Are food cravings really the body’s way of telling us we’re lacking certain nutrients? The belief holds that nature creates these strong and specific food cravings so we’ll consume the necessary foods to make up the deficit.
It seems like a logical connection that pregnant women, for example, must crave ice cream because they lack calcium, or pickles because they need sodium. Or that we turn to chocolate to cheer us up, because it supplies us with compounds that are supposedly lost during a crying bout.
But scientific studies discount these notions and instead say that cravings—specifically, the intense desire for a particular food, drink or taste—are triggered not by nutritional shortages, but by a more complex set of circumstances.
Yes, chocolate does have some biologically active compounds. Two of them—phenylethylamine and anandamide—could potentially trigger the release of mood enhancing chemicals in the brain, but there’s so little found in chocolate that it’s doubtful there’s enough to have much effect. On top of that, they’re broken down during the digestive process so it’s unlikely that they reach the brain intact – which is the only way they’d do any good.
Pregnant women do yearn for foods that are very sweet, spicy or salty. But it’s thought that these food cravings are driven not by any specific nutritional need. Instead, they reflect a natural drive put there by Mother Nature. In ancient times, when food was scarce, a craving for highly palatable foods would help boost calorie intake and ensure a healthy pregnancy. Nowadays, getting enough calories is usually not the problem. But pregnant women may be using cultural norms—they’re ‘eating for two’—to support giving in to their urges for high calorie fare.
In another blow to the theory that nutritional deficits drive food cravings to replace the nutrient in question, it’s been well documented that some women who are iron deficient will eat huge amounts of ice—which is virtually iron-free. My mother-in-law used to do this. When she was going through menopause, she’d munch through two trays of ice cubes during the evening news. It’s not known why low iron stores trigger this craving, but the yearnings usually go away when the iron deficiency is corrected.
So, it looks as if it’s the complexity of the individual, not so much the complexity of foods, that sparks these strong urges. We’re influenced by personal, physiological and social pressures in making food choices, and we may use cravings as a way to justify their consumption.
Ice doesn’t repair an iron shortage, but some people apparently derive pleasure from chewing it. Pregnant women don’t crave ice cream because they need calcium. They crave it because it’s delicious and because its consumption is sanctioned during pregnancy. It’s not just the bioactive compounds in chocolate that we need. We crave chocolate because it’s such an amazing sensory experience—it’s sweet, smooth, creamy, aromatic and extremely pleasurable to eat. And since it’s loaded with fat and calories, it’s a sinful, forbidden food, too—which just makes it that much more appealing.