Hey, do you mind if I eat your arm?
September 19, 2013 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Why am I craving meat all the time?

I'm taking a break from meat eating since late July and in the past couple of weeks have been craving meat. Like I'll look at someone's plate and want to eat their steak. I like food a whole lot, so random cravings for good food are not the least bit weird for me, but this is really visceral and in a weird way, not even really pleasure oriented--so it's not 'that looks delicious, I'd like to eat it' it's 'OOOGA BOOGA MUST HAVE MEAT MOVE YOUR HAND AWAY'.

I am not committed to lifelong vegetarianism, but I am taking an indefinite break at the moment.

I think I'm eating a good amount of protein (peanut butter, cheese, beans, eggs, nuts) but am definitely eating less protein than I was, but I don't think I'm eating so little protein that it's a nutritional concern. I imagine it's probably a pretty decent discrepancy, though, from routine meat-eating to none. I'm otherwise eating pretty healthy and feel fine.

So I'm just wondering, is this weird? Is there something I can do about it?
posted by A Terrible Llama to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Iron? Take a daily vitamin.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:42 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Are you getting enough iron? I craved meat way more before I started taking a multivitamin with iron. Also, if I am really hungry, it is hard to resist meat in the same way you are describing.
posted by tweedle at 8:43 AM on September 19, 2013

I eschewed red meat for 15 years. Then my anemia got really bad, and I was tested for all kinds of scary things. After awhile I was told, "Eat a steak." I haven't looked back.

It could be a craving manifested due to a deficiency, or your brain may want you to eat the meat because your brain likes meat.

I'd get tested for anemia, to rule it out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:43 AM on September 19, 2013

Response by poster: If it were iron, wouldn't I be tired or something else?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:46 AM on September 19, 2013

I can only speak anecdotally but I was a vegetarian for about 16 years, through a couple pregnancies as well. Then one day I craved, needed right now, to eat meat. I'm not sure what sparked it, I wasn't anemic or anything. Fast forward another 15 or so years, I eat meat, mostly chicken but occasionally red meat, only about 2x/week. I figure there's something in it so instead of fighting it I just go with the flow.
posted by lasamana at 8:50 AM on September 19, 2013

Not necessarily. Your body systems are detecting the deficiency before your conscious brain is seeing any symptoms.

When I'm trying to cut back on meat, I use a lot of grilled onions. In terms of how they tickle my pallet, they seem to be similar to meat (perhaps because grilled onions are frequently served with meat?)
posted by Doohickie at 8:52 AM on September 19, 2013

If you are not someone who menstruates regularly (or someone who's pregnant), the standard wisdom is not to take an iron supplement unless tests show you're low on iron (there are some health consequences of taking a bunch of iron if you don't need it, and if you do need it, you may have to take a bunch to get your levels back up.)

Also, ironwise, there's hemoglobin and also serum ferritin - both store iron in the blood but ferritin is a longer-term storage molecule (and it's somewhat debated/debateable whether low levels there have a direct effect on you/how you feel.) Hemoglobin is what they generally measure to test for anemia. I had low serum ferritin without having low hemoglobin.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:55 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fat. Eat more fat. Especially animal fat. Fewer simple carbs.

Whole milk yogurt, whole milk cheese, egg yolk.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:56 AM on September 19, 2013

Iron, B12, protein, take your pick. You can be lacking in any of these and craving meat without profoundly feeling the other symptoms (e.g. fatigue). I also think people in general are really bad at identifying pathological fatigue -- we often confuse it with sleep problems or vice versa.

You can try a sublingual B12 supplement to test that theory, they're pretty well absorbed and easy to take.
posted by telegraph at 8:57 AM on September 19, 2013

If it were iron, wouldn't I be tired or something else?

Maybe you personally wouldn't be. We don't always exhibit all of the standard symptoms of things because each of our personal biochemistries are different. I sometimes get seasonal allergies, but sometimes they skip straight past the "sneezing" or "itchy eye" stage and go straight to "sinus headache that makes me want to punch out my own head". It took me a while to get that it actually was allergies and not migraines.

I'd run your diet past a nutritionist - or even just your regular doctor - and see if they see any holes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, you can get anemic or not get the right amount of protein as a vegetarian, but I doubt that's what is going on since you're eating other animal products and likely iron-fortified processed foods.

Seriously, I eat like a vegan right now and meat cravings disappear when I get enough fat.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:02 AM on September 19, 2013

Iron from animal sources and iron from plant sources are absorbed by the body in different ways. If your vegetarian diet on paper looks like "enough" iron, it still may not be because your body isn't absorbing it in the same quantity as it can animal-source (aka heme) iron.
posted by rtha at 9:06 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there something I can do about it?

