Do Food Cravings Indicate a Nutritional Deficiency?

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Food craving has been defined as “an intense desire for a particular food (or type of food) that is difficult to resist. In contrast to hunger, which can be reduced by any number of foods, food cravings are typically only alleviated by consumption of a particular type of food.

Keywords: Food Cravings, nutritional deficiency, pica, Salt craving, chocolate craving

When we lack, we intuitively CRAVE. cravings are messages from your body. When you are deficient in something, your body tries to maintain balance by sending signals through cravings. It’s not a choice you make; the survival mechanisms in your subconscious mind trigger these cravings.

Scientific research confirms the link between nutritional deficiencies and cravings. For instance, scientists have found that iron and sodium deficiencies cause cravings. In rare and extreme cases, nutritional deficiencies have led to pica or the craving for non-nutritive substances such as wood, dirt, or soil.

Cravings for unusual substances that demand to be satisfied have been reported in the literature for centuries. This puzzling phenomenon is called pica, which refers to the compulsive consumption of a nonfood substance. It comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for its unusual and indiscriminate eating habits.


Geophagy is defined as the deliberate eating of the earth. It is prevalent mainly among women and children. Geophagy has been associated with iron deficiency or anemia based on cross-sectional studies, but it is not clear if iron deficiency leads to a craving for the earth, or if earth eating impairs iron absorption.

One study showed Geophagy was prevalent and associated with iron deficiency, but iron supplementation had no effects on geophagous behavior. Geophagy could be a copied behavior and the association between geophagy and iron deficiency due to impaired iron absorption following earth eating.


Pagophagia (eating ice) decreases absorption of nutrients by the gut and is associated with iron deficiency. In a study, women who ingested ice had the highest prevalence of anemia during pregnancy compared to those who ingested soil or starch. Patients who consume freezer frost are also at high risk for ingesting microbial contaminants from meats and other foods in the freezer. Dental complications (e.g., tooth sensitivity, enamel loss, cracked teeth, recurrent decay) have also been reported from pagophagia. Pagophagia often goes unreported because many people do not consider ice consumption to be an abnormal or potentially harmful habit.

Salt craving

Salt is a highly addictive taste. Our brains and bodies are designed to enjoy salt because it’s necessary for survival. Over the course of human history, finding salt was difficult, so craving salt was a survival mechanism.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume between 1,500 and 2,400 milligrams (mg) of salt per day. You may crave salt as a symptom of a medical condition that requires treatment. That’s why you should never ignore a sudden craving. Below are some conditions that may cause you to crave salt.


Your body needs to maintain a certain level of fluids to function properly. If those levels fall below what’s healthy, you may start craving salt. This is your body’s way of encouraging you to drink or eat more.

2. Addison’s disease

Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that are vital to your survival. Addison’s disease is a rare disease that can decrease the number of hormones produced by your adrenal glands. People with this disease experience salt cravings, in addition to other symptoms:

  • severe fatigue or lack of energy
  • pale, clammy skin
  • low blood pressure
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • long-term or persistent diarrhea
  • dark patches of skin, especially on the face
  • mouth sores on the inside of the cheeks
3. Stress

The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol. This hormone helps regulate blood pressure and your body’s response to stress. Research suggests that people with higher levels of sodium release lower levels of cortisol during stressful periods. Craving salt could be one way your body is trying to deal with unusual stress.

4. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

Several days before you start your period, you may experience a wide range of symptoms. These include mood swings, loss of sleep, and even food cravings. For some women, these cravings can be intense. You may crave salty or sweet foods. Not every woman will experience PMS symptoms.

What are the concerns about canned food?



Amylophagia (eating starch) is also associated with iron deficiency, although some starches contain iron and cause a dramatic increase in blood iron levels. Starch consists of 86 percent carbohydrate. Consuming one pound of starch per day is not uncommon; this amount provides 1,590 calories. The high caloric content of starch can cause excessive weight gain, while simultaneously leading to malnutrition, as starch lacks vitamins and minerals.


The carbohydrate-craving syndrome is often defined as a disorder of disturbed appetite and mood, characterized by an almost irresistible desire to consume sweet or starchy foods in response to negative mood states. Carbohydrate ingestion appears to trigger mood improvement in the carbohydrate craver while non-carbohydrate cravers generally report fatigue after carbohydrate ingestion. Accordingly, it is theorized that the carbohydrate craver preferentially selects and ingests carbohydrate-rich foods in an attempt to self-medicate a negative mood. Mood improvement following carbohydrate ingestion is thought to occur via a tryptophan-mediated increase in brain serotonin, potentially alleviating a functional deficiency in brain serotonin and thus serving as self-medication. The self-administration of carbohydrates may be reinforced in carbohydrate cravers by reduction of unpleasant mood states, or possibly by the perception of palatability, a pattern that with repetition may result in overweight and obesity.

Studies suggest a need to assist carbohydrate cravers in identifying alternative ways of alleviating dysphoric mood or discomfort other than high-calorie carbohydrate intake. Such measures might include selecting low-calorie carbohydrate-rich snack foods, increasing physical activity or employing cognitive-behavioral techniques to reduce dysphoric mood.

Chocolate craving

It appears to be widely believed that an important motive for eating chocolate is to improve mood. Consistent with this is evidence from scientific studies showing that the consumption of chocolate does indeed significantly influence mood, generally leading to an increase in pleasant feelings and a reduction in tension, although increased “guilt” may be a penalty for some individuals.

Chocolate cravings, like sweet cravings, have been found to occur premenstrually for many women.

In fact, studies found chocolate to be the only high carbohydrate food that is craved more at the menses than at other times during the menstrual cycle. Because of the relationship of chocolate craving and the perimenstrual, some have suggested a physiological basis for chocolate cravings. The claims for a physiological basis for chocolate cravings take one of two forms. One is that some physiological change occurring premenstrually might induce a need state which some ingredient in chocolate satisfies (e.g. magnesium or serotonin). The second is that some substance in chocolate causes pleasure, either directly (e.g. anandamide, a cannabinoid) or indirectly through neurotransmitter release (e.g. endogenous opioids), which individuals desire more premenstrually.