Breaking the Cycle of Food Cravings: Why Are We Drawn to Foods That Harm Us?

foodcravings

One cornerstone of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) is determining which foods cause adverse reactions, whether they’re in the digestive system, joints, skin, or other organs. Each of us can pinpoint at least one food — typically more — that leaves us feeling icky. But knowing which foods we react to doesn’t necessarily make it easy to give them up. While consuming them results in unpleasant symptoms, they can be substances we strongly crave.

Food cravings. Sometimes it seems they rule us. We make resolutions to let foods go, and hours later find our hand on the cookie jar… coffee cup… bag of potatoes… and swear we’ll quit tomorrow. Rinse, repeat. Meanwhile, we continue to suffer, wondering how everyone else seems to hop on the AIP bus so easily. Look at any AIP discussion forum, and you’ll see someone saying they “just can’t handle” giving up gluten, sugar, or some other favorite food. It’s true we have emotional connections to our food, but there’s more than emotions at play here.

Our inability to abstain isn’t necessarily because we’re weak. There are physiological reasons behind food cravings. Getting your head wrapped around them can provide empowerment that trumps that addictive food craving behavior. It did for me. I remember the moment I found out how food cravings can involve addiction to pleasant brain chemicals… it just made so much sense, and right then and there I knew I had the tools to move past my cravings. But there’s even more to it. And that old cliché about “naming your demons gives you power over them”… it works. So let’s get to it!

Food allergy, food sensitivity and food intolerance

To understand food cravings, we need a little background on food reactions. The three terms defined below tend to be used interchangeably, yet there actually are important differences between them:

Food Allergy

A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a specific food, resulting in production of fast-acting antibodies (IgE) to fight off the allergen that the body perceives as “harmful”. The response typically happens within minutes to a couple hours after ingestion of the food. Histamine is released, resulting in mild to severe symptoms that may include rash, itching, sneezing, trouble breathing, anaphylaxis, and even death. With a true food allergy, symptoms manifest every time the substance is ingested in any amount, and they tend to be the same over time.

Food Sensitivity

Also immune system-related, food sensitivity occurs much more commonly than true allergy, and produces slower-acting antibodies (IgG). It tends to cause delayed reactions that may develop hours or days after ingestion. Symptoms vary, including bloating, gas, neurologic, mental, and mood deficits, arthritis, chronic fatigue, and more. Symptoms may not occur each time the specific food is consumed. Symptoms can be dose-related, and they may change over time in reaction to the same food.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is the inability to digest a specific food, generally due to a lack of the correct enzymes. The undigested food begins to ferment in the digestive tract, causing bloating, gas, and loose stools. It is not immune system-related.

Cravings: The Players

There are various players in the food craving scenario. Three important ones that come into play for a lot of autoimmune patients are: Production of addictive brain chemicals due to food sensitivity; lack of nutrient density; and sugar cravings.

Production of addictive brain chemicals due to food sensitivity

Simply put, food reactions cause the body stress. The body responds by producing endorphins, which are in the opiate family along with morphine. Opiates make us feel good, so we end up craving and consuming more of these same foods in an effort to get more of these addictive, “happy” chemicals. This then feeds the food sensitivity reactions that lead to more addictive chemicals… and we embark on a continual cycle of craving and reacting. Gluten is one of the worst culprits!

Lack of nutrient density

  • Inadequate Dietary Fats – Our bodies require plenty of healthy saturated fats for proper function of the nerves, brain, hormones, immune system and metabolism. When we consume enough saturated fats, we produce a hormone in the stomach that signals we’ve eaten enough. Depriving our bodies of enough saturated fats can lead to cravings for more food, even though we’ve already satisfied our caloric needs. Crave sugar? Try a dab of a healthy fat and see how it calms that impulse.
  • Inadequate Nutrient Absorption – With un-mediated autoimmunity, the irritated, out-of-balance gut environment frequently can’t support proper nutrient absorption. When we don’t assimilate food well, or don’t eat nutrient-dense food, our body craves extra food in the attempt to fill in the nutritional blanks. We don’t always crave the correct foods, though, and can end up reaching for something that doesn’t support our health.
  • Inadequate B Vitamins – We need a high amount of beneficial gut bacteria to make the B vitamins; with the small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) common in autoimmunity, we frequently see a lack of these bacteria, which leads to an inability to produce enough Vitamin B6. B6 is necessary for making serotonin… and a lack of serotonin can result in a craving for sugar.
  • Thirst – Thirst can manifest as a craving for concentrated carbohydrates. If you crave carbs, drink 8-12 ounces of fresh filtered water, wait 20 minutes and see if you still have the craving.

Sugar cravings

  • Blood sugar balance – When we consume excess sugars, the body quickly releases extra insulin to help balance blood sugar by transporting glucose into the cells. Afterwards, the blood sugar can drop too low again, resulting in a craving for more sugar, repeating the cycle. Chronic highs and lows of blood sugar can result in insulin resistance, where the body gets tired of the roller-coaster and can’t absorb glucose properly into the cells.
  • Unfriendly bacteria, candida and other parasites – An overgrowth of yeast, fungi and bad bacteria in the intestinal tract is common in people with chronic illness and autoimmunity. These critters live on sugar, and increase our desire for sugar and carbs. Other intestinal parasites also love sugar, creating sugar cravings.
  • Sugar and brain neurotransmitters – Sugar consumption artificially stimulates the brain to produce dopamine, the “pleasure neurotransmitter”. Afterwards, dopamine levels drop and we can start to feel a bit “down”. We crave this pleasant, feel-good feeling again…and go for the sugar.

