unhealthy food cravings

Unhealthy Food Cravings a Sign of Nutrient Deficiency

Cameron Hooper Nutrition

Do you get intense food cravings for junk food?

Have you ever wanted a chocolate so bad that you can’t focus on anything else until you stuff your face with a big candy bar?

Or maybe you’re thinking of a gigantic bowl of ice cream or a juicy burger at this very moment.

The problem with junk food cravings is they never go away. I mean sure they might go away for a day or so, but they always manage to come back in full force. 

The point is, giving into junk food cravings doesn’t make them go away.

But why is that?

Science now has come up with an answer: the reason we get cravings is that our body lacks specific nutrients. In other words, cravings might be a sign you have a nutrient deficiency.

Are Cravings The Same Thing as Hunger?

Not quite.

Hunger is your body’s way of telling you it needs fuel. Whereas cravings are your body telling you it’s deficient in a particular nutrient.

The foods you crave typically contain the specific nutrients you need.

Unfortunately, these cravings often involve junk food.

And too be honest, I’m not entirely sure why our brain chooses junk food as a way of communicating its needs. I mean, wouldn’t life be a lot easier if we craved kale instead of French fries?

But it’s not that simple. That’s why I have created this list which demystifies your food cravings. So you can easily look up what your craving to discover what nutrient your body needs. That way you can curb your cravings without plowing through a pint of ice cream.

Feel free to view the condensed version of this article as seen in the slide show below, or keep on reading to get all the important details.

So if you crave…

Common Foods (Cheese, Pasta, Red Meat)

Without a doubt there are foods that people crave more often than others. While it’s not always the case, these cravings can be your body’s way of telling you it needs something. Here are some of the most commonly desired foods in my experience:

  • Cheese: If you crave cheese a lot (or dairy in general) it could mean you’re deficient in essential fatty acids (omega-3s) or calcium. Consider getting more omega-3s in your diet from sources such as flax seed oil, a plant-based omega-3 supplement, walnuts, chia seeds, or salmon. For calcium, try sesame seeds, broccoli, kale, or legumes.
  • Pasta & Pastries: If you often drool over the thought of a big plate of pasta, it could mean you lack chromium in your diet. Try eating foods such as onions, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes to eliminate your cravings.
  • Red Meat: This is a real common craving, especially among women due to menstruation. Intense cravings for a burger or steak could indicate you’re deficient in iron. If you can’t afford the organic grass-fed meat or you’re a vegetarian, consider adding sprouted beans, legumes, seaweed, spinach, and cherries to your diet. You also want to get vitamin C so your body can absorb the iron.
  • Crispy & Crunchy Food: Before I learned about the deficiency-cravings connection, I would often crave crispy snacks. That’s until I learned it’s a sign of a chloride and essential fatty acid deficiency. For chloride, eat (organic) celery, olives, tomatoes, kelp, and Himalayan salt. For essential fatty acids, look at the cheese cravings bullet point.

These are the most common cravings people experience with one major exception: sugar.

Foods High in Sugar

It’s no secret that sugar-filled foods are among the most highly craved foods in the world. Especially in industrialized nations.

The soda industry alone, a market which thrives off of your sugar addictions, is valued at 97 billion dollars in the U.S alone! Countless other companies feed off the public’s sweet tooth  at a similar scale.

So why do we crave sugar so much?sugary drinks and soda

We crave sugar because it’s enormously addictive (more so than cocaine) and due to imbalances in our body–primarily in the gut.

So if you want to cut down on your sugar intake, which you should, then these nutrients should help the following cravings:

  • Chocolate: If you crave chocolate, it could mean you’re deficient in magnesium. Consider adding raw cacao nibs, beans, nuts, fruit to your diet. You can also try a quality magnesium supplement which is great to take before bed because it can help you sleep!
  • Soda & Fizzy Drinks: For some reason, this is your body’s way of saying “I need calcium!” I know, it doesn’t make much sense to me. But if you often want soda, you may be able to curb your cravings by getting calcium-rich foods in your diet such as sesame seeds, broccoli, kale, and legumes. Sometimes Kombucha really sates these cravings too.
  • General Sweets: If you’re craving just sweets in general, it can be caused by a wide range of deficiencies. To name a few, you could be deficient in chromium, tryptophan, sulphur, or phosphorus. The best way to get these in your body is to have a well-rounded diet containing lots of vegetables, nuts / seeds, and whole grains. Probiotics can really help eliminate your sugar cravings too.

Sugar cravings can also be a sign that you have a candida overgrowth in your gut, you have adrenal complications, or even thyroid issues.

Luckily most other food cravings aren’t as complicated as sugar cravings are.

