Dealing with Food Cravings can be tricky during the holidays

Cravings … food cravings, sugar cravings, salt cravings.

Cravings. We all have them and they all take different forms. We also know how their haunting presence seems to be accompanied by two “friends,” Control and Guilt.

Now that we are officially in the holiday season, many people are likely to struggle with food cravings, whether or not they’ve struggled in the past. The truth is, during the holidays we change our eating habits and often feel worse about our food choices than ever before.

The backdrop of cravings is both psychological and physiological — mental and physical. The mind and body work together in the food craving game. Both play on each other, so we shouldn’t neglect looking at both of them when addressing cravings.

Unfortunately, we often craft an incomplete picture for ourselves when we attribute our sugar cravings merely to a lack of self-control. In fact, this mindset can lead to disproportionate feelings of guilt and failure.

In this article, let’s consider how some real physiological imbalances in the gut can influence food cravings.

Why are we looking at the gut? Well, the events occurring in the gut are important due to its direct connection to the brain and central nervous system (CNS). You see, what happens in the gut does NOT stay in the gut! (Note that in this article, I am using the term “gut” to focus on the small and large intestines.)

The connection between your gut and your brain has a scientifically recognized title: the Gut-Brain Axis. This axis, or communication highway, includes two elements, your circulatory system (including the immune, endocrine, neurotransmitter and lymphatic chemicals therein) and the longest nerve in your body, called the vagus nerve.

The chemicals sent to the brain via the circulatory system are amazing. Bacteria can actually produce chemicals similar to our own appetite regulating hormones (ghrelin and leptin) and produce similar effects. Also, different bacteria have their own food (substrate) preferences. This means that if you have a predominance of the carb-loving bacteria in your gut, they may just be sending some extra signals to the brain that affect your own cravings.

Potential toxins produced by bad bacteria can negatively affect your mood and desire to eat. Blood sugar is also influenced by gut bacteria. It is a well-known fact that blood sugar control is a vital key to appetite and weight control.

The vagus nerve is the other highway, which directly connects your gut and your brain, that can influence your cravings. Research suggests that a highly stimulated vagus nerve is influential in weight gain. Deep breathing before eating or when stressed relaxes that nerve and can help with this. Also, yoga and meditation have been shown to sooth the vagus nerve as well.

So that yoga class you took this morning might be helping you lose weight for more reason than one! Not only have you built strength and burned calories, you relaxed that delicate communication pathway from gut to brain, telling yourself there is no need to worry or stuff your face.

So how do we overcome these hurdles and overcome our cravings? Here are some of my top tips:

Tune into your gut health.  Do you experience regular…

Bloating, gas, or pain after eating? Tiredness after meals? Cravings for sweets and “feeling hungry” even after eating? Irregular bowel patterns (not going at least one time per day or having loose stool)?

Have you had recent treatment with antibiotics or past chronic doses of antibiotics without any follow-up with probiotics? GERD/acid reflux problems?

If you answered yes to any or most of these, then you need to begin the process of repairing your gut health. You may need to talk with your doctor, a specialist or dietitian. There are plenty of things you can do on your own for starters though. Here are some of them:

n Recognize patterns. Start noticing when you your gut acts up (such as the list above), and especially in relation to your food cravings. What influences it (I.e. type of food, amount of food, time of day?) When do your symptoms worsen or lessen?

n Get regular. If you aren’t having at least one bowel movement a day, you are moving too slowly. Constipation can certainly affect food cravings so it’s important to keep your plumbing clear. Consider making changes such as drinking more water, exercise, abdominal massage (you can do this yourself), and a fiber supplement. The only fiber supplement I recommend is a methylcellulose form (brand name is Citracel). It won’t cause gas or bloating.

n Consider taking a digestive enzyme with meals. This will help you break down what you are eating.

n Slow down on the sweets. Not new news, right? Sugar feeds the harmful bacteria, strains the immune system, increases appetite-stimulating hormones and depletes the body of nutrients. If you want to decrease your cravings sugar needs to be cut back in the long run.

n Feed the good bacteria … Take a probiotic and eat yogurt (or another fermented food). The yogurt should be organic and plain. Full fat is preferable too. NOTE: While probiotics and fermented foods are great, they may exacerbate symptoms in some people with specific gut issues. If your symptoms worsen after taking these products, you need to speak to a health care professional.

n Eat a diversity of foods. Remember that what you eat feeds your bacteria which influences your overall gut health. The greater variety of foods you include, the more you feed a diversity of gut bacteria (which is associated with good gut health).

n The next time you have cravings, know that it might not all be in your head; it could very well be in your body! Realizing the physical nature of cravings can be extremely liberating! It releases you from excessive guilt about self-control and empowers you to DO something about it! With an increased awareness of the gut-brain connection and the importance of gut health you are on your way to overcoming your cravings!  There is hope to overcome them. I know this from personal experience!

Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or YouTube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.