We’ve all experienced a sudden food craving - that moment when all you need is a slice of pizza (or a burger or chocolate), and nothing else will do. Food cravings are very common, but why do we experience them and what do they mean? Unfortunately, we usually don’t crave things like kale or apples, but rather foods that are rich in fats, carbs, and sugar.
More often than not, the source of the craving is an emotional rather than a nutritional one - ‘comfort foods’ like sweets or baked goods release feel-good chemicals in the brain. However, some studies show that certain cravings and eating habits could point to health problems. Here are 5 intriguing examples.
Could be: Dementia
Uncharacteristic changes in one’s eating habits could be an early sign of dementia. If you notice sudden cravings for specific foods or have an overly persistent sweet tooth, it might be worth discussing this with your doctor. A study published in 2015 examined the changes in the eating habits of dementia patients and found that almost half of all mild Alzheimer’s disease patients had shown some changes in their food preferences.
The shift in food preferences was reported at its highest during the moderate stage of the disease. In addition to preferring different foods than usual, Alzheimer's patients also showed a special inclination towards sweet foods and candy, as well as adding strong flavors to their dishes using soy sauce.
The change wasn’t only expressed through what the patients wanted to eat, but also in how hungry they were. A shift in appetite may also be an early sign of dementia. The researchers commented that “it was interesting that two conflicting eating symptoms, 'increase in appetite' and 'loss of appetite,' were observed in approximately the same number of patients with mild Alzheimer's disease."
The appetite loss could result from depression, as almost 70 percent of people with Alzheimer's showed some depressive symptoms, too. As for the increased appetite, it might reflect repetitive behavior brought about by severe memory impairment.
Could be: Addison’s disease
It’s very rare for a person not to get enough salt from their diet, at least in the US. In fact, most Americans eat more sodium per day than is recommended. Research suggests that intense salt cravings could point to Addison's disease
Also known as primary adrenal insufficiency, Addison’s disease is a disorder of the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. They produce two essential hormones: cortisol, which helps the body respond to stress, and aldosterone, which keeps blood pressure balanced.
When the adrenal glands are damaged as a result of Addison’s disease, they do not produce enough hormones. Other symptoms include fatigue, muscle pain, nausea, and weight loss. Left untreated, this condition could make your blood pressure drop dangerously low. If you experience a new and persistent craving for salty foods, discuss it with your physician, especially if it occurs along with any of the other symptoms mentioned above.
Could be: Diabetes
Drinking a lot of water throughout the day is healthy and encouraged. However, constant craving for water is one of the early signs of diabetes. This is a far more pronounced thirst than usual, and it is usually coupled with frequent urination.
When you have diabetes, excess glucose builds up in your blood, which means that the kidneys have to work extra hard to filter and absorb the sugar. When your kidneys can no longer keep up, the extra glucose is extracted into your urine, dragging along fluids from your tissues and leaving you dehydrated. The catch is that the more you drink to quench your thirst, the more frequently you will have to urinate.
Could be: Magnesium or Vitamin B deficiency
Chocolate cravings are not unusual - after all, it’s many people’s favorite sweet treat. However, if your sweet tooth is taking over, it could indicate that you’re short on magnesium, a mineral responsible for many bodily functions - from muscle and nerve function to blood sugar regulation to energy production.
Magnesium deficiency can be detected through a blood test. Chocolate isn’t the only good source of magnesium, of course. Leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and fish are all rich in the mineral. The reason we don’t typically crave those foods is that, unlike chocolate, they lack sugar and caffeine.
Another possible explanation for your chocolate craving is the lack of B vitamins, which play a large role in cellular processes in our body. B vitamins help the body convert food into energy, create new blood cells, and maintain healthy skin cells and other tissues. When you eat chocolate, it gives your brain and mood the boost they need. Sugar and caffeine urge the secretion of dopamine in the brain, and your glucose levels rise too, which makes you feel like you have more energy.
To treat a B vitamin deficiency, your doctor will likely recommend that you take supplements or increase your intake of certain foods, depending on the specific vitamin needed.
Could be: Omega-3 fat deficiency
Fries and potato chips are two of the most commonly reported food cravings. Hankering for such fatty foods might mean that your body is low on Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve cardiovascular health. Our body cannot produce Omega-3 fats on its own, it can't only be obtained through our diet.
There are plenty of other telltale signs for Omega-3 deficiency: fatigue and trouble sleeping, difficulty in concentration, joint, and leg cramps, and cardiovascular concerns. Of course, there are much healthier sources of fat than fries, like salmon, nuts, avocado, and olive oil.
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