"Normal" or not?
We’ve all had a craving for salty, savory, or sweet (hello, chocolate!). But sometimes that urge to satisfy our taste buds can seemingly only be filled by the strangest substances.
Weird cravings can include paint, lemons, dirt, ice, chalk, clay, pebbles, sand, hair, metal — and even toilet paper, according to a recent report of a British mom who can’t use the bathroom without noshing on this non-nutritive household item.
What’s going on here? Let’s take a closer look at why we crave — both the normal stuff and the strange stuff.
If you’ve ever wondered why you simply can’t move on until you’ve had a slice of pizza or a piece of German chocolate cake, you’re not alone: Scientists have been trying to figure out the mystery of cravings for some time.
There are a few major theories behind garden-variety cravings, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center. One theory is that low levels of the calming hormone serotonin trigger the desire for our favorite foods, in turn increasing levels of serotonin and endorphins, which then make us feel good. (If you’ve ever felt the instant gratification after a cup of gelato, this idea’s not hard to believe.)
Another theory, says Hunnes, is that our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) needs to call timeout. Since this part of the brain’s neuroendocrine pathway controls reactions to stress when disrupted, the urge for a break may increase desire for certain substances, foods, or even activities. Cravings.
A third theory is that our brains are just pretty darn smart, and can signal when there’s an internal need. “If we are missing some nutrient in our body, or are deficient, our body will naturally seek out, or crave, foods or other items that contain that missing nutrient,” Hunnes tells Yahoo Health.
Why you might crave the weird stuff
This final theory, about our bodies seeking out nutrients, is what most experts focus on when it comes to why we might have odd cravings.
If you’re deficient in an important vitamin or mineral, your body will begin to seek it out — somewhere, anywhere, even if it’s not a correct source. “Consuming non-food substances such as chalk, clay, coal, pebbles, dirt, or possibly even ice, has been associated with iron-deficiency anemia,” Hunnes says.
“There is a theory that, in addition to iron-deficiency, there may be other nutrient deficiencies that may be present, and eating these abnormal items may help to fill some of those nutrient gaps,” she says, indicating that’s at least what your body assumes.
Other weird cravings? According to Hunnes, craving lemons has been associated with vitamin C deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia. Chewing ice has been associated with iron-deficiency anemia, possibly to overcome the chronic fatigue associated with the condition, according to an October 2014 study.
The downside is that most of these cravings are non-nutritive, meaning if you’re lacking in a mineral — say, iron or zinc — and have a strange urge to taste chalk, it won’t provide you any nutritional support. In fact, in some cases, these substances that aren’t meant to be edible may leech nutrients from your system, or disrupt normal intake of mineral-rich foods.