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:
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.
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 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.
- 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:
- Protein helps balance blood sugar; inadequate protein intake can trigger sugar cravings.
- 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.
- Avoid all processed carbs and sugar, and keep natural sugars to a minimum.
- 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.
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).