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Everyone craves cookies—or ice cream, chips or other indulgent-worthy sweet and salty foods—from time to time. But intense cravings that border on obsession are something totally different. They’re a sign that your body might be trying to tell you something.
An overpowering desire for certain foods can point to nutrient deficiencies, lack of sleep, stress or even emotional issues. We’re breaking down the following common cravings and what they may be trying to tell you.
If pretzels and other salty, crunchy snacks are your jam, it may be a sign of tension. In some research, higher blood levels of sodium blunted the release of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Plus, chomping down on hard, crunchy foods helps release frustration and eases stress-induced tension in the jaw.
There’s another reason you might be craving salty pretzels. You could be deficient in sodium. Studies show people with low levels have powerful cravings for salty foods, and sodium depletion dramatically increases the preference for salty snacks and drinks.
Fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels can also boost your desire for sodium. In one study, women in the last two weeks of their menstrual cycles had significantly stronger cravings for salt than women in their menstrual week.
If you can eat jalapenos until your face goes up in flames, you may need a little shot of pleasure. Capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers their fiery bite, prompts the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that interact with opiate receptors in the brain and promote feelings of pleasure. And some research suggests capsaicin can have antidepressant-like effects.
However, if you’re hankering after spicy wings or Szechuan takeout, it might be the salt you’re craving, not the spice. Sodium enhances the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with feelings of pleasure. Or, you could be expecting: Surveys show a mighty desire for spicy foods is one of the most common pregnancy cravings.
If your longing for cookies (or candy, or other sugar-saturated snacks) borders on obsession, it could be a sign of blood sugar imbalances and early insulin resistance. These two concerns, if left untreated, can significantly increase your risk for diabetes.
You could also be lacking key nutrients in your diet. Some theories suggest craving cookies or sweets is a sign of mineral deficiencies (like zinc and magnesium). However, sometimes a cookie craving is nothing but a response to stress. If you pass up soft, chewy cookies in favor of crunchy varieties, you may just need the stress-soothing action of chomping down on something hard.
And if you feel like you’re addicted to sweets, you’re not wrong. In research, cravings for sugar were found to be eerily similar to those inspired by hard-core drugs like opioids and cocaine.
If a quarter-pounder makes everything right in your world, you may be lacking iron in your diet—especially if you’re frequently fatigued. Iron is critical for healthy red blood cell production, and chronic deficiencies can lead to anemia, low energy, weakness and fatigue. The vitamin B12, which is found in meat, also plays a role in red blood cell production and could be another craving-causing nutrient you need.
Or, you might need more protein. Some research suggests humans have an innate desire for protein, and if intake drops below about 15 percent of daily calories, it triggers intense cravings for protein-dense foods (like meat).
If you like your burgers just this side of charcoal, there could be another reason behind your cravings. Some theories suggest that craving burnt food indicates a carbon deficiency.
Sure, everyone loves chocolate. But if you’d walk across hot coals for a double fudge brownie, you might be lacking magnesium. Cocoa’s an excellent source of this particular mineral, which plays a role in everything from hydration to mental health. The magnesium in chocolate can ease anxiety and tension, promoting tranquility.
Another reason you might be craving something chocolatey is a gloomy mood—or you might be experiencing depression. In studies, people diagnosed with depression reported a significantly higher intake of chocolate. There’s a reason: compounds in cocoa stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that play a role in emotional well-being, and research shows eating chocolate lessens negative feelings and measurably improves mood.
Is the basket of rolls on the restaurant table infinitely more appealing to you than the menu itself? Craving bread, pasta, rice and other refined, simple carbs can signal blood sugar imbalances.
Or, you might need more shut-eye. Research shows sleep deprivation disrupts hunger-regulating hormones, prompts the body to eat more and triggers a craving for carbs —specifically refined, simple carbs (like bread) that digest quickly and boost energy faster. A number of studies link lack of shut-eye with an increased desire for calorie-dense carbohydrates. In general, people who are sleep deprived preferentially reach for high-carb snacks, rather than protein-rich foods.
If you’d drive to the next state for a jar of peanut butter, you might be lacking the right amount of healthy fats in your diet. Or maybe you need a little mood adjustment.
Some research suggests craving high-fat foods triggers the production of uplifting brain chemicals. Peanut butter is also rich in beta-sitosterol, a plant compound that eases anxiety and enhances well-being; in research, beta-sitosterol significantly increased levels of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. Peanuts are also high in calming magnesium and tryptophan, an amino acid that plays a role in the production of serotonin. And if you’re craving a PBJ sandwich, there’s a good reason. The carbohydrates in bread support the process of converting tryptophan to serotonin.
If you’re trying to combat cravings, you might be facing some of the nutritional deficiencies mentioned here. But there are also other reasons you’re experiencing such strong cravings. Keep reading for more advice to handle your cravings: