain becomes conditioned to want carbs for the serotonin and glucose. The problem with giving into carb cravings is that the positive effects seen in energy and mood are short-lived, which can create a perpetual cycle of seeking carbs to continue to get that boost.

You're Cravings Sweets

Ever had a day where you feel like you just "need" something sweet? Similar to craving starchy carb-rich foods, this may also be your brain and mind seeking that serotonin and glucose boost. But it may also be a sign that you are sleep deprived. Not getting enough sleep can trigger hormonal changes that increase appetite and consume more calories, particularly from junk foods with added sugars. In fact, a 2018 study found that when individuals who routinely got less than recommended sleep gradually increased their sleep, their sugar intake decreased, which suggests that being rested helps keep those cravings at bay.

You're Craving Ice

A craving for a juicy steak is usually thought to be a sign that the body needs iron. And if you're having other iron-deficiency symptoms-like fatigue, headaches and cold hands-this may well be the case. However, a craving for ice is also a sign of iron deficiency, and the ice-iron connection has got significant research to support it.

Craving ice is actually known as pica, which is an an intense craving for ice or for another non-food substance like clay, cornstarch or dirt, and most individuals who have pica are also iron-deficient. Eating ice or any other of these non-food items doesn't do anything to resolve an iron deficiency, but eating iron-rich foods like red meat, iron-fortified cereals and grain products, beans and spinach will help. Most also find that that pica diminishes once iron status is within normal parameters.

Related: When You're Craving a Food, Maybe You Need to Just Eat It

You're Craving Salt

If you can't get the thought of potato chips, pretzels or other salty food out of your head, then you may be dehydrated. The body is designed with all types of feedback mechanisms in place to keep it running within normal parameters. And stimulating the thirst sensation, a dry mouth and a salt craving are a few of those feedback tricks it uses to nudge you to pick up that water bottle when you've haven't stopped to hydrate in a while or need more hydration.

On a more serious note, there can sometimes be more to a salt craving than meets the eye. One instance is when you have significant sweating or electrolyte loss; this is usually a sign you need hydration and electrolytes, a key one of which is sodium. Another instance is if you have an ongoing salt craving-this could possibly signify an adrenal or renal issue and is worth seeing your doctor about.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.

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