Cravings in women over 40 are often dismissed as emotional eating. Mood fluctuations during peri- and menopause are commonly blamed for seeking comfort in food; yet, a lack of essential nutrients could be another significant cause. When the body lacks specific nutrients, it triggers cravings to correct these imbalances. Acknowledging that these cravings may actually signal nutrient deficiencies opens the door to a constructive approach to addressing them. This approach could be most effective when it combines diverse targeted solutions, from eating a wide range of foods and choosing cooking methods that conserve nutrients to making lifestyle changes that boost the body’s ability to absorb them.


Research Insights: The Impact of Nutritional Deficiencies on Cravings


Nutritional deficiencies can shape our cravings and behaviors, a fact supported by various research studies. For instance, one study, highlighted how a diet low in sodium results in a preference for saltier foods. In this study, 10 volunteers were placed on a very-low-sodium diet, which resulted in substantial sodium depletion. Throughout this period, an interesting shift occurred: the participants’ preference for salt in foods became markedly greater and saltier foods appeared more attractive. This increase in preference for saltier foods upon reducing sodium intake highlights how the body’s nutritional needs can influence our food cravings.


Research into magnesium levels in women provides additional insights into the connection between nutrient deficiencies and cravings. One study, for example, analyzed magnesium in 9 healthy premenopausal women and 26 women with PMS. Findings indicated similar serum magnesium across both groups, but red blood cell magnesium was notably lower in those with PMS.


This magnesium deficiency in women with PMS has led to further investigation. One particular study suggests that this deficiency might drive an increase in cravings for magnesium-rich foods, such as chocolate, as a way for the body to compensate for its shortfall.


Beyond cravings, а lack of certain nutrients can lead to impulsive behaviors characteristic of disordered eating. Increased impulsivity may drive individuals to seek immediate gratification from food, struggle with self-control around eating, and resort to risky behaviors for weight control. All of these can lead to the development or worsening of eating disorders.

In this context, one study examined the relationship between vitamin D levels and impulsivity in patients with eating disorders. The study involved 236 diagnosed patients who were grouped based on the presence and intensity of impulsive behaviors. Participants’ vitamin D levels were then measured using the enzyme immunoassay blood test. Results revealed significantly lower vitamin D levels among patients with at least one impulsive behavior compared to those without such behaviors. These findings suggest a potential link between nutritional deficits and behavioral patterns that can lead to disordered eating.


Physiological Reasons for Cravings


Research has revealed a direct link between nutrient deficiencies and the cravings we experience. This connection becomes more apparent upon exploring the physiological bases for these cravings.


Take sodium, for instance. This mineral is essential for fluid balance, nerve transmission, and muscle function. When our sodium levels drop, possibly due to intense sweating or a low-sodium diet, the body’s homeostatic mechanisms signal a need to rebalance sodium, often through cravings for salty foods. This response aims to prevent hyponatremia, where blood sodium is too low and causes symptoms like fatigue, confusion, and in severe cases, seizures or coma.


Magnesium also plays a role in various bodily functions, particularly for enhancing insulin’s role in helping cells absorb glucose. When insulin is released, it attaches to cell surfaces and signals them to absorb glucose from the blood. This process relies on activating a specific enzyme, tyrosine kinase, which magnesium helps activate. However, when magnesium is low and the enzyme’s activation compromised, cells struggle to absorb glucose, which is their main energy source. This energy deficit triggers a compensatory response to increase the intake of nutrient-dense foods, which are often rich in magnesium.


Lastly, the role of iron in brain functioning deserves attention. Iron is essential for the brain’s limbic system, particularly for dopamine production. When we consume nutritious food, the limbic system releases dopamine which creates a sense of reward and satisfaction. This mechanism encourages us to continue healthy eating habits by linking them to these positive emotions. However, when iron levels are low, this can hinder the limbic system’s capacity to release dopamine in response to nutritious food. This disruption can lead to altered eating behaviors and unusual cravings known as pika, as the body attempts to correct the deficiency.


