As mere mortals on this earth, we all get hit by crazy cravings from time to time, regardless of gender. You know what we’re talking about: The seemingly out-of-the-blue craving for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the sudden urge to eat an entire block of sharp cheddar cheese or the hankering for something sweet when you’re already full from dinner.
While indulging in cravings can be fun, doing so can be a drag if you’re left feeling bloated and sick, or if giving in to your cravings is interfering with your weight loss goals. Getting a better understanding of our cravings is key, so let’s take a closer look at why they happen in the first place.
When a craving hits, your body is trying to tell you something.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, hormone expert Alisa Vitti believes your cravings are always trying to tell you something.
“In most cases, cravings have to do with the body calling out for specific micronutrients — so salt cravings can indicate a magnesium deficiency, and dairy cravings could indicate a calcium deficiency,” she explained. “If you’re craving sweets or carbs, you probably have an essential fatty acid deficiency.”
If you’re a woman, a lot of cravings are caused by your cycle.
While the image of a woman eating chocolate right around her period is a bit of a cliché, a woman’s cycle does have to do with her cravings. “Our hormones are conducting a very important symphony in the female body,” explains Ellen Vora, MD. “There are differing nutritional needs depending on where you are in your cycle, and your hormones will guide your cravings accordingly.”
Because women’s hormones are fluctuating all month long, they have different needs throughout the month — for example, during ovulation (which is mid-cycle) your body is looking for healthy sources of protein like eggs, nuts and lean meats. During your period, on the other hand, your iron levels are often low so you need iron-rich foods like leafy green veggies, dried beans, peas and red meat if that’s your thing.
If you notice you’re craving certain foods around your period, it could have to do with a hormone-induced deficiency (for example, many people crave chocolate when they have a magnesium deficiency), but it could also be because estrogen and progesterone levels are lower than usual, which makes you feel crappy and crave comforting foods, like ice cream and pizza.
Vitti added that most women are hit by cravings in the second half of their cycle. “This is when the metabolism speeds up and women need more micronutrients and calories to do the work of the luteal phase and the menstrual phase versus the first half of the cycle,” she said. Again, most of the time cravings during this time are associated with seeking comforting foods when we’re feeling crappy (like sweet foods if that’s your thing, or salty ones if that’s more your style), but try not to give into it — what your body needs is nutrients, so fuel up.
Yep: Men have hormonal imbalances, too.
Women may be known as the more hormonal gender, but men suffer from hormone imbalances, too. And when that happens, guess what? Cravings strike! “Men can have hormonal imbalances with testosterone and estrogen in the same way women can, which are in part the result of micronutrient deficiencies,” Vitti said. “When this happens, cravings arise!”
Vora added that men’s cravings typically have more to do with how they’re using their bodies than cyclical hormonal changes. “Men’s bodies require nutrition to prepare them to meet a slightly different set of challenges and needs compared to women’s bodies,” she explained. In other words, a man who exercises a lot probably has different cravings than a guy who watches TV all day.
Do men and women crave different foods?
According to both Vitti and Vora, cravings are based less on gender and more on hormone imbalances and micronutrient deficiencies. But cravings do vary slightly based on difference in nutritional needs.
“Most of us are addicted to the drug-like foods, such as gluten, dairy, sugar and the flavor crystals in processed foods,” Vora said. “This shared drug addiction eclipses the subtle variations in cravings between men and women.”
She added that if you can strip away the drug-like food cravings that we all share, the rest comes down to different nutritional needs and cravings. “To add complexity to this, women have different nutritional needs and cravings at different points in their cycles,” Vora said.
What should you do when a craving hits?
Now, the million-dollar question: When a craving hits, should you give in to it? Vitti says yes. “I say always, but do it in the healthiest way possible,” she said. Vitti has an app called MyFLO, which helps users learn what their cravings mean and which healthy foods will satisfy those cravings during specific times of a woman’s cycle.
In Vora’s opinion, whether you feed a craving really depends. “The only compass you really need is this: Are you craving a real food, such as meat, fish, eggs, poultry, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, starchy vegetables or fermented food? Or are you craving a drug-like food, such as ice cream, pizza, crackers and cheese, or sugar? If the craving is for a real food, trust your body’s wisdom and honor the craving.”
If it’s more of a “drug-like” craving, you’re better off abstaining if possible so you don’t perpetuate the cycle. “Sometimes, though, the self-loving choice is to eat that one thing that will hit the spot and give you pleasure, even if it’s a drug-like comfort food,” she added. “Sometimes there’s more to life than just optimal physical health, and satisfying a deep yearning for a particular culinary experience can be an act of radical self-love.”
Now that you have a better understanding of your cravings, indulge as you see fit. You’ve got this!