Our food choices say a lot about us. Many of us have been lead to believe that if you crave a certain type of food it means you’re deficient in certain vitamins that are present in the foods you crave. However, if you really think about it, the idea that you crave what you need does not really hold up. Research shuts this theory down as well: “If cravings were an indicator of nutritional deficiency, we’d all crave fruits and vegetables…The fact that we all want high carb, high fat comfort foods, along with the research, is a pretty good indicator that cravings aren’t related to deficiencies,” Karen Ansel, MS, RD, CDN, told the Huffington Post.
Additional research backs up Ansel’s point, finding that cravings are often socially and culturally related, rather signs of nutritional deficiency. What you crave can be heavily steeped in culture, even craving what you associate as soothing from our childhood, as well as old tropes, such as women craving sweets during their monthly cycles. Recent research has also found that food cravings are often less about what is going on inside your body than what is going on inside your brain. That being said, it doesn’t mean that your cravings aren’t real and don’t have a physiological origin.
So while food cravings aren’t the best diagnostic tools on their own, listening to what you crave, and putting those cravings into context can help you give your body what it really needs. Here are 5 common foods that we crave and what they mean.
1. If you’re craving something salty (chips, pretzels, pizza, actual salt on your food)
There are some experts who believe that when we crave salty snacks, what we’re most craving is the crunch that comes with heavily salted products like chips and pretzels, Kimberly Snyder, CN, told Everyday Health. She says that we crave these foods when we’re stressed because, “Crunching down with your jaw is cathartic, almost like punching a wall.” Other experts believe that craving something salty is a sign of thirst.
Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, so a craving for salt, which helps your body retain water, could mean that you’re not drinking enough or are losing water, for example, by means of sweating, faster than you’re able to ingest it. Then there are other researchers who think we crave salt simply because we’re so used to eating so much of it. A 2011 study referenced in the Huffington Post found that “salt was not only addictive, but it also affected our brains in a similar way to being addicted to cigarettes or hard drugs.” Interestingly, the study yielded similar results regarding sugar.
Lastly, there are also cravings as a response to a deficiency: Women’s Health noted that there’s a link between low calcium diets and salt cravings, claiming that, “In animal studies, researchers have found that a lack of potassium, calcium, and iron causes test subjects to devour table salt.”
While none of these possible causes definitively provide insight into your state of mind, it may simply be a reminder to stay properly hydrated, eat a balanced diet, and find another way to take out your aggression.
2. If you’re craving something sweet (cookies, cake, chocolate, etc.)
Sugar is a very popular craving and it can definitely have an affect on your mood. Sugar can cause our brains to release serotonin, a chemical that makes us feel relaxed and also plays a role in regulating mood. This may be the reason why we reach for hand-fulls of candy when we’re stressed or sad because eating it can put us a little more at ease.
Additionally, a lot of us psychologically associate eating sweets with feeling better. Snyder adds, “Most of us grew up with sweets being presented as a reward. The very anticipation of a reward triggers the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain and studies show that regular binging on sugar stimulates dopamine.”
Another possible reason for craving sweets could be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep. When we’re tired, we sometimes crave simple carbs like sugar because they “are digested quicker than complex ones such as whole grains and beans, so the energy kicks in sooner.” When we’re craving sugar, what we really may be craving is happiness or energy to get us through the day.
3. If you’re craving meat (steak, beef, etc.)
Many doctors agree that meat cravings can be a sign of a protein deficiency, as well as a lack of iron or vitamin B in one’s diet. If you happen to be a vegetarian, this doesn’t mean you should take a late night trip to the drive through and scarf down a burger, which would probably end up making you sick, rather, you should take it as a sign that you need to introduce more of those vitamins and proteins included in meat into your diet by eating more nuts, tofu, and dark, leafy vegetables.
4. If you’re craving white carbs (bagels, bread, rice, muffins, etc.)
You may not realize that we process both candy and carbs (like white bread, white rice, aka the better tasting carbs) in the same exact way since they all contain simple carbohydrates, differing from complex carbs like those found in whole-wheat breads and pastas and legumes. According to Joseph Colella, M.D., “Once a starchy food gets past the back of your tongue, your body treats it the same way as sugary sweets.” This means that we crave the classic white carbs for the same reasons we crave other sweets when we’re exhausted physically and emotionally, or when we’re feeling down or overwhelmed. So what you may really be craving is energy and calmness.
What’s more, some researchers believe that there’s an interesting reason why we crave calorie dense food, like Nachos Bell Grande, or that hefty bowl of fettuccine pasta, tracing it back to an early time in human history when we needed to hoard calories in order to energize us for caveman-like activities, such as hunting and gathering. Dr. Leigh Gibson, Reader in Biopsychology at Roehampton University, told The Daily Mail that, “From an evolutionary point of view, junk food cravings are linked to prehistoric times, when the brain’s opioids and dopamine reacted to the benefit of high-calorie food as a survival mechanism…Today, we still have the same chemical reactions to these so-called hyper-palatable foods…despite there being less of a nutritional need for them.”
5. If you’re craving dairy (cheese, pizza, etc.)
Craving pizza can rarely be a sign of craving dairy, you may just be craving something delicious. Though, a craving for diary and sweets like ice cream probably just means you’re craving sugar, and a craving for cheese or milk may just have to do with your response to craving a high-calorie food. It could also mean you’re craving salt — some cheeses happen to be very salty.
Some medical professionals think that a milk craving is really a craving for L-tryptophan, which plays a role in releasing serotonin, as well as another soothing brain chemical called choline. Some doctors even think that dairy cravings could point to a deficiency in vitamin D.