Yes. You could eat that steak. I thought "listen to your body" was very popular eating advice these days. Give it a try. Maybe your indefinite break is about to come to an end.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:21 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you were low on B12 after a few months of eating vegetarian, I'd be surprised. B12 supplements won't hurt you, but B12 is in the animal products you eat AND IIRC a year's worth of it is stored in your liver.

If you think you might be anemic or low in B12, it's worth going to your doctor for testing. Both conditions can be caused or exacerbated by underlying medical conditions. B12 deficiency in particular can cause long-term damage to your health and would require medical monitoring.

Vitamin D deficiency would be another one to get tested for while you're at it. But frankly, unless you have any other symptoms...I wouldn't rush to the doctor.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:26 AM on September 19, 2013

Listen to your body and eat some more meat. Your body is telling you something for a reason!

(disclaimer: I am an ex-vegan who spent the better part of a decade actively ignoring my body's pleas for animal protein because I thought the 60 grams of plant protein I ate per day would be an adequate substitute for the 60 grams of animal protein I used to eat. Nope. As soon as I started eating meat my health improved, my cravings went away and I never looked back.)
posted by joan_holloway at 9:40 AM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

My mother was vegetarian for a while and only diagnosed with anemia when she started coming down with a lot of infections and other health problems, she never felt tired. She did however have major meat cravings to the point she started started wiping up cooking grease with bread from my pans when she came to visit and thought I wouldn't see. (also frying bread in bacon fat). She went to the doctors, had some tests to rule out other causes and ended up having to eat meat because all the tablets in the world were making no difference. She ended up having to have blood transfusions at one point. Go get a blood test and rule out the problem early while it's easier to treat.
posted by wwax at 10:17 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

People get cravings for doughnuts, and cake, and cookies too. Should they "listen to their bodies"?

If you've developed deficiencies within 6-8 weeks of not eating meat then there are probably greater concerns with your overall diet and/or health. The vast majority of those with iron and b12 deficiencies eat an omnivorous diet.

Get blood tests if you're at all concerned, but don't discount the fact that it's completely normal to suddenly really want something you're denying yourself.
posted by sarahw at 11:06 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Some general points--I menstruate regularly and have never been iron deficient or anemic. I eat a lot of spinach and cook in a lot of cast iron, and we eat a lot of pasta which I think is iron fortified.

Generally, I think I eat really well (but I guess who doesn't think they eat well?) but like, frittatas and pasta with beans and lots of cheese, because cheese is delicious. I eat a good amount of vegetables but I'm not nuts about fruits or sweets. I eat eggs and drink whole milk. I take a B supplement. I'm mildly overweight, and I run eighteen miles a week. I'm middle aged. I drink beer and wine. I sleep great.

Based on the advice in this thread I took it upon myself to order fried cheese with lunch. It did keep me from eating the pepperoni off my husband's pizza, because I was busy eating cheese. I've generally got the whole 'eat a lot of fat' covered but if I should go home and make hollandaise sauce I'm happy to do that also, for science.

I think though, now that I'm typing this, I've been running more lately--just a teensy bit, adding a mile a month for the last four months. Maybe there's some overlap between that mild increase and no longer eating meat.

I think I'm going to try to find more iron to eat.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:45 PM on September 19, 2013

I got meat cravings back when I started a regimen of hitting the gym really regularly, even though I was only running a couple miles on the treadmill and lifting weights at super baby beginner level. I had been vegetarian for 5+ years at that point, and one dark day I found myself in a KFC parking lot because somehow a caveperson was inside me hollering MEAT NOW!!11 So even if you feel like your activity level has only changed a little bit, the caveperson within just has mega cravings?

Also, kale
posted by gobliiin at 2:05 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

> People get cravings for doughnuts, and cake, and cookies too. Should they "listen to their bodies"?

In my experience, the cravings I've had for meat are unlike the cravings I have for, say, milk chocolate. With milk chocolate it's "oh, I'd like some, that would be delicious, I look forward to eating some after lunch." The few times I've craved meat, and once craved bone marrow, it's been more like the OP says: a full on "GIVE ME THAT" urge to grab the food off someone else's plate.

When I was a very anemic vegetarian, I craved spinach badly enough that I once left a college class and went back to my dorm to eat salad. That craving was somewhere between the two.

As far as iron goes: when I was anemic, I took Slow FE at my doctor's urging following a blood test. That did the job.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:59 PM on September 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm thinking about this a bit more, and in addition to the increase in running, nearly every muscle in my body has been aching--I was drywalling and refinishing furniture this week, which turned out to be more strenuous than it sounds on paper--and seriously, my muscles are killing me.