In cases of pica, people experience cravings for non-food substances like clay, dirt, and ice. Consuming non-food items like clay or dirt might seem counterintuitive, yet certain types of clay are thought to bind toxins in the gut, which could potentially reduce their interference with iron absorption. Consuming ice, a condition known as pagophagia, does not provide iron directly. Yet, chewing ice might temporarily increase alertness in persons feeling lethargic due to iron deficiency.


These behaviors, while not an efficient or safe way to correct iron deficiency, point to an underlying biological drive to alleviate symptoms or to compensate for the lack of a vital nutrient.


Strategies to Manage Nutritional Deficiencies

Addressing deficiencies that prompt cravings requires a holistic approach to nutrition. Consuming diverse nutrient-rich foods, using cooking techniques that preserve nutrients, and optimizing food combinations can significantly improve nutrient absorption. Additionally, lifestyle changes such as adequate hydration, regular physical activity, and reducing exposure to harmful substances further support nutrient absorption and combat deficiencies.


Enhancing Nutrient Absorption Through Food Choices


Consuming foods rich in essential nutrients like omega-3, magnesium, calcium, and iron is key to managing deficiencies.


To address iron deficiency, for example, it is helpful to include foods like lean meats, lentils, and leafy greens in the diet. Similarly, replenishing magnesium levels can be achieved by consuming almonds, spinach, and whole grains. Certain drinks, including orange juice, mineral and bottled water, and soy milk, also contain magnesium. Incorporating such magnesium-rich sources is especially important for people who are at risk of deficiency. At-risk groups include older adults, persons with hypertension and diabetes, and those who take medications for stomach acid and high blood pressure.


For calcium, sources such as dairy products, fortified plant-based milks, kale, and almonds provide ample opportunities to meet dietary needs. These foods are all good sources of calcium, yet, the amount our body can absorb from each differs, a concept known as bioavailability. Dairy foods, for instance, offer a calcium bioavailability of approximately 30%. This means that from 300 mg of calcium listed on a milk label per cup, the body absorbs about 100 mg. In contrast, cooked bok choy has a higher bioavailability of 50%. So, from a cup of bok choy containing just 160 mg of calcium, the body can absorb 80 mg.


Lastly, omega-3 fatty acids are found in diverse foods, each providing different type: docosahexaenoic (DHA), eicosapentaenoic (EPA), and alpha-linolenic (ALA). EPA and DHA mainly come from marine sources such as algae, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and krill. ALA sources include plant-based options like flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. The body’s conversion of ALA to EPA and then to DHA is limited, with efficiency rates below 15%. This points to the need to consume different omega-3 sources for a full range of these nutrients.


Cooking Methods to Optimize Nutrient Absorption


When tackling nutritional deficiencies, how we prepare our meals is just as important as the foods we choose to eat. Certain cooking methods are more effective at preserving nutrients which can be key to overcoming deficiencies.


For instance, steaming vegetables is one of the best ways to maintain their vitamin and mineral content. Steaming avoids direct contact with water and prevents water-soluble nutrients from dissolving into the cooking liquid. Similarly, as microwaving uses minimal water, it helps preserve water-soluble nutrients. Microwaving also cooks food rapidly which minimizes the breakdown of vitamins and minerals that occurs with longer cooking times.


Blanching vegetables in boiling water and quickly plunging them into ice water is another method to preserve nutrients. By halting the cooking process almost immediately, this technique preserves nutrients that would be lost with longer cooking.


While these methods effectively preserve nutrients, others can significantly reduce the nutrient content of foods. During boiling, for example, water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and some B vitamins dissolve into the cooking water, which is often discarded. Deep frying is another technique to avoid because it exposes foods to high temperatures that degrade vitamins and minerals. Additionally, excessive grilling and broiling can lead to nutrient loss due to high temperatures and the risk of creating harmful compounds that alter the body’s absorption processes.


