You’re strolling around a shopping center and you pass by an ice cream shop. Then it hits you: a craving for a hot fudge sundae. You just can’t imagine the rest of your day without that hot fudge sundae. You’ve got to have that hot fudge sundae now!
Anywhere from one-fifth to nearly all of adults contend with food cravings, researchers say. Our cravings — hard-to-ignore desires for certain foods — tend to zero in on sweets (think chocolate), fast food (like hamburgers), fatty food (pizza, for example) and carbs (such as potato chips), studies show.
So, if your head is filled with persistent thoughts of a hot fudge sundae, what is your body telling you?
Digging into food cravings
Sarah Lisovich, senior editor at Central Infusion Alliance Medical, a distributor of medical and surgical products, says food cravings can indicate a lack of certain vitamins or nutrients in your diet. For instance, a desire for a T-bone steak can suggest a lack of iron or vitamin B, she says. Some iron-deficient people might even crave ice.
Nutritional therapist Lindsea Burns also puts stock in the messages that cravings send us.
“Cravings say a lot about our health, because our body is programmed with the innate intelligence to know what it needs,” Burns says. “Women craving chocolate around their periods, for example, is just the body asking for more magnesium, which gets depleted during that time of the month.”
However, food psychologist Marcia Pelchat of Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center tells Smithsonian.com that other than a few types of extreme deficiencies, your food cravings probably aren’t signaling a lack of vitamins or nutrients. Instead, she tells Eating Well, a boring or restrictive diet is more likely to trigger cravings.
“A monotonous diet — and not a nutritional gap — may be more to blame for your yen for a certain food,” a Tufts University article says. “In a study published in the journal Psychology & Behavior, healthy young adult men and women followed a diet that met all of their nutritional needs but consisted only of nutrition shakes for every meal for five days. People on this one-note diet reported significantly more cravings than they did on a varied diet.”
In a separate study, published in 2004 by Pelchat and fellow researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, 10 volunteers were allowed to eat only one thing for a day and a half: vanilla nutrition shakes. Another group of volunteers, however, could eat anything they wanted in addition to the nutrition shakes. The research found that the volunteers on the shake-only diet experienced more cravings than the other volunteers did.
Pelchat and her colleagues reported that, based on this research, food cravings activate areas of the brain tied to emotion, memory and reward.
“During a craving, we have a sensory memory or template for the food that will satisfy the craving,” Pelchat says in a Monell news release. “The food we eat has to match that template for the craving to be satisfied. It’s as if our brain is saying, ‘It has to be chocolate ice cream, lemon pie just won’t do.’”
Taylor Newhouse, a registered dietitian with Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health, says that when we’re stressed, our bodies naturally will crave fast food or fatty food.
“Cravings are also like habits. We often reach for a craved food without thinking of it,” Pelchat says in a Texas A&M news release.
Health coach Marina Yanay-Triner says that among her clients, the two cravings she sees most often are salt and sugar.
Salt cravings often signify mineral deficiencies, Yanay-Triner says.
“Because many minerals taste salty to us, when we crave salt, we are actually in need of minerals,” she says. “A great way to fix this is by eating mineral-rich green leafy vegetables or mineral-rich sea vegetables.”
In addition, Yanay-Triner says, salt cravings can mean you’re dehydrated — drink more water! — or you’ve got low-functioning adrenal glands, which should be checked out by a medical pro. Cravings for salty snacks such as chips or pretzels also can indicate an iron deficiency, according to Newhouse.
As for sugar cravings, Yanay-Triner says they’re your body’s way of screaming for more carbs. If you find yourself in the sugar-craving camp, try eating more fruit or even healthy carbs like sweet potatoes, rice and quinoa, she recommends.
Listen to your body
No matter what kind of food you’re hankering for, Dr. Phoenyx Austin, a sports nutrition specialist, notes that it’s important to distinguish between cravings and hunger.
“Cravings are controlled by the brain, whereas hunger is controlled by the stomach. So when we get cravings, it’s because our brain is try to communicating something important about our diet with us,” Austin says.