Craving Stimulants

There’s very few people on the planet who don’t crave stimulants (especially in America). But it turns out we don’t crave stimulants just to de-stress, get more energy, or be in an altered state.

coffee addiction

Craving different types of stimulants can also be your body’s way of saying it needs a specific nutrient:

  • Caffeine: Can’t resist that delicious double shot latte or iced coffee? I admit, I’m guilty of giving into these cravings more than I should. The truth is, when you crave caffeinated substances it could be a sign of hormonal imbalances, it could be your body is outright addicted to caffeine, or it could be you’re deficient in nutrients. When your body lacks sulfur, iron, salt, or phosphorus, it can cause you to desire caffeine. Consider eating asparagus or garlic for sulfur and whole grains or pumpkin seeds for phosphorus.
  • Alcohol: In small amounts, alcohol can act as a stimulant. Consistent cravings (I’m not talking about addiction here) for alcohol can mean your body needs calcium, glutamine, protein, or potassium. Try eating cabbage for glutamine, nuts for protein, and citrus fruits for potassium.
  • Tobacco: Here’s an interesting one: if you have difficulty kicking your smoking habit, try getting silicon and tyrosine in your diet. Sometimes tobacco cravings can be worsened if you lack these two substances. Try eating nuts or seeds for silicon, and avocados or whole grains for tyrosine.

While stimulant cravings don’t always indicate a deficiency, it’s still important to consider the possibility. That way you can more easily snuff out your stimulant cravings.

Flavor Cravings

Sometimes cravings aren’t specific at all.

These can be the more difficult to identify because they can be misunderstood as specific food cravings. If you were craving Chinese food, for example, do you think you’re actually craving Chinese food or is it salty food in general you want?

It’s important to consider these things when your craving foods, that way you can take care of the deficiency rather than indulging in unhealthy food.

grilled food

Here are some common “flavor” food cravings and what they mean:

  • Burned Food: Ever crave well-done roasted vegetables (one of my favorites) or grilled food? If that’s the case, you could be needing carbon. To beat this craving, try eating more fresh fruits.
  • Acidic Food: In the mood for pasta sauce, apple cider vinegar, or soda? While certain acidic foods can actually be healthy, if you frequently desire acidic food, it could mean you’re deficient in magnesium. Consider adding raw cacao nibs, whole grains, and nuts to your diet.
  • Salty Food: When I was in college, I would often crave salty foods near finals. I always wondered why until I discovered that when under stress, your hormones (mainly cortisol) are constantly fluctuating. It is in these times that your body can tend to crave salty foods. Salty food cravings can also be caused by a chloride deficiency. Try meditation or breathing exercises for the stress, and celery or Himalayan salt for chloride.

Different Appetites

While it’s not always the case, your appetite or eating habits can also indicate which nutrients your body needs. Depending on whether you have a big appetite, tend to overeat, or love to snack, each behavior can indicate something different.

  • Lack of Appetite: Although not as common as overeating, a low desire to eat (body image disorders aside) could be due to a lack of nutrients such as chloride, thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), or manganese. Try to eat celery for chloride, nuts and oats for vitamin B1, fish and peanuts for vitamin B3, and whole grains or leafy greens for manganese. In my experience, however, a low appetite can also indicate other issues such as depression, gut problems, or a lack of culinary exploration. All of which are worth considering.
  • Overeating: If you have the tendency to overeat on the other hand, it could mean you’re deficient in tryptophan, tyrosine, or silicon. I would also suggest eating more whole foods, fiber-dense vegetables & grains, and also consuming more protein. If you give your body these nutrients, you may be less likely to overeat.
  • Love to Snack: Some people don’t overeat, but they have a hard time resisting frequent snacking. While having 2-3 healthy snacks per day can be beneficial, it can become a problem if these snack cravings are coupled with unhealthy food cravings such as sweets or salty food. If you’re a “snacker” it could indicate your diet is imbalanced—you’re missing nutrients. Try substituting junk food for healthier foods. For example, instead of chips, have hummus and carrots or baked zucchini chips.

Deficiency Cheat Sheet

Ok so you may be a bit a bit overwhelmed with all the information here. While all this info is nice, how can you possibly remember what each craving truly means?

I don’t remember them all and I don’t expect you to either.

That’s why I created a printable table, or “cheat sheet,” that can help you quickly identify what your cravings mean. I like to keep it on my refrigerator door. That way it immediately helps me identify what my cravings mean.

By using this cheat sheet, you can easily give your body what it really needs rather than helplessly trying to satisfy your cravings with unhealthy food.

Final Thoughts

If you find yourself intensely craving a juicy burger or a death by chocolate cake, it could be your body’s way of telling you it needs a particular nutrient.

By learning how to recognize what your body is trying to tell you through food cravings, you can stop the cravings in a much healthier way.

Getting some magnesium, for example,  is a much healthier alternative than indulging in a big slice of cake.

But I want to make it clear that food cravings don’t always mean you’re deficient in something. Sometimes cravings can be caused by underlying conditions, gut bacteria imbalances, or unhealthy behaviors. No matter what though, you can benefit from eating most these foods listed here, so you really have nothing to lose.