This post is based on a good bit of scientific research and literature (over 60 studies and resources), so it will be a bit longer than the run-of-the-mill post about my trip to my mom’s, the pie we made, and the printable recipe. Do try to stick with it though. It’s valuable information and truly could be helpful to you or someone you love. If you are simply pressed for time or just want the cliff notes, head over to this post. Those with a hankerin’ for the full version, pull up a chair.
I was talking to someone the other day who gave me that classic:
“I would go vegan, but ____”
This time the ‘but’ was because she craves red meat during times of menstruation, and believes that to mean that she is/will be anemic.
Now, please don’t make any assumptions that I’m making any assumptions about this gal’s character or intelligence. I have a great deal of respect for her, and outside of the ‘vegan thing’, we have very similar ideals. She is truly intelligent with regard health, and knowing that about her prompts me to question whether this whole ‘needing red meat for periods’ thing is simply another knowledge deficit created by the industrialized Gods that be? Or, perhaps has become a culture-bound belief, and then becomes a ‘craving’??
However manner in which this wives’ tale came to be is irrelevant. What is important is that this erroneous information ceases to spread or be believed.
Ever heard of Pica? Those with Pica crave paint and dirt and all kinds of non-food and dangerous goodies (1,2). Not only do they crave it, they truly do actually ‘eat’ those things. Some research has demonstrated a correlation between the development of Pica and some nutrient deficiencies (1,5,7). In some cases, an improvement in the Pica is achieved once the deficiencies have been treated with supplementation. However, this is far from being ‘always the case’. There are other studies that have shown a nutrient deficiency in the presence of Pica, but that the Pica did not improve when the deficiency was corrected and the nutrient was at normal levels (9). Even still, there are many other studies of which demonstrate zero nutrient deficiencies in the presence of Pica, at all (8).
So, what does this mean? It means that even the craziest, and likely strongest, form of cravings one can experience (Pica), is
1. not a reliable indicator that there is a nutrient deficiency, OR
2. that if a nutrient deficiency exists, it cannot be reliably associated with the craving that one experiences (because A. correcting the deficiency does not consistently make the Pica go away and B. truthfully, how could one correctly distinguish what nutrient someone might lack in the event they are eating hair or paint??).
In fact, physicians at one of the top ten leading medical institutions known (Cedars Sinai Medical Center) states that there is no reliable or consistent evidence or research supporting that any food cravings are related to nutrient deficiencies (12). They certainly don’t stand alone with this framework (21). This honestly would be sufficient for me, but let’s explore some other points just to drive this bad boy home.
Diets (not ways of eating, but actual diets) are restrictive in one way, shape, or form, no? Low fat diets restrict fat, low calorie diets restrict some of all macro nutrients, grapefruit diets restrict virtually everything, and so on. The same with a low-carb diet; it significantly restricts sugars and carbohydrates. In other words, it creates a [macro]nutrient deficiency.
Interestingly, this self-imposed deficiency actually results in decreased cravings for the deficient nutrient (10). This same study demonstrated that those on a very low-fat diet (another essential macronutrient) experienced very little cravings for fat, as well. Though, if cravings were directly associated with a deficiency, wouldn’t the opposite be true? The carbohydrate-deficient person would crave carbohydrates, and the fat-deficient person would crave fats, no? Not the case.
One study even demonstrates that the greater restriction of nutrients in total results in the greatest decrease in any cravings altogether (11). Isn’t that interesting? When one is deficient in everything, they crave nothing? Whoa.
Another instance in which nutrient deficiency is imposed is pregnancy. Eating for two, right? And one of those two requiring such a degree of nutrient ingestion, that exponential growth is sustained. Given the additional human being grown inside of another, the assumption would be that the mother would crave nutrients. Nutrient-dense foods. Right? On the contrary, study after study demonstrates that pregnant women actually crave nutrient-poor foods like sweets and fast foods, not the nutrients that they require to sustain the changes going on in their body while creating another human being (13,14,15).
Cravings are, believe it or not, gender specific. Women are the ones who actually experience cravings (no surprise here) and those cravings have a significant correlation with sex hormones, moods, and various other factors, but not nutritional status (18,19,20). It has even been demonstrated that when boys and girls were exposed to the same tempting food cues (sweets), boys naturally ate less of the food when it was provided (32). The girls, however, ate much more of the candies after exposure to the tempting food cue.
Another fun fact- men and women achieve virtually the same percentage of recommended daily allowances of nutrients, and men even have greater rates of malnourishment (22), but women experience significantly greater amounts and intensities of food cravings. That’s a little backwards if the theory that deficiency drives cravings, isn’t it? I thought so too.
