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According to surveys, food cravings plague approximately 97% of women and 68% of men. Liz Thearle Dip.ION investigates the meanings behind cravings, and provides nutritional advice on how to alleviate an insatiable appetite

When we crave a particular food, or even a non-food substance (e.g. clay), the body is trying desperately to convey a message to us but, unfortunately, the message is not always clearly defined. How much simpler it would be if our bodies could say “I must have chocolate because it contains magnesium and my levels are too low” or “I’m in dire need of essential fatty acids and not actually the saturated fat in that plateful of chips that I would kill for”. Our cravings are always a cry for help; a sign that something is out of balance either physically or emotionally. If we can learn to recognise the true message behind our cravings, then we can take steps to prevent them. These messages are several and varied, so try to look at the problem honestly!


There is no doubt that certain foods and drinks are as addictive as alcohol, drugs or cigarettes; they are simply more socially acceptable! So, when does a love of a certain food become an addiction? Usually when you feel you can’t do without it or, if you do, withdrawal symptoms are experienced. Giving up coffee, for example, can trigger a headache which, in extreme circumstances, may last for up to a week. Chocolate is another highly addictive substance – not surprisingly as it contains the chemical phenylethylamine - a main ingredient of the drug Ecstasy.

What these foods have in common is their ability to stimulate the pancreas, adrenal glands and nervous system, giving us a short-lived feeling of energy. Being short-lived, however, it’s not long before we need the next fix. You could try replacing the coffee with dandelion tea (good for the liver) or a grain “coffee” such as Caro Extra, Yannoh or Bambu. Carob is the nearest alternative to chocolate, but check the amount of added sugar. You may find that a good quality licorice (a friend to the adrenals) is a better substitute, but again look for the sugar content. Whatever your addiction, try limiting your intake of stimulating foods and replacing them with a diet that includes complex (unrefined) carbohydrates (such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, porridge), legumes, fish, chicken, fruit and vegetables.


Hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar can make you feel shaky, depressed, dizzy, nervous, aggressive or simply desperate to eat something. It occurs as a result of missing a meal (or two), or of a diet which is high in refined, sugary foods and/or stimulants. The same foods involved with cravings will give a similar short-lived feeling of energy, but without providing the nutrients required to sustain energy levels. Sometimes you may feel that you just can’t stop eating and will grab anything that’s readily available.

In order to bring your blood sugar level back into balance, it is essential to eat little and often, preferably a combination of complex carbohydrates and some protein. Cottage cheese, or hummus on oatcakes or rice cakes, or some fresh fruit and a few unsalted nuts and seeds are ideal and not difficult to have at hand. Individuals who suffer from hypoglycaemia often reach their lowest ebb around 4pm, but the time of day to start preventing this is at breakfast. Some people may need to “graze” as often as every two hours.

Diets which are high in refined, sugary foods are lacking in the mineral chromium, the very nutrient that is needed as part of the body’s Glucose Tolerance Factor (GTF). Chromium is found in whole foods – particularly beans, lentils and soya beans - which, ironically, need less chromium for their metabolism. The body requires about 200µg per day. Other nutrients needed daily to balance blood sugar levels include vitamins B3 (50-150mg), B6 (50-100mg), magnesium (400-800mg), zinc (14-50mg) and manganese (5mg). Several reputable supplement companies produce nutritional formulas specifically designed to balance blood sugar levels.

Hypoglycaemia is also involved in the type of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) known as PMS-C (for cravings). Appetite may be increased during the 5-10 days before a period, particularly for chocolate! However, many sufferers notice an improvement in their symptoms while following the diet and supplement programme for hypoglycaemia.


Candida albicans is a yeast which, in small amounts, forms a normal part of our intestinal flora. The delicate balance can, however, easily be upset by taking antibiotics, being under constant stress, or by a diet high in sugar, refined or yeasty foods (e.g. bread, mushrooms), and alcohol. Candida particularly thrives on sugar, depleting blood sugar levels and leaving you craving for more. Symptoms such as thrush, other fungal infections, bloating, bad breath, constipation, muscle aches and depression, to name but a few, are possible indicators of candidiasis (an overgrowth of Candida). The yeast needs to be starved, while at the same time boosting the immune system with foods such as whole grains (millet, rice, quinoa etc); fish, organic chicken and turkey, and beans and pulses. Fresh nuts and seeds are beneficial, but should be kept in a fridge or in an airtight container to deter rancidity. A high strength multivitamin and mineral is also helpful. Extra virgin olive oil and fresh garlic are sworn enemies of Candida!

When following a strict anti-Candida diet you will probably have increased cravings due to the toxic effect of the dying yeasts. Try not to give in and the cravings will pass. Anti-fungal supplements such as caprylic acid and oregano may then be very gently introduced. A good quality bowel flora supplement is essential, to help repopulate the “friendly” intestinal bacteria and to crowd out the Candida.


Why is it that we always seem to be intolerant of the foods we love? One theory is that, because such foods have a stressful effect on the body, small amounts of adrenalin are released, thus acting as a short-term “feel-good factor”. Dr Jonathan Brostoff, one of the leading international authorities on food allergy and intolerance, observed that “craving the culprit food is the most bizarre aspect of food intolerance, affecting about 50% of patients. These patients tend to crave the particular food that causes their problems. They may be aware of the craving or they may unconsciously select foods containing their culprit food.”

