Odd food cravings may signal anemia

Published May 2, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

Have you ever desired a cracker, a handful of salted nuts or a chocolate candy bar? Most of us have had such urges from time to time, but what about more unusual and more persistent longings? Perhaps your body is sending you a message.

Physicians have documented that "pica," a compulsion to eat a substance that isn't food, might be linked to anemia or zinc deficiency. Usually pica refers to ice, clay, dirt or laundry starch. We heard recently from a reader who ate ice:

"Several years ago I developed a strong craving to crunch on ice. I would always have a cup of crushed ice to eat, though it drives my husband crazy. I read that craving ice could be a sign of iron deficiency. My doctor suggested iron pills, and in two months my craving for ice disappeared."

Another reader's experience now makes us wonder if unusual food addictions could also signal anemia: "About four years ago, when I was 46, I developed a craving for raw carrots. I would get up in the morning, and the first thing on my mind was a raw carrot. I ate them all day long and drove my family nuts with the crunching.

"I developed orange skin. My dentist was concerned because the inside of my mouth was also orange.

"Looking back, I should have suspected there was a reason for the craving. Instead, I just assumed that I suddenly loved carrots out of the blue.

"If there were no carrots in the house I would drive to the nearest store, no matter what time of day or night, to get my "fix.' I do remember thinking this was crazy, but I couldn't help myself, much like an addict. If we went on a trip, I'd make sure to pack carrots or know that I could get them.

"This went on for quite a while, until my annual physical. I was very anemic. Then it dawned on me that I had also been very tired all this time, sometimes taking two naps a day. I'd had extremely heavy periods for over a year. My doctor put me on birth control pills with iron and told me to eat iron-rich foods (meat, broccoli, beans, prunes, spinach, etc.).

"As soon as my iron came up to the normal range, I had absolutely no desire for a raw carrot. Even now I have to force myself to eat them, so I would tell your readers not to ignore strange cravings. Get a blood test for sure."

Perhaps that is what this reader requires: "I crave tomatoes in almost any form _ salsa, tomato juice, tomato sauce and even just plain chopped tomatoes right out of the can. Every doctor I've ever mentioned this to has shrugged his or her shoulders.

"This has been going on for almost 20 years, since my first pregnancy when I would consume a large can of V8 daily and other tomato products. It was the same with my second pregnancy 16 years ago. Since then I have noticed that the cravings are strongest during the second half of my menstrual cycle. Is my body trying to tell me something? Do you think this is indicative of a chemical imbalance or a medical condition?"

We don't know if iron or zinc would cure a tomato craving as it did for the ice and carrot addicts, but odd food cravings should not be ignored.

High-flying germs

Question: I was recently on an airplane full of people coughing, sneezing and sniffling. The guy behind me sounded especially sick. Spray from his sneezes landed on the back of my neck.

I don't have time for a cold or the flu, since I have three more trips to make over the next six weeks. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: Unfortunately, air recirculation on airplanes almost guarantees that you will be exposed to other people's germs. Try to bolster your immune system with vitamins and herbs. Both echinacea and astragalus are reputed to improve immune response. Vitamins C, A E and D as well as low doses of zinc might also be beneficial.

Your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medicine such as rimantadine (Flumadine) or amantadine (Symmetrel) to prevent type A flu, which has been especially brutal this winter.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. They can be reached by e-mail at or in care of the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.