Ask the Expert: When Should I Listen to My Cravings?
Cravings can be intense — and often they go way beyond minor hankering. Surely, it can’t just be that you want chocolate. There must be some reason that you need chocolate. Come on, please! Just a taste.
Unfortunately, you probably don’t. In most cases, cravings aren’t a physiological function telling you what you need. In fact, it’s much more likely that they’re a dysfunction.
You might be aware of an infographic floating around the Interwebs featuring foods that people typically crave, along with micronutrients that (supposedly) trigger those cravings. If you desire bread, toast, or pasta, the graphic suggests you need more nitrogen in your diet. Salty foods mean you need chloride, chocolate suggests a need for magnesium, etc.
You may notice a complete lack of references at the bottom of this chart. That’s probably because there’s no science backing up these claims — whatsoever. While the craving might stem from something more obvious — sugar, for example — it’s highly unlikely that your yen for chocolate means you need more magnesium in your diet.
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Why Do I Crave Chocolate and Other Foods That Aren’t Good For Me?
Cravings are far more complex than this cause-and-effect chart suggests. While a subtle nutrient need may be partly to blame, cravings arise for several reasons — and tend to include a tangled web of psychology, hormones, and other physiological issues.
Let’s go back to the chocolate/magnesium connection. By the time chocolate gets to the milked-down form most Americans consume, there’s not much magnesium left. One ounce of milk chocolate contains just 4% of the recommended daily value for magnesium. Dark chocolate has 16%.
Why would the body seek out a food for a specific nutrient when that food has very little of that nutrient? Wouldn’t it make more sense that your body would crave foods richer in magnesium, such as nuts, leafy greens, or beans? Your chocolate cravings probably exist for more insidious reasons. Some research shows similarities between chocolate cravings and alcohol addiction, in that both alcohol and cacao contain similar neuroactive alkaloids (chemicals that tweak your melon). In other words, research suggests that chocolate is addictive.
Another reason you could be craving that brownie is because of your emotional history with it. It’s one of the great American comfort foods. We’re brought up identifying chocolate with birthdays, Halloween, post-soccer game ice cream outings, and all those magic moments when you were a good little boy or girl who deserved a reward. If you can’t see how that would etch a positive association neural pathway deep into your gray matter, we need to get Dr. Freud on the horn, stat.
Furthermore, unless you like chewing on cacao nibs (and some people do!), the chocolate you consume is filled with sugar — and sugar cranks up the “feel good” hormone serotonin (among other chemicals) levels in your brain, giving you a feeling of mild euphoria. When it’s gone, you want more. Combine this sugar hit with the emotional issues and you’ve got one powerful craving.
I’m not ruling out the possibility of a causal relationship between cravings and micronutrients — but the key word here is possibility. For instance, when I first began road cycling seriously, I found myself with an irresistible craving for potato chips. It was only when I started adding sea salt to my recovery drink that those cravings passed. Similarly, pregnant women often crave foods that are high in nutrients they need. For example, she might crave cheeseburgers — an obvious source of calcium and iron.
If you’re convinced that your particular craving stems from a micronutrient deficiency, there’s an easy way to test this: supplement the vitamin or mineral you have in mind.
So I Shouldn’t Trust My Cravings?
Maybe sometimes. With all this talk of micronutrients, we’ve overlooked another possible root cause for your craving — a macronutrient deficiency. You could be craving certain foods — or certain food types — because your balance of carbs, protein, and fat is off. While it’s a stretch to assume your body desires a food because it contains trace amounts of a certain mineral, the causal link between foods and macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) is obvious. Eat a piece of carb-heavy cake and you’re going to spike your blood sugar.
If you think this may be the case, feed the craving with healthy food. If you’re craving sweet things, increase your fruit and veggie intake. If you crave greasy foods, increase your raw nut or avocado (good fats) intake. If you find yourself craving meat and cheese, increase your lean protein intake with chicken, fish, eggs, and legumes. If you do this and it doesn’t work, odds are that your cravings are more psychologically based.
If you’re deliberately eating at a calorie deficit, this method can be a problem. Ultimately, you’re not getting enough of any macronutrient. In these situations, it might be useful to adjust the balance of carbs/protein/fat in your diet.
Cravings suck. And when you’re trying to lose weight, they suck even more, as calorie deficits tend to increase cravings. In our most frustrated, give-me-the-donut-before-I-kill-someone moments, we’d all like a simple solution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. Finding your way around cravings requires a little patience and experimentation. It’s just a matter of finding a healthy substitute, a little willpower — or some combination thereof.