Food Combinations for Improved Nutrient Absorption


Beyond selecting the right cooking methods, combining foods can also enhance the body’s absorption of nutrients. For instance, consuming vitamin C-rich foods alongside iron-rich ones boosts iron absorption, especially the non-heme type found in plants. An example of such pairing is combining bell peppers, high in vitamin C, with lentils, rich in iron. This increases the amount of iron the body absorbs from a meal for two main reasons. Firstly, vitamin C transforms iron into a form that is more easily absorbed by the digestive tract. Secondly, vitamin C reduces the inhibitory effects of certain compounds on iron absorption. Such compounds are phytates, found in grains and legumes, and polyphenols, present in tea and coffee, which can hinder iron absorption.


Another beneficial pairing involves combining dietary fats with fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. For example, adding an avocado to a carrot salad enhances the absorption of vitamin A while drizzling olive oil over spinach increases the uptake of vitamin K. These vitamins, when combined with fats, form micelles, tiny, fat-based particles that the digestive tract absorbs more easily than larger vitamin molecules. Due to their smaller size, micelles can pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream more efficiently. This process ensures that fat-soluble vitamins are delivered to the cells and tissues that require them.


A third impactful combination is vitamin D and calcium. Consuming vitamin D-packed foods like salmon alongside calcium-dense ones like kale optimizes calcium absorption. The reason is that vitamin D stimulates the intestines to produce a specific protein called calbindin. This protein is responsible for transporting calcium through the intestinal cells and into the bloodstream to where the body needs it most.


Lifestyle Adjustments


Lifestyle changes, such as more sunlight exposure, regular exercise, stress management, proper hydration, and sufficient sleep, can further enhance nutrient absorption.

Sunlight Exposure


Enhancing sunlight exposure boosts vitamin D levels, crucial for calcium absorption. This is especially beneficial for persons living in higher latitudes or with indoor lifestyles who should aim to spend a few minutes outside during peak sunlight hours. Additionally, older adults and people with darker skin can gain from this practice, as they face a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency due to less efficient skin synthesis.


Regular Physical Activity


Physical activity enhances nutrient absorption through a series of interconnected processes. During physical activity, the muscles use more glucose for energy, which reduces the amount of glucose in blood that cells can consume. To compensate and ensure that cells receive the energy they need, the body produces insulin. This hormone signals cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, which ensures a continuous energy supply for the body’s needs. The digestive system, in particular, relies on this continuous supply to move food through the tract at an optimal pace. This allows food to progress through the digestive tract at a pace that facilitates thorough interaction with the digestive enzymes. These enzymes, including amylase, lipase, and protease, break down food into its basic components: proteins into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into simple sugars.


When macronutrients are broken down into such basic forms, specialized cells in the intestinal wall can capture them more effectively and transport them to the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, these nutrients are available to be utilized by the cells for energy, growth, repair, and maintaining bodily functions.


In addition to enhancing macronutrient absorption, physical activity plays a role in the release of micronutrients from these macronutrients. Physical activity boosts circulation and ensures that the digestive organs receive an ample blood supply for the production of digestive enzymes. These enzymes are key to releasing micronutrients, which then become available for absorption.


A clear example of this is vitamin B12 which is bound to protein in food. Only through the action of digestive enzymes can vitamin B12 be released from protein and absorbed in the small intestine. Similarly, fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K—depend on enzymes to be absorbed. When digestive enzymes break down fats, they convert them into fatty acids. These fatty acids then form an emulsion that enhances the solubility of vitamins and allows their passage through the intestinal wall for transport to where they are needed. These intricate processes, enhanced by physical activity, contribute to more efficient micronutrient absorption and better overall health.


Stress Management


Managing stress significantly enhances nutrient absorption, much like the effects of physical activity. Stress can negatively impact the digestive system, primarily through the release of cortisol. This hormone slows down digestion, affects the secretion of digestive enzymes, and affect peristalsis. Such changes can lead to a less effective breakdown and absorption of nutrients.


When cortisol levels decrease, the previously slowed digestive process resumes, and food progresses at a pace that allows for efficient interaction with digestive enzymes.  With cortisol levels reduced, the production of enzymes also returns to normal. This ensures an adequate amount of enzymes to interact with food and break down nutrients.


