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What Do Food Cravings Tell Us?

Written by Courteney

Posted on March 28, 2016 at 5:03 pm

We’ve all had the occasional, seemingly insatiable chocolate craving, strong desire for chips, or hankering for a parent’s famous mac and cheese, but what do these strong cravings really mean?

Do Cravings Signify Deficiencies?

For decades there have been theories circulating that cravings signify chemical and nutrient deficiencies or imbalances (for example chocolate craving symbolizing a magnesium shortage) however, research backing this claim is shaky. Studies have drawn parallels between excess cravings and a lack of dietary variety, but aside from a few exceptions science has yet to prove cravings have much to do with physical deficiencies.

Most Cravings Have Emotional Roots

One theory that has been backed by scientific research is that cravings are linked to certain areas of the brain, namely the emotional center. It seems even intense pregnancy cravings may have mostly to do with emotions. People seek the ‘feel good’ chemicals and hormones released by the brain when it is stimulated by certain foods.

Sweet Cravings

Most people associate sweets with positive childhood memories of cake at birthday parties or treats as rewards for good reports or special occasions. Research shows that positive feelings associated with these treats release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is known as one of the main ‘feel good’ chemicals, and is also associated with addiction. Being that dopamine is at play, it is no wonder our bodies can become quite dependant on sugar. People often chase this feel good sensation if they are upset or stressed and wish to quickly feel better. Similarly, chocolate contains mood-boosting polyphenols, so it is the main craving for those with hormonal imbalances (such as menstruation) because it can actually lift and help temporarily stabilize a bad mood.

Savoury Cravings

Crunchy chips or pretzels can be a go-to when you’re angry, stressed or frustrated. Lab rat studies have shown that salty snacks peak oxytocin in the rats’ brains, effectively reducing their stress and calming them. Of course this relief is only short lived, consuming too much sodium can have all kinds of negative effects on the body, but it is clear salty treats do help temporarily calm stressed bodies. Carb-rich ‘comfort foods’ have similar effects, creating short-term energy boosts which trick the body into thinking it feels better after carbo-loading (before the crash, that is).

Are There Ever Medical Reasons For Cravings?

There have been certain cravings associated with specific medical conditions, such as sufferers of undetected anemia having strong cravings for ice, or other non-nutritional or non-food items such as paper or soil (this phenomenon is called Pica). There have also been documented cases of people with persistent meat cravings being iron deficient, but this is quite rare. Those with undiagnosed diabetes often crave water and drink it in excess.

Addison’s Disease

Another medical condition that seems to be associated with cravings is Addison’s disease. Those with Addison’s disease often continuously crave salt as one of the symptoms of the condition. If your salt craving is accompanied by hypotension, fatigue and stomach issues it may be time to check in with your doctor, or one of our qualified DocChat physicians. However, before you run to the doctor for the occasional salt craving, remember cravings do not always mean you have a corresponding disorder; most often cravings are simply cravings.

What Can You Do To Curb Cravings?

  • Sweets: Go for fruit and whipped cream instead! Or some homemade rice pudding that uses stevia for sweetening. Or if you are aware why you have these sweet cravings, you can try replacing the positive sensation with another activity like creating something, going for coffee with a good friend or opting for cuddles.
  • Savory: Try air-popped popcorn, roasted chickpeas or kale chips with sea salt! If you want to combat stress without salty snacks, go for a jog or hit the gym when you’re craving salt. It’s not a guarantee, but chances are your craving will be gone when you’re done your workout.
  • Chocolate: Try a serving size of dark chocolate. It will still satiate your cocoa craving but also has heart-healthy benefits. Or you can try hot chocolate made with pure cocoa and sweetened with stevia!

For additional healthy alternatives to cravings, check out our post “10 Healthier Treats To Keep The Sugar Monkey Off Your Back

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