Let’s talk about the ladies a bit more. What’s the thing we ladies crave the most? You’re probably thinking chocolate, right? Ok, now do a Google search or two and you’ll undoubtedly find media posts, infographics, etc. depicting that a magnesium deficiency is responsible for these chocolate cravings. But, did you know that women actually do not crave chocolate all that often at all? Okay, let me clarify that. American women do to a degree, but not even 1/3 of women sampled would even report that they crave chocolate (16). Furthermore, this isn’t even a ‘female thing’ as propaganda and media would have us believe. As low as 4% of women in other countries report chocolate to be a craving they even experience (17,29). Well, I’d say that’s about as frequent as any other food craving, demonstrating that this specific food craving is cultural, and not that of a magnesium deficiency in the least.
While we’re still on the topic of chocolate, let’s just put this thing to rest. We’ve mentioned the common perception that a magnesium deficiency is the driving force behind chocolate cravings. If it truly were, wouldn’t craving peanuts, almonds, cashews, or spinach be a more appropriate craving? Because ounce for ounce, chocolate is far inferior to those choices with regard to magnesium content (and other nutrients) (24,25). And, why wouldn’t the body just crave all of them, rather than only the sweetest option, with the greatest popularity among the masses, and with several commercials and other in-your-face propaganda to drive desire and purchase? Well, that’s probably because cravings are more psychological, social, and [non-nutritive related] physical (12,26,27,28).
The same concept with regard to chocolate and magnesium above applies to many, many other foods as well. For example, if one craves a banana, what nutrient deficiency might be causing that? We would assume potassium, right? That’s the nutrient most commonly associated with bananas. But, bananas only provide 12% of our requirement each day (23). Why then, wouldn’t one crave lentils, prunes, squash, or any other food that provides much more than a banana? See where I’m going with this? It truly has little to nothing to do with the nutrient one perceives to be lacking, and more so with taste preference, societal cues, imposed dietary restrictions, and a whole slew of other things.
And, let’s not forget about our friend who craves meat. If it were truly anemia-driven, and iron was needed to right this imbalance, then why isn’t she craving the foods that would provide her with the most iron? Plants, such as white beans, red beans, lentils, spinach, chocolate, cereal, tofu….(49)
So, if cravings aren’t because we are deficient in nutrients, what exactly does cause them??
The answer to this is multifactorial. There are several reasons or contributing factors as to why we crave certain foods, at certain times, etc.
- Forbidden foods. Rather than cite a bunch of articles here (because there are so many to support this), I will direct you to this book (30) as it contains a plethora of research to support this. The entire work addresses how forbidding oneself to eat certain foods results only in craving the foods in the end.
- One’s mood has a great deal of influence on food cravings (31). It is oftentimes associated with negative moods, and one’s anticipation of how the food might impact their feelings.
- This is probably a no-brainer, but stress. Stress can significantly impact whether or not, and to what degree, one experiences cravings (33,34).
- There have been correlations made between cravings and whether one perceives themselves to be ‘addicted to food’ (37). Meaning, if one self-diagnosis oneself as a ‘food addict’, they are more likely to experience more cravings. Furthermore, a correlation between higher BMI (body mass index), and lower self-esteem, was noted with higher frequency of food cravings.
- The amount of sleep one is able to achieve has an impact on food cravings. In the case of sleep deprivation, food cravings are significantly increased compared to those who get adequate sleep at night (40). Some research goes further into this by correlating daytime sleeping with increased food cravings (39)
- Not consuming enough macronutrients, namely fiber and protein, can result in considerable food cravings (42,43,44)
- This may be a no-brainer if you’re privy to the calamities of having one or two too many, but alcohol consumption significantly increases food cravings. And, if you didn’t know this, the advertisement teams at your favorite snack companies do and they pay good money for their ads to be shown during prime drinking hours (45)
- Your culture drives your food cravings (3,4). For example, in America where chocolate (there it is again) is a big thing, we tend to crave it a great deal, and not crave French fries with peanut butter sauce which is popular in Amsterdam.
What can we do to decrease the number of food cravings we experience? (More about that in THIS post)
- Physical activity impacts cravings. It seems the greater amount of consistent physical activity, the lower the cravings (36)
- It has been demonstrated that the greater consumption of thylakoid-containing foods consumed, the less amount of food cravings one might experience. (38). If it’s a green vegetable, it’s high in thylakoids. Green leafy vegetables in particular are very high in thylakoids. These foods include spinach, cabbage, lettuce, kale, collard and other greens.
- Don’t diet. Those who do not restrict their intake and instead, practice intuitive/mindful eating, experience significantly less cravings than anyone else (30). Those who restrict themselves by dieting in any form experience the most (41).
- Staying hydrated is quite essential in staving off food cravings (46)
- Get enough sleep and don’t sleep during the day (39,40)
- Give in to your cravings. That’s right, go grab that chocolate bar, that ice cream, those pickles… And, do so without guilt. If you allow yourself to have the things you crave, and you reaffirm that you may have whatever food you want whenever you want it, you will reinforce your trust with food and decrease the amount of true/strong cravings you have (30). You will begin to notice that once-before cravings are now simple desires for a food item, and knowing that you may have these things whenever you want them will help you relax when they come to mind- not experience the frantic must-have-now thoughts cravings so intrusively impose. (any food you crave can be had in a cruelty-free manner, even ‘meat’, so I am not promoting deviating from this lifestyle by indulging in cravings)
- Practice mindfulness and meditation (47). Mindfulness and meditation can truly only positively impact your life. Slowing down, being present, being here right now. Practice those things as often as you can. Food (53,54), work (48), relationships (50,51), sex (52), life.. Everything is better.