As you can see, maintaining stable blood sugar is critical for avoiding food cravings. Some good tools for keeping blood sugar stable:

  1. Protein helps balance blood sugar; inadequate protein intake can trigger sugar cravings.
  2. Always have a protein- and fat-strong breakfast, with a minimum of sugars. This helps set the blood glucose on an even footing for the day, avoiding the mid-afternoon crash where all you want is caffeine and sugar. Avoid fruits before lunch for added stability.
  3. Avoid all processed carbs and sugar, and keep natural sugars to a minimum.
  4. When you crave sugar, try drinking water, or eat a snack strong in protein and fat.

It’s true that not all food cravings are misdirected. Sometimes we really need a nutrient our body tells us to eat. When we’re out of balance, it’s harder to know if a craving is healthy. As you heal your gut lining, repair nutrient deficiencies, and stabilize your blood sugar, your judgment of food cravings is likely to improve. A good gauge is a calm knowing, not a desperation, for a certain food or food group. When in doubt, take protein and fat.

We tend to be hard on ourselves for succumbing to food cravings. Sure, eating foods we crave madly can make us feel worse, and it’s not the smartest thing to do, but knowing that we’re actually working with physiological processes makes it easier to stop judging, start think clearly and act with conviction.

In the years before I started the AIP, I was always hungry, craving foods, no matter how much I ate. When I changed my diet, I lost the cravings, and slowly shifted to eating fewer meals a day. After every meal, I feel great, don’t crave any sweets, and I feel like I’ve had enough food. Sometimes the big changes sneak up on us unexpected. As you go through the AIP and rentroductions, you may find that your food cravings go away completely. Walking through the grocery store, those boxes of sweets, bags of bread, and jars of salsa no longer even register as food. And every meal leaves you feeling satisfied, with stable blood sugar to get you all the way to the next meal.

RESOURCES:

Integrated Medicine Institute website
“Gut Instinct” by Graeme Bradshaw, (nd).

Today’s Dietitian website
“Food Intolerances vs. Food Allergies” by Maura Keller, (10/2011).

Custom Fit Nutrition website
“Senstivities vs. Allergies”, (nd).

Weston Price Foundation website
“Understanding and Overcoming Food Addictions” by Janice Curtin, (7/6/11).

Dr. Mark Hyman website
“How to rewire your brain to end food cravings” by Mark Hyman, (12/26/14). “Whole Approach Table of Cravings” by Tarilee Cornish CNP, (nd).

About Susan Vennerholm

Susan Vennerholm is the blogger behind Backcountry Paleo, where she shares AIP-specific recipes and autoimmune-friendly tips for backcountry enthusiasts. She also geeks out on the medical side of autoimmunity, and loves to write about it. Susan wholeheartedly believes that self-education and networking in the AI community are two of our strongest tools in living successfully with autoimmunity. As a way to pay forward the support she received during her recovery, she blogs so that others will have more resources for their healing journey. A certified yoga teacher, code wrangler, and freelance writer, Susan loves climbing mountains, watching Orca whales, trail running, volunteering for dog rescue, and a good fantasy novel. You can connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.

17 comments

  • I think it is crucial to pay attention to the non diet factors as well. Stress! including stressing over having eaten something that one “shouldn’t” can have very serious consequences. Eating Psychology emphasizes you can’t hate yourself into loving yourself. Learning to have compassion for yourself, to see any flare up, etc as a gift, an opportunity to dive into the depths and have curiosity and love around it is vital. Thanks for the information.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Love this, Charity! Thanks for sharing.

  • Leigh Rollins says

    As a Type 1 diabetic for 33 years, i sure know sugar and carb cravings. What I didn’t know was that I have a gluten sensitivity that contributed to my roller-coaster blood sugars. No matter how I tried to keep my glucose levels under control, it was so unpredictable with gluten. In desparation, I started seeing a naturopath two years ago who told me to eliminate gluten and dairy. Within 3 days, my blood sugars started stabilizing. Eureka! My endocrinologist was so upset with me that I stopped gluten (she told me I wouldn’t be able to eat anything); so I dropped her after seeing her for 20 years. I have never looked back. I started the AIP diet Feb 1 to see if I could further tweak things and have come to learn that starchy vegetables are not so good with my glucose either and I weigh the starchy stuff! That was more evident once other things were eliminated.with the AIP, too. Not sure how I will cope with no sweet potatoes or squash……..maybe an occaisional indulgence. I find when I eat plantains or dates, common items in AIP, it really stimulates the “sugar center” of my brain. If I don’t eat it, there is not as much of a craving. That’s life!!

    • “I find when I eat plantains or dates, common items in AIP, it really stimulates the “sugar center” of my brain. If I don’t eat it, there is not as much of a craving..”