Moreover, decreased cortisol levels reduce stress on the enteric nervous system, which regulates peristalsis – the muscle contractions moving food through the gut. Improved functioning of this system ensures it regulates these contractions effectively and food passes through the gut at an optimal speed. If food lingers for too long, this can cause irritation or inflammation of the gut’s lining. This condition can impair its ability to absorb nutrients efficiently.


Preventing such impairments in nutrient absorption requires activities that reduce cortisol levels. These can include regular physical exercise, deep breathing techniques, practicing mindfulness meditation, or attending a yoga retreat.


Adequate Hydration


Proper hydration is important for nutrient absorption, similar to the benefits of regular exercise and stress management. Adequate fluid intake ensures that the gastrointestinal tract remains lubricated, which facilitates the passage of food from the esophagus to the stomach and intestines, where digestion and absorption occur. A lack of sufficient fluid can lead to slower movement of food, which prevents full interaction with digestive enzymes and impairs the efficiency of nutrient breakdown.


Hydration also impacts the production of digestive juices and enzymes. These juices, including stomach acid and bile, are mostly water-based and rely on water to maintain their volume and concentration.


Similarly, the production of digestive enzymes in the intestines requires an aqueous environment for efficient synthesis. These enzymes not only originate in the intestines but also break down food into nutrients within the same region. For these nutrients to be utilized by the body, they must cross the intestinal mucosal lining into the bloodstream. This transfer requires the mucosal lining to be permeable, a condition that proper hydration supports. Hydration keeps the lining moist and swollen, which enhances its permeability and facilitates the transfer of nutrients.

Avoiding Alcohol, Caffeine, and Processed Foods


Limiting the intake of alcohol, caffeine, and highly processed foods is advisable because these can interfere with nutrient absorption. Alcohol, in particular, can harm the lining of the stomach and intestines, which is responsible for producing enzymes that break down food into absorbable nutrients.


Caffeine, present in coffee, tea, and certain soft drinks, also impacts nutrient absorption, notably that of calcium. It disrupts the mechanism that enables calcium to bind with the protein that transports it through the intestinal lining into the bloodstream. As a result, for every 150 mg of caffeine ingested – roughly equivalent to one cup of coffee – calcium absorption diminishes by about 5 mg.


Furthermore, caffeine has a diuretic effect and prompts the body to produce more urine. This leads to a higher rate of fluid loss and with this fluid, dissolved nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and sodium are carried away. These essential minerals are lost more rapidly, which can lead to their depletion.


Lastly, highly processed foods can impact nutrient absorption due to their high levels of artificial ingredients and sodium. Artificial ingredients like aspartame and high-fructose corn syrup can alter the gut microbiome. This disruption reduces the presence of beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium which break down food and facilitate nutrient absorption.


Quitting Smoking


Avoiding smoking and reducing exposure to secondhand smoke enhance nutrient absorption in the intestines. Normally, partially digested nutrients move through the intestines, where enzymes convert them into absorbable forms. These nutrients then interact with the villi, tiny finger-like projections in the intestines which capture and transport them into the bloodstream. When you smoke, harmful chemicals and toxins in cigarette smoke damage the villi and cause them to become flattened or blunted. This damage reduces their surface area and hence their capacity to transport nutrients into the bloodstream. Over time, this can lead to deficiencies and health risks related to inadequate nutrition.


Wrapping Up


Cravings in women over 40 are often linked to emotional eating, a coping mechanism for dealing with mood swings and anxiety due to hormonal fluctuations during perimenopause and menopause. Additionally, emotional eating can stem from stressors unique to this life stage, including the culmination of professional responsibilities and increased family obligations, such as parenting teenagers and caring for elderly parents. While these factors are indeed significant, our cravings for specific foods may stem from a need for certain nutrients these foods contain. This is our body’s way of signaling deficiencies and directing us towards foods rich in the nutrients we are missing. In such cases, deficiencies are best addressed through a holistic approach. By prioritizing a balanced diet, thoughtful food preparation, and healthy lifestyle choices, women can improve nutrient absorption, minimize cravings, and effectively curb emotional eating by addressing the root cause of these cravings.