Theories Regarding Cravings Being Caused by Nutrient Deficiencies are Anecdotal, at Best..
Upshot- unlike cars, our bodies don’t come with a diagnostic sensor that spits out a code when certain symptoms present (cravings). And, given our current level of insight as a human collective, we are a far cry from reliable interpreters if those diagnostic sensors even existed. Craving foods as a result of nutrition imbalances is simply something no research to date can soundly support at all (and we’ve done quite a bit of research in this arena). However, we can and do crave foods due to hormonal and emotional imbalances (30,31,33,34,39,40) as discussed above, and this can sometimes be a warning sign of deeper issues. If you notice any symptoms of excessive cravings, overeating or bingeing, or other characteristics indicative of an unhealthy relationship with food, please get in touch with your physician, a dietician, and/or a nutritional therapist. Nutritional therapists are trained to help one become a more intuitive and mindful eater (which does not translate to sacrificing and misery). You can locate one near you here if you’re interested in looking into speaking with one.
We Can Be Deficient in Nutrients and Not Know..
While it can be said with confidence that my friend’s cravings are not driven by the body’s need for iron, that does not rule out that she indeed does need it (as this is a possibility for anyone, especially women of menstruation age). However, the source of the iron need not be animal-derived, and it should be known that vegans are at no greater risk for developing anemia than any other way of eating (and at less risk according to many studies)(59,60,61). Furthermore, as an author on Eating Our Future demonstrates via a collection of 40+ research articles and reputable sources; the iron ingested from animals is actually quite harmful and can lead to the development of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and a myriad of other maladies (55). Those increased risks are not a concern when the iron is ingested from plant sources. As clean, happy, free-range, or ‘humane’, etc. as the meat can be, the quality of the nutrients received from plants are adequate, and more often superior.
If the subject of concern is heme- versus non-heme iron, we’ll just say this;
- Neither heme or non are exclusively essential to the body. You may have all heme, all non-heme, or a mixture, and the body is none the wiser.
- While heme is absorbed a little faster than non-heme, this truly should not be a concern in the general population with adequate, well-rounded nutrition. Here’s why:
- The daily recommendation of iron intake for an adult male it is 8 mg, and for an adult female of childbearing years- 18 mg. One bowl of fortified cereal meets the woman’s needs (49). One. And, considering virtually everything that comes from the ground (plants) has iron, you could essentially say anything else is a bonus (or even overkill) in a well-balanced diet.
- More recent studies have shown that the body’s homeostatic mechanisms play such a significant role in iron absorption that it is believed that an overestimate in differences in dietary iron bioavailability (heme versus non) has been erroneously trusted (58). Meaning, we need to head back to the drawing board in order to correctly establish the true bioavailability of the two types of iron.
- Iron in foods is not a difficult thing to acquire. If one eats regularly, and in a well-balanced manner, there is no risk of deficiency. Non-heme iron does absorb slower but if there is a regular influx of nutrients, there won’t be a gap in its availability. Furthermore, the absorption of iron can be sped up and made more effective with a helping hand or two. Eating foods with Vitamin A can increase iron absorption up to 200% (57) so eat some green, orange, or yellow veggies. Vitamin C is another significant player in the iron absorption game (6) so load up on those delicious citrus fruits.
- Other factors play into the bioavailability of iron that would make the source irrelevant. For example, obesity- if one is obese, their body will not absorb iron well regardless of the source (56). If one ingests mint with iron-containing foods, it will enhance the absorption and bioavailability (35). If one drinks tea or coffee with iron-containing foods, it will decrease it (35). There are entirely too many factors to make mention of them all here, but just know the bioavailability of the iron ingested is much more impacted by self-care, other eating habits, environmental factors, etc. than if the iron came from the faster-absorbing source or not.
So, if you or someone you know is at risk for developing an iron-deficiency or anemia, it is prudent to ensure adequate intake is achieved. We have collected several delicious, plant-based recipes for all occasions to help you reach your recommended daily intake of iron. Be sure to check them out and let us know which ones you tried. There’s a whole other awesome post with these delicious iron-rich recipes, and ten more! Check them out here! Pics or it didn’t happen 😉
Did you enjoy this article? Find it helpful and informative? If so, let us know in the comments below, and please share!
References: (While these are the exact articles used to compose this post, these may not be the links to the full-access sites for each. We personally have full-access through research sites but realize that you may not. For your convenience we have linked to the abstracts available and if you have access, use the title/author/date to obtain them for further reading.)
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