What your body really needs and when it’s okay to “give in”
I regularly discuss the importance of a healthy, balanced diet—including a wide array of fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow. Not to mention animal protein and healthy fats (including the mainstream’s favorite scapegoat—saturated fats). But even if you regularly eat a nutritious, balanced variety of fresh foods, you still might experience unshakable cravings from time to time. After all, we’re only human…
So what do these cravings really tell us about ourselves?
The human design is quite miraculous if you think about it. You see, your body is built to know exactly what it needs, and sends signals to your brain telling you what to eat for nourishment.
In fact, when it comes to certain food cravings, I’d go so far as to say that you should pay more attention to your body than to your doctor.
The culprits behind dangerous diet advice
As I reported in the April issue of Insiders’ Cures (“Why an alarming number of doctors know nothing about nutrition”), most medical students and recent medical school graduates can’t even pass a basic nutrition quiz. Yet they claim they’re qualified to give us nutritional advice…
It reminds me of the old adage: “Often wrong, but never in doubt.”
Then, there are registered dieticians and nutritionists. Balanced diets are supposed to be their specialty. But an international study found a whopping 77 percent of nutrition students felt that eating disorders were afflicting their classmates personally.1 Which makes you wonder where their intense interest in food really stems from. (Most likely from an unhealthy relationship with food…)
In any case, many dieticians and nutritionists dole out terrible advice and many aren’t up to date on the real science…
Finally, there are the government’s dietary guidelines, which are constantly in flux and also fail to consider all the research suggesting higher recommended daily intakes (RDIs) of specific vitamins and minerals. Nor do they follow basic science-backed principles like increasing healthy essential fats and cutting refined grains and carbs.
Of course, many people try to manage what they eat by following fad diets, counting calories, or adopting dietary restrictions. But none of this really works in the long run.
In fact, relying on advice from any of these sources is a surefire way to set yourself up for nutrient deficiencies. And, in many cases, the main symptoms of nutritional deficiencies are food cravings.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what some of the most common food cravings are really trying to tell you.
Four common cravings—deciphered
Chocolate. Interestingly, the American Chemical Society reports that chocolate contains the cannabinoid molecule anandamide—which may actually spark cravings.2 It’s also worth noting that there are cannabinoid receptors located throughout the human body. So chocolate cravings may be your body and brain’s way of saying that you need more anandamide.
Of course, another common culprit behind chocolate cravings is stress. Plenty of research shows that eating chocolate naturally boosts levels of the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine in your brain. And other research shows that this sweet treat may decrease your stress hormones.
Finally, chocolate cravings may also indicate you have mineral deficiencies. Cacao is grown in tropical areas in soils that may be depleted of certain nutrients, but still contain essential minerals. The plants absorb those nutrients, and you get trace amounts of magnesium and zinc when you eat chocolate.
In addition to the trace minerals it contains, chocolate is rich in a type of plant antioxidant called flavonols. Several studies have found that chocolate flavonols can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by improving blood circulation to your heart and brain. And flavonols have also been shown to boost brain health and cognitive function.
Make sure the chocolate you choose has at least 70 percent cacao, which has more of the beneficial ingredients, and less of the added sugar and fats. Just don’t overdo it—one to two ounces a day is enough to reap the health benefits
of eating chocolate.
And if you’re having repeated chocolate cravings, make sure you’re getting sufficient minerals like magnesium (200 to 400 mg daily) and zinc (40 mg daily).
Burgers or steak. Craving red meat may also signal a mineral deficiency. Meat is high in bioavailable iron, selenium, magnesium, calcium, and other minerals.
Meat cravings may also mean you aren’t getting enough complete protein in your diet.
“Complete” protein contains all of the amino acids essential for human nutrition and health. Certain amino acids are missing from plant sources, so if you eat a vegetarian diet, you are likely lacking adequate levels of protein.
Regardless of your dietary preferences, it’s important to get your iron, and your calcium, from food—not supplements. Calcium and iron supplements are downright dangerous for your health, as I’ve often reported.
Of course, you can still get some protein (as well as minerals) from plant sources such as beans, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. And taking 250 mg of vitamin C twice daily can help you increase absorption of iron from these non-meat foods.
So if you find yourself craving a burger or steak, fire up the grill and get the nutrients you need—straight from the source.
Chips, crackers, or other salty snacks. With all of the unscientific salt restrictions being pushed by the government and their codependent consumer health groups, you may have fallen victim to a “low-salt” diet.
Don’t believe the hype. Your body needs salt. So this craving is as straightforward as they come.
Contrary to what misinformed organizations like the American Heart Association report, studies show that cutting salt is not a solution for high blood pressure or heart disease for most people. In fact, researchers have found that a lack of salt can actually create cardiovascular and metabolic problems.
And that’s not all.
An interesting research review reported that salt deficiency can result in a condition called anhedonia—which refers to the inability to feel any joy or pleasure from activities that normally would make you happy.3
Anhedonia is one of the main symptoms of major depressive disorder. (So even if you’re not craving it, consider boosting your salt intake if you’re having mood issues.)
So how much salt should you consume per day?
The government’s puny and dangerous recommendation of 2,300 mg a day isn’t nearly enough. I suggest getting up to 4,000 mg a day (nearly two teaspoons).
As I wrote in the August 2017 issue of Insiders’ Cures (“The Great Salt Scam finally makes the ‘news’”), Koreans routinely eat this much salt—and have some of the world’s lowest rates of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Of course, cravings for salt typically come in the form of junk foods high in sodium. Needless to say, this isn’t the best way to get the salt your body needs.
Instead of giving in to that potato chip craving, try a handful of salted nuts, which are highly nutritious and great for your health.
And don’t be afraid to salt your foods to taste in moderation when you are having a salt craving.
Cookies, candy, and other sweet treats. If you’re craving sweets, your blood sugar may be low. But eating candy or cake can make your blood sugar spike—and then plummet. This puts you on a dangerous roller coaster that you can’t get off.
A better solution is to eat at least two servings a day of whole, fresh fruit. Fruit contains fructose (a natural sugar) and has fiber, which helps your body absorb the fructose more slowly—without the spikes associated with cane sugar. It will also help you meet the recommended six to eight daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
And, of course, fruits also contain a range of nutrients, including carotenoids (pro-vitamin A), and vitamins B and C.
It’s important to note that if you have a constant craving for sugar, you should consider seeing your doctor to be evaluated for possible diabetes or an endocrine disorder like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
The bottom line is that your body is constantly communicating with you. And food cravings are just one example. So pay attention to what it’s saying. “Giving in” to your cravings in a healthy way can help keep you well-nourished and satisfied.
1“Dietitians and eating disorders: an international issue.” Can J Diet Pract Res. 2012 Summer;73(2):86-90.
3“The biopsychology of salt hunger and sodium deficiency.” Pflugers Arch. 2015 Mar; 467(3): 445–456.