There are many different ways of testing for allergies or intolerances varying from a simple elimination diet test to a blood test, which can check for sensitivity to up to about 90 different foods (for laboratories see contact details on page 49). You could also try the Pulse Test. This involves taking your resting pulse just before eating a suspect food, then taking it again in 10, 30, and 60 minutes after eating. If your pulse increases by 10 beats, an intolerance is indicated. The most common culprits of food sensitivity include wheat, dairy products, coffee, oranges, yeast and other everyday edibles. When eliminating foods which you suspect may be causing the problem, you are likely to feel worse initially, but after several days should feel better. If re-introducing the “guilty” food as a “challenge” again produces symptoms, you will know it should be excluded from your diet.


Sometimes we feel that our body is crying out for more food, when in reality it is calling for a specific nutrient that is deficient. We just carry on eating and eating until, with luck, that particular nutritional deficiency is made up and we feel satisfied once again. If you are low in iron, for example, you may feel the need to eat meat but also, according to Dr David Watts at the Trace Elements Inc. Laboratory in Texas, USA, chronic iron deficiency can lead to unusual dietary cravings of substances other than foods. In such cases do not attempt to guess what the deficiency might be, or take a single nutrient which may upset the delicate nutrient balance. Either see a nutrition consultant who will carry out a full nutritional analysis, or take a high strength multivitamin and mineral containing the full range of essential nutrients. As adequate stomach acid is required for the absorption of minerals, you might also take a digestive enzyme which contains betaine hydrochloride (HCl).


Low brain levels of serotonin (a brain chemical) are the most common cause of carbohydrate cravings – particularly easy-to-eat foods such as bread, potatoes and pasta. Initially this causes an increase in blood sugar levels and a decrease in most blood amino acid (protein) levels. One amino acid, however, actually increases and is converted into serotonin. This is L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid which must be obtained from foods, as the body cannot make its own. Although not actually found in carbohydrates, eating them allows tryptophan stored in the body to be released and converted to serotonin, resulting in a feeling of relaxation and drowsiness. However, we can only continue to release tryptophan if we have adequate stores, so rather than increasing the release mechanism, we need to ensure that the storehouse is well supplied.

Good food sources of tryptophan include eggs, chicken, turkey, tuna, soya beans, cottage cheese and pumpkin seeds. Although tryptophan has not been available as a supplement since 1989 (see Optimum Nutrition Volume 13, No.3, “Interactions: Drug-Nutrient and Drug-Herb Combinations”) 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a metabolic precursor of serotonin, can now be obtained.


According to Dr Doreen Virtue in her book Constant Craving (Hay House), a pregnant woman craves for foods which stimulate her energy levels. Her own research into pregnancy cravings revealed that, during the first trimester of pregnancy, changes occur within the digestive tract which lead to “morning sickness”, aversions to high fat foods and, perhaps most importantly, fatigue. Fermented and yeasty foods contain large amounts of tyramine, a substance which acts as a stimulant by raising blood pressure and increasing the production of noradrenaline (another stimulant) in the brain. Mothers-to-be therefore often turn to foods high in tyramine including cheese, pickles, tuna, sausages, soya sauce, sauerkraut, bananas and avocados. Because of the increased nutritional needs, however, the cravings may also be due to deficiencies, particularly of vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid, and the minerals iron and zinc (see Nutritional Deficiencies).

In their book The Better Pregnancy Diet (ION Press), Patrick Holford and Liz Lorente state that, during pregnancy, many women become mildly hypoglycaemic and learn that eating sugary foods or having another coffee (which mobilises sugar from the liver) makes them feel temporarily better. However, over-consumption of these substances can lead to ever-worsening signs of hypoglycaemia and should be avoided.


At times of crisis, or during a bout of depression, some people just don’t want to eat. Far more commonly, however, food is used as a comfort, although the effects are usually short-term, followed by feelings of guilt or disgust. Certain foods, such as chocolate, stimulate endorphins, which are the body’s natural opiates responsible for increasing our feelings of pleasure and well-being. Some experts believe that cravings are the result of an unresolved, current or childhood emotional crisis, in which case a qualified hypnotherapist or psychologist can help you to identify and resolve problem issues. Others find that cravings for food lessen if they treat themselves to a massage, or relax in the bath with a few drops of bergamot, clarysage or other aromatherapy oil. Others are helped by meditation or creative visualisation. Whatever the cause, food is never the long-term answer.


So, next time you crave for something, and particularly if it is a recurrent craving, try to decipher the message your body is trying to give you and reply to it with a different strategy.


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Increase Serotonin Levels with 5-HTP. Nutri Notes Vol 3 No4 Jul-Aug 1998.
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Nutritional Studies of Children with Pica. Treatment of Pica with iron given Intramuscularly. Ped.29,1962.
Reynolds, RD et al.
Pagophagia and iron deficiency anaemia. Ann.Ent.Med, 69,1968.
Rosell, HA. Association of laundry starch and clay ingestion with anaemia in New York City. Arch.Int.Med, 125,1970.


Holford, P and Lorente L. The Better Pregnancy Diet. ION Press, 1992.
Brostoff, Dr J and Gamlin L. Food Allergy and Intolerance. Bloomsbury, 1989.
Shock, L BSc with Erdman R PhD. Food Cravings, their Causes and their Cures. Apple Publishing, 1996.
Virtue, Doreen PhD. Constant Cravings. Hay House, 1995.

Liz Thearle is a Dip.ION nutritionist practising in the Hereford area. She is also a qualified aromatherapist and reflexologist and is a Governor of ION.



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