For many of us, food cravings probably happen more often than we’d like them to, like the ones that strike during our pesky afternoon slump. There are tons of theories as to why we experience intense cravings like these—most of which boil down to them being a sign that we’re deficient in a certain nutrient, such as iron or magnesium. But is this actually true?
The short answer: Not so much. “The reason most people buy into a particular food craving myth is a mix of desire and a small bit of fact,” says Suzanne Dixon, RDN, a registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida. The desire part of the equation gives you “permission” to eat something you normally consider “off-limits,” while the small bit of fact is that the foods people crave actually do supply some nutrients of interest. (For example, dark chocolate is a reasonably good source of magnesium.)
When we crave foods, it’s mostly because they trigger the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters in the brain. “Once people experience these subtle brain effects, they tend to seek them out again, especially when they’re under stress,” says Dixon. With a lot of indulging, we can condition our brains to produce less of these happy hormones when these foods aren’t around, which can lead to feeling like something is lacking without them. (Cue more cravings.)
Below are six examples of the food cravings we tend to fall for most, and why they’re not true:
Myth 1: Craving sugar means you’re addicted to the stuff.
“Currently, we don’t have evidence that confirms sugar addiction is a true addiction,” says Connecticut-based registered dietitian Alyssa Lavy, RD. Yes, sugar has been shown to light up the reward center of the brain, but so do many other things—and we don’t always attribute that effect to addiction.
More often than not, sugar cravings could be a result of a person restricting their carbohydrate intake and not meeting their nutritional needs. “Your body has a feedback system where hormones will be released in an effort to drive hunger, and ultimately increase blood sugar levels, since your body likes your blood sugar to be within a certain range,” says Lavy.
Myth 2: Feeling hungry means you’re really thirsty.
While it’s possible that you might not be drinking enough water, hunger and thirst are actually pretty distinct sensations that don’t overlap with each other—hunger causes stomach noises like growling and feelings of emptiness, while thirst makes your mouth feel dry and sticky.
“I often meet with people who are eating too few calories (despite what they may think) and their bodies are trying to tell them they need more food,” says Lavy. Bottom line: If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re thirsty, drink. And if you’re ever unsure, you can always munch on water-filled foods, such as fruits and veggies, to cover your bases.
Myth 3: Meat cravings mean you’re deficient in iron.
Many people think that craving meat means their body’s sending them a bat signal that they need more iron, since meat is the most prevalent iron source. However, there’s currently not enough evidence that links meat cravings to an iron deficiency—most people crave it simply because they enjoy it, says Dixon.
A more common symptom of iron deficiency is pica, a condition in which you crave or chew non-food items, says New York City-based registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, RD. Think: ice, clay, paper, or soil. These weird cravings may coincide with other symptoms, such as fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath.
Myth 4: You crave fatty foods when you’re not getting enough calories.
If you truly weren’t getting enough calories for an extended period of time, you’d start to unintentionally lose weight. “With this, your body would want an abundance of nutrients, not just calories,” says Rizzo. It’s very unlikely that restricting calories would trigger a biological need for bacon, for example. You’re probably craving these foods because you’re straight-up hungry and have been in a state of deprivation.
Myth 5: Chocolate cravings during PMS mean your body needs magnesium.
Magnesium has been shown to lessen the severity of PMS symptoms, but chocolate isn’t the ideal way to get it. “You’re likely craving chocolate because eating foods with sugar and carbs trigger the release of mood-boosting compounds in the brain and make you feel better,” says Rizzo.
If a chocolate craving meant your body was ordering you to get more magnesium (one ounce of dark chocolate provides roughly 65mg, says Dixon), you’d be craving almonds (80mg per one ounce), spinach (78mg per 1/2 cup), and cashews (78mg per one ounce) more than you would chocolate.
Myth 6: A strong craving for salt means you’re deficient in sodium.
Some people will interpret a salt craving as a sign they need more sodium in their diet, when more often it’s due to dehydration. “Since water follows salt in the body, it makes sense that when the body is dehydrated, it will try to take in more salt to get a hold of some much-needed fluids,” says Katherine Basbaum, RD, a clinical dietitian with University of Virginia Health System. So the next time you’re craving something salty, Basbaum suggests going ahead and indulging just a little, but make sure to pair it with a couple of big glasses of water.
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