      Same!

      It seems that I can’t take anything sweet or The cravings hit home and then I’ve to battle against bingeing on sweet stuff even if Paleo approved! It’s sad

    • Susan Vennerholm says

      Leigh – Isn’t it great how powerful food is, especially when we learn how to use it properly? I too had some amazing and swift changes in my blood sugar status when I went on AIP. When I started the AIP, I had to avoid most of the starchy and sweet foods – I had no tolerance. As my blood sugar became more stable (hello protein and fats!) I was able to add them back in. I’m not diabetic, so our situations are different, but I hope at some point you will be able to enjoy a bit of the sweet potatoes. Good luck on your journey!

  • It’s funny how we are as humans. When I first contemplated going gluten-free I was like “NO WAY”. You couldn’t make me give up my bread and pasta! But I did it (especially after I found out I was Celiac) and I don’t even miss it now. I laugh at how resistant I was but it was fine and not nearly as hard as I had made it out to be.. BUT, now after being on AIP and then reintroducing eggs and some occasional corn over the holidays and having a huge Hashi’s flare I realize that eggs and corn are probably out for at least the foreseeable future. I am again going through the same emotions that I did with gluten when contemplating giving it up. Yet I know intellectually it will be fine. It does help to know there are others out there though that do go through this and that it’s not all easy for everyone. I mean, I blog about how I “thrive on Paleo”, but obviously I have issues too, so it’s not like it’s clear sailing. So just because someone might not talk about hard it is doesn’t mean it’s not. I think we tend to focus on the positive (which we should). But knowing also that there are actual physiological reasons why we have a hard time also helps make it seem better too I think. Great article!

    • Susan Vennerholm says

      Thanks, Michele. Learning about the chemical changes that reactive foods cause was a powerful turning point for me in changing my relationship to food. I hope many more people can have the same breakthrough!

  • I’ve noticed a link between bone broth consumption and cravings. I usually drink a cup with dinner every night, and if I get lazy and run out, after a few days without drinking it, my cravings increase substantially. I know l-glutamine is one of the components of bone broth and that is supposed to minimize cravings. So, it could be as simple as that. Or the fact that bone broth contains nutrition I don’t get elsewhere, and when I go without, it starts asking for more food, trying to find that nutrition again. This is a great article, Susan. I’ll be sharing on FB.

    • Susan Vennerholm says

      Thanks, Eileen! That’s interesting about the bone broth. I take L=Glutamine powder daily, and after reading your comment, I wonder how much it might help me with not having food cravings. I take it for my gut health, but it has so many additional benefits! I recover faster from exertion when I take it, as well.

  • […] week over on Autoimmune Paleo, I wrote an article on the physiology of food cravings. For you science-and-diet geeks out there, it’s an interesting foray into why our bodies […]

  • Michael K says

    Great article! I’d like to learn more about food allergies and sensitivities. What are good some resources, Sue?

    • Susan Vennerholm says

      Hi Michael! There are a lot of resources about food sensitivities in the AIP community. I’d start right here on Autoimmune Paleo, with Eileen Laird’s article on “Why Food Intolerance Testing Doesn’t Work”. She outlines some vital information about food intolerance and testing. One key point – the best way to determine food intolerances is with an elimination diet, not with expensive medical testing. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say “I got food sensitivity/intolerance testing and got all these foods listed, but my body tells me differently”. So, I’d recommend finding a Functional Medicine doc, N.D., Acupuncturist or Chiropractor who works with elimination diets and go from there.
      Eileen’s article: Why Food Intolerance Testing Doesn’t Work

  • La Tonya says

    Dear Mickey and Angie,
    Thank you both for your care and concern to help. I’m thankful to have found your sight. I have had joint pain for over 10 years, blood clot in 2007. And a swelling ankle for the past 15 years. I started the AIP diet last week.thankful

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Thanks for being here La Tonya–wishing you wellness on your journey!

      Mickey

  • […] resource into the difference between allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances, check out the Autoimmune Paleo site). I managed my symptoms by spending $130/month on Shakeology and drinking it religiously every […]

  • […] Breaking the cycle of food cravings: Why are we drawn to foods that harm us? – Autoimmune Pale… […]

  • Michelle Roper says

    Great article. Really put into perspective what I am going through. In August of 2015 I was moving a chair up the stairs when I heard a pop in my groin. After 8 hours in the ER they told me I did not have a hernia (which I did) but that my lymph node was enlarged and my white cells were at a 3.2. First thought was, “I have cancer”. Lymph node removed, no cancer – yea! On to Infectious Disease Specialist and 28 viles of blood, could find nothing. On to a Hematologist who has been testing my blood once a month and they are stumped. All they could tell me is that I have too many Antibodies that are attacking my white cells but can’t offer a cure. I do have Hashimoto’s, had it for 10 years. Was told that I can’t take medication for it because it will make my heart race and I have a heart murmur. Good thing because I hate taking medication. I have given up on doctors trying to figure me out. After feeling like a slug and sick to my stomach all the time, I found this site and I am going to attempt to heal myself from the inside. Wish me luck !!

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