Do you ever feel a magnetic postlunch pull to chocolate? You tell yourselfno! 20 times, but suddenly you're at the vending machine pressing F5 and frantically ripping open a bag of Peanut M&Ms like your next deadline depends on it. Well, good news (sort of)—your lack of willpower may not be to blame. Turns out that being low or deficient in certain micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—can cause you to crave everything from cheese and steak to chocolate and curly fries. And contrary to popular belief, you don't necessarily crave what you need—being low in calcium and magnesium, for example, makes you more likely to down a sugary doughnut than a Greek yogurt.
How to truly crush these cravings? Becoming nutrient sufficient by eating the right good-for-you foods is best, but there's nothing wrong with supplementing either, especially if you follow a more restrictive Paleo or vegan diet that eliminates entire food groups.
Here, Jayson and Mira Calton, nutritionists and authors of The Micronutrient Miracle (Rodale), explain how being low in these five micronutrients can make you feel totally out of control when it comes to eating—and how to change that.
Calcium and Magnesium
Low levels of these two minerals—which often go hand in hand—prime you for sugar and salt cravings. Low magnesium levels, specifically, are known to trigger chocolate cravings. Both stress and eating too much sugar can deplete your calcium and magnesium stores further, worsening cravings and making you a prime stress-eating candidate.
Eat up: Get your calcium fix from dairy products like yogurt, kefir, and cheese; bone-in sardines; and dark leafy greens. Hit your magnesium quota by downing nuts, seeds, potato skins, dairy, and broccoli. (Can't do dairy? Check out these 10 nondairy calcium sources.)
This class of vitamins is important because it helps your body deal with stress. B vitamins like B1 and B5 keep your adrenal glands functioning properly, and B6 and B9 aid in the formation of certain neurotransmitters that help regulate mood and make you feel good. In periods of high stress, your body uses up these vitamins more quickly, making you prone to the effects of stress—like overeating—if your levels aren't sufficient. Other B vitamin depleters include caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars, and medications like birth control pills and NSAIDs.
Eat up: B vitamins are found in a wide array of meats, seafood, dairy, and produce such as dark leafy greens, bananas, potatoes, avocados, egg yolks, chicken, salmon, and yogurt—so ensure you're getting enough variety in your diet. Big salads are your BFF.
Zinc: This mineral tends to be low in older people and anyone under a lot of stress—hello, that's like everyone. It's not so much that low zinc makes you crave, but it does significantly dull your sense of taste, prompting you to add more salt and sugar to foods while seeking out extra sugary and salty items before you're truly satisfied.
Eat up: This mineral isn't easy to find, but it's most prevalent in some animal sources like oysters, crab, liver, dark chicken meat, and to a lesser extent, eggs, green peas, and nuts.
Iron: No wonder you crave that steak or burger when you're PMS'ing. Being low in iron, which is especially common among premenopausal women, vegetarians, and vegans, is notorious for causing meat cravings.
Eat up: You can get a good dose of iron from meat, poultry, and even fish. Plant sources of iron aren't as readily used by the body, but your best bets include dried fruits, cashews, pumpkin seeds, legumes, and iron-enriched pastas and grains. For optimal absorption, make sure you eat your iron with a source of vitamin C: Think steak with spinach.
If you find yourself dialing up your favorite pizza joint for an 11 p.m. pie on a random Tuesday, well, you may be low in omega-3s. A lack of this essential fatty acid is known for triggering cheese cravings. EPA and DHA (as opposed to the plant-based omega-3 ALA) are your best bets for quashing these cravings.
Eat up: EPA and DHA are most abundant in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and canned tuna if it's processed appropriately (Wild Planetand Safe Catch are good brands). Even pasture-raised eggs from chickens that have spent time in the sun can pack as much as 600 mg of omega-3s per egg—about a third of your recommended daily value