What your food cravings really mean

Cathy Winston
Monday, May 2, 2011
Image: Getty
Page 1 of 2: Cravings
It's not just pregnant women who crave particular foods — have you ever had a slow afternoon where you've wanted chocolate so much you can almost taste it? Or those days where you'd kill for a packet of chips?

But if you're suddenly desperate for a cup of tea or a slice of cake, those food cravings might not mean what you think — and it could actually signal a mineral deficiency.

"Food cravings are common things," says Shona Wilkinson, head nutritionist at the NutriCentre. "You really should listen to your body as there's usually a reason for them."

The nutritionists explain what's behind some of the commonest cravings...

Chocolate
You haven't had a bad day, it's not that time of the month, and yet you've got an overwhelming craving for chocolate. "It could be magnesium deficiency," explains nutritionist Caroline Pearce. "Chocolate is high in magnesium so if you're lacking it, that's what your body craves."

"It could also be your body saying you need antioxidants," adds registered nutritionist Anita Ellis. "Craving chocolate is often actually a call for these."

Swap it for: Magnesium is vital for everything from your nerves to your bones and immune system but choose a healthier option like nuts and seeds or pulses, as well as green leafy veg.

And pack your diet with brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, especially yellow, orange, red and purple ones — sweet potatoes are high in lycopene, while capsicum and berries will all help boost antioxidant levels.

Sweets
"If you find yourself craving really sweet food, like biscuits and sweets, it could be because of your blood sugar balance but it can also be caused by a lack of chromium," says Shona Wilkinson. The mineral actually helps balance your blood sugar levels so if you're short of chromium, your body can end up craving ultra-sweet treats to compensate.

Swap it for: although you can find chromium in broccoli and chicken, it's not an easy one to get enough of through your diet so Shona suggests looking for a supplement.

Coffee
If you're a five cups a day woman, then your latte addiction is going to play a part. But if you're suddenly desperate for a quick hit of espresso, it could actually be an iron deficiency, says Shona Wilkinson.

Around 40 percent of women aged 19-34 don't have enough iron in their diet, while many have low levels after their period. But without iron to help transport oxygen around the body, you can end up feeling lethargic — cue caffeine hit.

Swap it for: a quick cuppa might give you a temporary lift but you need to boost the iron in your diet to solve the problem. Green leafy vegetables and lean red meat are good options

Cake
Who doesn't love a slice of cake — but if your appetite is out of control, it's not just lack of willpower that you can blame. "Zinc is one of the most important nutrients for appetite control," says Anita Ellis. It's linked to production of leptin, the hunger hormone which tells your body that it's full, so if you're deficient in the mineral, it could explain why you're craving cake.

Swap it for: nuts are great sources of zinc and much healthier than a slab of cake — 100g of brazil nuts gives you almost half your RDA of the mineral. Most good multivitamins also contain zinc

Chips
So you're dying for a portion of hot chips? Actually, it may not be the fries you're frantic for. "It won't be salt directly, so it would be chips with salt on or chips that you crave," says Shona Wilkinson. "It can mean that you're dehydrated, especially in hot weather, or if you've been exercising."

Swap it for: pick up a sports drink to replace any lost electrolytes. If you avoid salt in your food, you could also be low in chloride, adds Caroline Pearce, so fish or raw goats' milk will help top up your levels

Fizzy drinks
Dying for a can of something fizzy? There could be an unexpected reason. "This is quite common and it's to do with craving calcium," explains Shona Wilkinson. "Fizzy drinks actually leach calcium from the bones, so what's happening is your body is absorbing the calcium and you're craving the fizzy drinks to get more — but you're getting it in the wrong way."

Swap it for: ditch the fizzy drinks and your bones will thank you. Instead stick to low-fat cheese or dairy products, as well as leafy green vegetables, which are high in calcium.

Click on page 2 to see what your other cravings mean.

BBQ
It's not just the sunshine and smell of smoke from next door that's making you fancy a barbecue — wanting to eat burnt food is a recognised craving. "It's because of a lack of carbon in the diet," says Shona Wilkinson. "But it's really not a healthy thing to crave — burnt sausages might taste lovely, but there's a fear that it's carcinogenic."

Swap it for: instead of leaving your bread in the toaster slightly too long, the healthy source of carbon is in a surprising place — fresh fruit. It seems odd, Shona admits, but that's what you need to solve your craving

Burgers
Whether it's McDonald's, Burger King or your local burger joint that tempts you, sometimes a sudden longing for a hamburger is so strong you can almost taste it. That's not unusual, says Anita Ellis. "Cravings for red meat have got a lot to do with smell and taste but you're most likely to be deficient in protein."

Swap it for: try some lean meat instead of fast food for a healthier protein boost. And keep an eye on your mineral levels as well. Craving red meat could be the result of a zinc deficiency, suggests Caroline Pearce, while Shona Wilkinson points out that low iron levels might also be to blame.

Tea
There's nothing wrong with a nice cuppa but if you're craving endless mugs of tea, it might actually be something else your body wants. "If you're craving tea, it could be the milk you're really after," says Anita Ellis. "And that's often because you're craving the amino acids, especially tryptophan."

Swap it for: the calcium in milk means this isn't a bad craving to have, as there are plenty of nutritional benefits. But to make sure your tryptophan levels are topped up, grab a banana which is also high in the amino acid

Potato chips
If nothing else will hit the spot apart from a packet of chips, it's time to take a look at your lifestyle. Stress eating isn't just about the comfort factor — your adrenal glands are busy producing hormones including cortisol, and for that they need sodium.

So if you're desperate for something salty, it could be because your body's supplies are running low, explains Shona Wilkinson.

Swap it for: a less stressful lifestyle would be a good start — exercise or even deep breathing will help cut the levels of cortisol in your blood. But don't head for supersalty snacks to solve your sodium shortage. Instead, try natural sources such as shellfish, beetroot and artichoke.

It's also possible you've got a thyroid iodine deficiency, adds Anita Ellis, so make sure you have plenty of fish in your diet too.

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