I didn't mention it because it doesn't really register as a problem, it's just sort of a normal condition when you're doing something new and strenuous. But now I'm wondering if this whole thing is related, and it's muscle building that's going on and my body would probably like extra protein anyway, and instead I've suddenly taken it down a bit and it's retaliating.

Maybe I have to focus on getting significantly more protein in the next few days and make it a priority and see if that has an impact--because the whole thing is weird. As Corpse in the Library said, it's totally different than a regular craving.

I thought I was getting a lot of protein, but maybe not for this particular situation.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:45 PM on September 19, 2013

You should be shooting for about .7g protein per pound of body weight. I found it pretty hard to do for me even as an omnivore and I ended up supplementing with whey protein powder. You probably have to work extra hard to get into that range and you may want to look into a supplement as well.
posted by hindmost at 7:07 PM on September 19, 2013

If you decide to supplement your iron, I recommend floradix. The juices it's made with help you absorb the iron and keep you from getting constipated. FLORADIX! Good luck and enjoy the Hollandaise!
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:20 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was a vegetarian for ten years, and then when I got pregnant, I craved red meat with something that I can only describe as a primal urge. I suddenly understood why people drank blood warm from the cow, and I wanted some. It was a totally different kind of craving than wanting some chocolate. So my vote is to listen to your body, and give it what it needs.
posted by meringue at 7:55 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Here is how much protein the Mayo Clinic says a person needs. So like 50, 75 grams for my body weight (150-ish, probably 2000 calories a day, sometimes less, sometimes more.)

Most days are like this:

ww bread: 4 grams
peanut butter 7 grams
So 11 grams.

....and that's breakfast. Yesterday I didn't eat breakfast, but let's pretend I did.

Yesterday's lunch:
Flat bread pizza with spinach, feta and pine nuts, which I mostly didn't eat because it was terrible so I ate bread instead:7 grams.

Salad with sunflower seeds and goat cheese: 10 grams
Two servings pasta: 14
Cheese: 7 grams
Total: 31

So that's a total of 38 (49-11) because of the imaginary breakfast, but generally -- 49. I can see how that is on the low end, especially if, as gobliiin notes, even the small bit of extra activity I'm doing can have a major impact. It's going to be *hard* to get more though. Mostly I don't have time to eat breakfast and so I eat peanut butter on whole wheat while I blow dry my hair. I go out to lunch nearly every day (I can't do anything about this and it'd be a huge derail anyway.)

Also I'm forgetting yesterday's mozzarella sticks. Typically though, I don't order mozzarella sticks for lunch. Happy to start though.

The overall calorie count might sound light but there was wine and ice cream and a roll with butter and milk in coffee that I didn't count, because they're negligible.

I guess maybe I go with a cheese heavy lunch, like a grilled cheese, more sunflower seeds at dinner, and maybe try for a veggie burger in the morning or at least a whole peanut butter sandwich instead of a half.

Still, I can see how this would be hard for people to maintain over time. I guess I have to figure this out more closely. Maybe I'll use LoseIt to track it for a while or something.

If anyone has any ideas please share. I do want to avoid depressing food -- I really like to eat.

Thank you everyone for helping me figure this out.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:56 AM on September 20, 2013

You say you're getting "a good amount of protein," but then you list peanut butter, cheese and nuts (all basically fat, not protein) and beans (basically carbs, not protein). The only real protein on your list is eggs and even they don't have a lot of protein.

almonds: 73g fat, 27g carb, 30g protein -- 14% of calories from protein
cheddar cheese: 44g fat, 2g carb, 33g protein -- 25% of calories from protein
peanut butter: 129g fat, 56g carb, 62g protein -- 15% of calories from protein
black beans: 1g fat, 41g carb, 15g protein -- 26% of calories from protein
egg: 14g fat, 2g carb, 17g protein -- 34% of calories from protein

For everything on your list except eggs, the protein is basically incidental. Now compare that to a steak:
beef sirloin: 15g fat, 0g carb, 55g protein -- 62% of calories from protein

I'm not saying you have to eat meat if you're committed to going without for now. I am saying you're going to have to look harder for quality sources of protein.

