Cravings: What is Your Body Trying to Tell You?

Risa Groux, CN
 | Published: 
October 5, 2020

Cravings: What is Your Body Trying to Tell You?

Even the perfect diet and lifestyle can be hindered by cravings. Cravings for specific foods can impede a patient’s progress, even when they understand the importance of avoiding certain foods and eating more of others. This can occur even after people have shifted their diet to nutrient-rich whole foods and have experienced improvements in their moods, energy levels, and blood sugar stabilization. Why do cravings happen and why are they so difficult to resist?

One hypothesis is that cravings can be a sign of nutrient deficiencies. For example, if someone is magnesium deficient,they might crave a pile of sautéed greens; or if someone needs more iron, they might get a craving for liver. But when was the last time someone told you they were binging on liver or that the best part of their day was when they sipped on their kale smoothie? If the correlation between cravings and nutritional deficiencies is accurate, then there are a ton of people deficient in the nutrients provided by French fries and chocolate ice cream.

All jokes aside, there may be some truth to the body asserting its needs through cravings. The pica phenomenon describes people consuming non-food substances, such as laundry starch or dirt. Typically,it is seen in pregnant women, but other people have also demonstrated this behavior. While the root causes of pica are unknown, some studies show a strong correlation with iron deficiency. In a meta-analysis, the researchers found that pica was associated with 2.35 times greater chances of anemia. Pica was also linked to lower hemoglobin, hematocrit, and plasma zinc levels. However, it was unclear whether these blood abnormalities led to the pica or whether pica behavior created the abnormalities.

Pica is not the rule, but the exception when it comes to food cravings. People tend to crave foods that are hyper-palatable, with flavor and texture combinations that do not exist in nature. There are almost no foods that are high in both carbohydrate and fat that occur in nature. Common macronutrient combinations are carbohydrate and protein (i.e., beans) and protein and fat (i.e., beef and pork). Fat is a dense source of calories, and sugar is a source of quick energy—which was rare to find in large quantities thousands of years ago. Evolution has conditioned us to see ice cream sundaes as food jackpots. The modern world takes a toll as well. In the face of relentless stress and insufficient sleep, cravings for carbohydrates might be the brain’s way of seeking a mood boost via increased transport of tryptophan across the blood brain barrier.

The body asserts what it needs through certain cravings: for example, something high in protein after a tough workout, or something salty after someone has been sweating a lot. Cravings junk food that is calorie rich, but nutrient-poor on the other hand—for refined carbohydrates in particular—are most logically attributable to significant fluctuations in blood sugar. A sudden urge for sweets does not come from a physiological need for the “nutrients” they provide; as we know that artificial colors and high fructose corn syrup are not nutrients! A strong craving for something sweet or starchy is the inevitable effect of hypersecretion of insulin after previous carbohydrate intake has left someone at the bottom of the blood glucose roller coaster, and hypoglycemia is tricking them into thinking they are hungry.

Sugar and certain amino acids can help to balance the endogenous opioid system. Neurotransmitter levels might help people with intense cravings as the foods sought might be the body’s way of trying to change brain chemistry. L-tryptophan and 5-HTP and may help boost serotonin; Mucuna pruriens is a natural source of L-dopa, which is the precursor to dopamine. Vitamin B6 may also help modulate this. L-glutamine and Gymnema sylvestre are other supplements that support balancing sugar cravings.


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