Written by: Kevin Cann
We all know the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables in our diets. Most of us have read the testimonials and know people that rave about the health benefits associated with consuming a paleo diet. Some of us may have even read studies touting the superiority of the paleo diet.
Even with all of this knowledge why do some of us struggle to stick with the diet? Why is it so hard to consume a diet consisting of meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds? Seriously, how hard can a diet be to maintain when it allows you to eat bacon?
The reason why it is so difficult is because of the hyper palatability of modern foods combined with our modern lifestyle. These two things are the driving forces behind the current obesity epidemic we are facing. Our modern lifestyles are leading to us having food cravings and when we encounter these food cravings what do we typically reach for? Usually not more non-starchy vegetables.
There are four areas of our lifestyle that can drive our food cravings. These four areas are bacterial, nutritional, emotional, and physical. We need to have an understanding of all four and the ability to assess the root causes of our cravings that are making our abilities to stick to a healthy diet almost impossible.
We have more bacteria in our bodies then we have human cells. Bacteria are living organisms and just like all other organisms have evolved to the stressors placed upon them to get what they need. One way our gut bacteria can get what they need is from driving our mood and behavior.
Our gut bacteria can alter our behavior by sending molecular signals to our nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. Researchers believe that our gut bacterium affects our food choices by enacting upon our vagus nerve. They change taste receptors, produce toxins that make us feel terrible, and also produce chemicals to give us a reward response. They do this to encourage us to eat foods that they need to survive and also to starve other bacteria in the gut (1).
Our gut bacteria are constantly at war with rival bacteria. Starving the competitive bacteria is one way in which the other side can gain an upper hand. These bacteria have evolved with us over millions of years and it only seems logical that they would learn how to best manipulate their environment for the survival of their species. We need to make sure that our gut microbiome is kept in balance to help alleviate cravings. Eating a plentiful amount of fruits and vegetables along with supplementing probiotics and resistant starch we can help develop a strong community of beneficial bacteria.
Nutritional deficiencies will also drive cravings. In this modern day we consume the majority of our calories from processed and refined foods. These foods are high in calories and low in nutrients. Our body is built to survive and reproduce. If we do not get necessary nutrients our body will tell us we are hungry so that we keep eating until we get the necessary nutrients.
In fact, nutrient deficiencies are known in the literature as “hidden hunger.” It is estimated that nearly 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies (2). Making sure we are eating a highly nutrient dense diet is critical. I recommend all of my clients get 9-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
Even when consuming this many servings of fruits and vegetables people can become deficient in nutrients. I live in Massachusetts and cannot get enough vitamin D from the sun during winter months. We must also make sure our digestion is adequate. Many people suffer from poor digestion and adding in some digestive enzymes at meal time can help make sure we are breaking down the foods properly to get those critical nutrients.
Emotions are also a driving force behind our cravings. This happens to all of us at some point, but affects some more than others. Ever have a long week at work and come home on a Friday and say “I need a drink after that week.” That is our emotions controlling our cravings.
When we suffer from emotional or physical pain, endorphins are released. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that allow us to deal with that pain and continue moving forward. Some drugs actually work along this pathway. Morphine is one that elicits a strong response from our endorphins. Food can have a similar effect as morphine and help numb the pain of a tough day.
If we constantly reach for food for an emotional boost, eventually it will become a habit. Once it becomes a habit it can become our main way to deal with our emotions. This can be a difficult habit to break and can require quite a bit of hard work to overcome it.
Food shares another commonality with drugs in that it can cause physical cravings. A physical craving is defined as when a person eats a food they, then want to eat more of that food when they initially did not intend to. It also is defined as having a greater urge to eat it when deprived of it for a period of time.
Research has shown that obese people exhibit the same dopamine pathway dysfunction as alcoholics (3). Dr. Kenneth Blum identified the Reward Deficiency Syndrome. In a nutshell this states that we will become addicted to any behavior or substance that balances out our biochemistry.
If we have a dopamine deficiency, eat sugar and get the subsequent dopamine burst we can become addicted to sugar. Over time, just like with drug addiction, we will need more and more of that food to elicit the same response. This is a nice setup for continuous weight gain. In my practice I like to use specific amino acid therapy combined with a paleo diet to help balance out someone’s biochemistry.
If weight loss is your goal, or you are struggling to stick with a paleo diet you need to give yourself an assessment to identify where the cravings are coming from. Functional medicine doctors can order labs that look at your gut microbiome as well as your nutritional status on key nutrients. I like to use a neurotransmitter questionnaire to identify imbalances in biochemistry. There are quite a few decent ones that can be found online. Keeping a journal and writing down how you feel before and after each meal can help identify any emotional food cravings.
It is not easy to avoid our trigger foods. They are constantly around us and easy to get. However, through identification of problem areas in our lifestyle and hard work we can overcome them and achieve the health we deserve.