All these numbers, btw, from SELFNutritionData.
posted by zanni at 4:08 AM on September 20, 2013

Response by poster: Why would it make a different if they are inefficient sources of protein, comparatively? I'm not trying to get less fat, I'm trying to get more protein. I'm not sure why it would make a difference what percentage of calories protein is of a particular food product. Maybe someone would argue it's not good for me to eat fat, but I really don't have a problem with fat, and I don't think it's terrible for me. I eat a lot of vegetables and whole grains and if I also eat cheese and peanut butter, I'm not too worked up about it unless I bloat up like a tick.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:10 AM on September 20, 2013

The simplest answer to your question is "If you're body is craving meat that intensely... eat meat." It seems that you're committed to being at least temporarily diligent in being meat free, so let's leave the simplest solution out. However, if you're going to exclude meat from your diet, you need to include a more diverse selection of foods that are actually nutritious.

Based on your diet, I'd say your meat cravings are a result of a deficiency in some vitamin or mineral. You're probably quite deficient in several essential nutrients. Meat is extremely nutrient dense and your body is probably trying to address a deficiency by making you crave meat.To be short, your average day food intake pretty nutritionally poor.

For being a vegetarian, you're not eating very many vegetables. You had a salad, but then a bunch of pasta, bread and cheese. No breakfast. Lunch was all bread. It looks like bread/pasta and cheese are the building blocks of your diet. Bread, pasta and other refined grains (whether enriched or not) are very good sources of calorie load, but very poor sources of nutrition. They should not be making up any major portion of your calories. You should really be making vegetables a focus in your diet, along with nuts, eggs (at least 2-3 a day), fruit, dairy and other healthy fats (avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, etc). Then add some nutritionally void, but tasty bread or rice or pasta. And if you won't eat meat, will you at least eat fish or other seafood? That could help balance out your nutrient intake immensely.

In short, eat less refined carbohydrates. Eat less things that come pre-packaged. Eat more whole foods. Eat more protein! Even if it doesn't end your meat cravings, it will help make sure you're not lacking in essential nutrients.
posted by Vonnegut27 at 10:40 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you're basically looking in the right direction if you are trying to eat more fat and protein, so good!

I've been a vegetarian for almost ten years (now a vegan) and I'm also a runner, and I just want to give you some support. What you're doing is not crazy or bad! Many of the nutritional diagnoses in this thread are ignorant and alarmist.

Sure, it can be tricky to get protein from vegetarian sources. Peanut butter, yogurt, eggs are great. (I don't see yogurt on your list. Greek yogurts tend to have lots of protein and also taste great.) You can supplement w/ protein powder if you want.

Also, a lot of people in this thread are pushing bodybuilder-level protein requirements on you. So yeah of course it's hard to get there by eating almonds. But the government nutritional standard for protein is only 46g for adult women -- so a peanut butter sandwich actually puts you well on your way.
posted by grobstein at 11:33 AM on September 20, 2013

Why would it make a different if they are inefficient sources of protein, comparatively? I'm not trying to get less fat, I'm trying to get more protein.

Do you see what I see?

Look, everything that is alive, plant or animal, is made of protein. So, anything you could conceivably eat will have a protein content of above zero. The issue is how can you get enough protein. So, if you want to get 50g of protein, you can eat 9 ounces of chicken breast, or you can eat 4.5 lbs of raw spinach. (this are the actual numbers according to the USDA nutrition database). It's like wondering if it is better to eat rice with a spoon or with tweezers.

This isn't me giving vegetarians/vegans a hard time. I eat vegan about 50% of the year for spiritual reasons. However, there is no changing the fact that animal products (flesh or otherwise) are much more efficient sources of protein. You talk about peanut butter, but you'd need to eat half a pound of peanut butter to get 50 grams of protein (to the tune of 1200 calories). That's some sandwich to get you on your way. Something like Greek yogurt or cottage cheese would be a much better choice. One egg will only get you 4g of protein.

The daily food log you posted is pretty poor. I am frankly surprised that you are not hungry all the time. And, the Mayo Clinic's guidelines are a minimum. I recommend that you consult with your general practitioner.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:08 PM on September 20, 2013

Response by poster: I wrote upthread that I eat about two thousand calories a day and that I eat a lot of vegetables. I haven't gone out of my way to itemize them because they aren't really relevant to this question, but to be 100% absolutely clear: I eat a lot of vegetables and whole grains and about two thousand calories a day, total.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:39 AM on September 21, 2013

Meat has protein, fat, a surprising number of vitamins and minerals, and that lovely umami flavor. Also, a texture that isn't replicated elsewhere. I love yellow sauteed summer squash, mushrooms and onions, sauteed(medium-high heat) till the moisture is mostly gone and the squash begins to brown, with a bit of parmesan. Something like that would hit many of the same cravings.
posted by Mom at 7:17 AM on September 21, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

If anyone comes along with this same problem, this issue went away completely when I started counting protein grams and getting a minimum of 50 grams of protein a day, especially on days when I run.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:58 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

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