- Food cravings come from several different “places,” including your brain and your gut.
- There are more bacteria in your intestine than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy and play a massive role in your health and mood, as well as your cravings.
- When you have more “bad bacteria” than “good bacteria,” you crave bad foods because that’s what they eat. Good bacteria eat good foods.
- Keep a food log or work with a professional to see if there are any obvious nutrient deficiencies.
- Pay attention to your hunger cues and plan strategies to combat them, or allow them.
- Increase your intake of soluble and insoluble fiber to feed good bacteria.
- Eat more protein and fat to feel fuller.
When I was in college, I dated a girl that thought I was addicted to candy. Every time we went in a convenience store, I went to the candy aisle to pick out something sweet. I just always had a big sweet tooth and loved eating sweet things. It took me a while to realize it, but I had sugar cravings that were serious enough to be classified as an addiction. Thankfully, I worked out a lot and kept myself in good shape, so I didn’t gain a ton of weight, but my health wasn’t ideal. I had pretty bad acne, I didn’t sleep great, and I dealt with a fair amount of depression.
It took me some years to figure it out, but my sugar cravings were partially driven by a much simpler realization: I liked all of the bright colors in the candy aisle. The vibrant yellows and electric blues and neon oranges were much more appealing to me than the drab reds and navy blues of the other things in the store. So, my craving was driven in part by a simple, visual stimulus.
Fast forward a decade and I understand even more about cravings now. For example, cravings can come from a few different “places,” including your gut and your brain. There are a million subconscious cues that your brain gets every day that it has to manage. When it’s light out, we wake up. When it’s a certain time of day, we get hungry. When we hear our favorite song, we dance. And my personal favorite – when we see a red light, we stop. (This simple fact continues to astonish me. You tell people to exercise more and eat better, and there are hundreds of reasons why they can’t. But you put them in front of a red light and 99.9999% of people just sit there. It’s a brilliant example of a simple cue driving our behavior.)
There are also social cues (It’s Friday night: lets go drinking and then eat Taco Bell at 2:30am!), cultural cues (It’s July 4th: let’s eat burgers and hot dogs because it’s a “tradition”!), and emotional cues (My girlfriend dumped me/my sports team lost: so I’m going to drown my sorrows in beer/ tequila/
Pizza/insert vice here.)
“There are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy!”
You can see there are a lot of reasons WHY we get cravings. But perhaps the biggest and most underappreciated is gut bacteria. There are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy! In fact, there are 10x as many bacteria as cells in your body and collectively, they actually weigh more than your brain! And they have a direct line of communication with your brain via the vagus nerve. Those bacteria use that connection to influence your mood as well as your food cravings. Bacteria eat what you eat, so if they have a preference for something (like the sugars in candy), they’ll tell your brain to crave those foods – and you will! So yea, gut bacteria are kind of a big deal.
In that respect, your cravings aren’t really your fault. It's the bacteria controlling your mind!! Sounds creepy, but it’s reasonably accurate. So, how do you overcome all these subconscious cues and mind-controlling bacteria?
Here are some simple ways you can start to curb your own cravings for “bad” foods!
- Drink more water!
- Eat more proteins and fats while maintaining the same total calories for the day. These take longer to digest and will make you feel fuller.
- Track WHEN you get your cravings and have a healthier option available like beef jerky, fresh veggies, avocado, or Greek yogurt.
- Eat more fiber! The major benefit is that it will feed your good bacteria and help them grow, while also helping you feel fuller for longer.
- Eat more slowly and mindfully, instead of just shoveling food into your face hole.
- Do your Meal Prep! Having food pre-portioned and eating on a schedule can help keep you full all day. If you always get a sugar craving at 3pm, have some fresh or frozen fruit available.
- Portion out your “bad” foods. If you can’t quit cold turkey, start eating smaller and smaller portions of the bad foods, along with more and more of a healthier option.
- Try chewing gum instead of eating.
- Manage your stress. Being stressed affects the gut, which in turn affects your cravings for bad foods. Spend 20 minutes outside in nature without any technology and see how much more relaxed you feel.
- Identify your triggers and have a plan in place before it happens.
Now there’s one more reason we can get serious (and sometimes weird) cravings for foods: if we have a vitamin or mineral deficiency. Your body is REALLY good at getting what it needs, and if it knows you’re deficient in something like iron, you may find yourself craving red meat. Or if you’re low in sodium you may crave salty foods. One way to know if you’re deficient in something is to keep a food journal. Once you’ve kept a journal for at least a week, you can work with a professional to identify areas where you might be deficient.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the fiber: what kinds of fibers your gut bacteria eat and where you can add them into your diet.
There are two main types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is broken down and fermented by the gut bacteria in the large intestine. It will turn into a gel-like substance when it comes in contact with water and can improve your cholesterol and blood sugar. Plants such as beans, greens, and other complex carbohydrates contain soluble fiber. While some foods, like potatoes, actually contain a mix of insoluble fiber (the peel) and soluble fiber (the flesh underneath).
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and is not broken down or fermented, but draws more water into your stool to help soften it and make it pass through your digestive system more quickly. So, it still important for colon health and quality poops and EVERYONE loves quality poops.
“SCFA’s play a big role in your hunger levels, blood sugar regulation, and regulation of fat storage.”
Insoluble fiber can actually be classified into two sub-types: fermentable and non-fermentable. Fermentable insoluble fiber, found in resistant starches, jicama, chicory root, and garlic, feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut, which produces Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs play a big role in your hunger levels, blood sugar regulation, and regulation of fat storage, as well as providing fuel to your intestinal cells. Non-fermentable insoluble fiber is mostly a “bulking agent” to give your poop some substance.
Most plants contain both types of fiber, which is why all of us health professionals are constantly telling people to eat more vegetables. For instance, wheat is about 90% insoluble fiber. Oats are 50/50 and the psyllium plant is mostly soluble fiber. One important difference between the two types of fibers is that soluble fiber tends to slow digestion while insoluble fiber speeds it up. As a general rule: men should aim for 35-45 grams per day and women should aim for 25-35 grams per day.
If you feed the good bacteria a sufficient amount of fermentable fibers, they will repay you by making you healthier and happier, with the added bonus of stopping your cravings for junk food!
If you need more help with your diet or with your lifestyle, shoot me an email and let’s work together! Reach me at Davebrummert@gmail.com