Food cravings and the gut-brain connection

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Our gut and brain are tightly connected. It’s called the gut-brain axis and it’s very much a two-way street – each affects the other.

The gut and the brain are physically connected by the vagus nerve, which carries an extensive range of signals from the digestive system and organs to the brain and vice versa.

Chemicals, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, transmit messages between the gut and the brain.

These chemicals are produced in response to the food we eat, as well as in response to different environmental factors.

So let’s say you’re especially hungry and decide to go feast on a delicious pizza. 

As you’re enjoying your meal, a series of signals are triggered, all part of a reward system that’s responsible for cravings

The goal is to make sure you’ll remember this activity and repeat it in the future. The hormone dopamine has a major role to play in it. 

This pathway is connected to areas associated with memory and behavior. It exists to make you feel good when you participate in activities that are important for survival, such as eating, drinking, and sex. 

Our brains have evolved to respond to food whenever the opportunity was available, especially if the food was delicious. 

The reward mechanisms that control cravings are very similar to the ones in drug addiction.

Cravings for drugs and food, particularly so-called hedonic foods that are high-fat or high-sugar activate the reward-learning regions and dopamine signaling similarly. 

Signals from gut to brain influence our mood, as well as what we crave for.

Although the signals for cravings come from our brain, half of the dopamine in your body is produced in the gut.

And what’s truly stunning is that almost all (95%) of another so-called happy hormone – serotonin – is produced in the gut as well.

In a very real sense, cravings are amongst the most powerful psychological forces out there. 

They’re incredibly hard to resist – it’s harder to get off food than cocaine, heroin or amphetamine.

Cravings are closely tied to your blood sugar levels

Sugar cravings stem mostly from a blood sugar imbalance. 

When your body digests sugar, your blood sugar spikes and your body releases insulin to lower it to a safer level.

If the insulin brings your blood sugar level a bit too low, as often happens, your body starts to ask for quick energy, which is usually sweet, salty or extremely calorie-dense food.

Blood sugar response to carbohydrates (including sugar) is described by glycemic index.

Foods with a high glycemic index are rapidly digested, absorbed and metabolised and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar (glucose) levels. 

Foods with low glycemic index produce smaller fluctuations in your blood glucose and insulin levels. 

Studies show that a diet that’s low in nutrients or with high glycemic index may cause you to feel hungry or experience cravings, even if you have otherwise eaten enough calories. 


Which foods cause symptoms similar to addiction?

The foods most commonly associated with addictive-like symptoms in humans are those that are highly-processed, high on the glycemic index, and contain large amounts of added fats and sugar. 

Although there is strong support for the addictive potential of sugar in animal studies, data from human studies suggests that the combination of sweet and fat is more commonly associated with addictive symptoms than sugar alone.  

High glycemic foods

Low glycemic foods

White rice
Green leafy vegetables
Highly processed and milled breakfast cereals and cereal bars
Fiber-rich fruits such as apple, plum, orange
Cakes, cookies, and sweet treats
Berries such as strawberry, blueberry, raspberry
Potatoes and fries
Root vegetables
Chips and rice crackers
Beans and lentils 
High sugar fruits such as watermelon and pineapple
Bran breakfast cereals like muesli (but pay attention to added sugar!)
White and whole wheat bread
Multigrain and rye bread
Dried fruits such as dates, raisins, and cranberriesBrown or wild rice

How to combat cravings? 

Sugar addiction goes in a circle – when you feel low, you crave sugar and anything that gives you “fast” energy. You get the quick fix, and are soon back to feeling low again.

Instead of having quick fixes like afternoon donuts, your body really needs foods that allow nutrients to absorb slower. 

So your blood sugar won’t go up and down really quickly, but stays stable throughout the day. 

The best food for that is fiber-rich

  • Whole-grains
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Berries and fruits.

Fiberful food is low in glycemic index, meaning that it is digested and absorbed slower.  It provides energy for a longer time and doesn’t cause a quick crash after eating.

In addition to fiber-rich options, there are a lot of other small steps to take to eat less sugar and combat food cravings:

  1. Start to read labels
    Discover what your food contains. Most people don’t realise how much additives, including sugar, they eat daily. Compare products and choose the ones with more natural ingredients and with less additives and sugar (including artificial sweeteners!) in it. You don’t need to leave any food groups out – just make slightly better choices.
  2. Choose natural flavours over artificial sweeteners
    You like to bake? Start using banana and dried dates instead of white table sugar. The options are endless and you might find some new favourites. Using stevia or other sweetener substitutes doesn’t help with your sugar cravings.
  3. Drink more water
    A lot of times our brain confuses dehydration with feeling hungry so instead of eating a handful of snacks, drink a glass of water. We mix thirst and hunger because the signals come from the same part of the brain and thirst signals are usually weaker.
  4. Plan your meals and eat on regular times
    Accidents happen when you fail to plan. The worst thing you can do is go to the supermarket being hungry and tired after a long day at work. You don’t want to make a healthy soup or a vegetable wok that will take an hour to make. You probably will grab something sweet, savoury and fast, because that’s the easiest way. So plan your meals and be prepared to have a healthy snack when needed.
  5. Let people around you know that you you are in a journey of overcoming your cravings and it’s important to you
    Unfortunately, a lot of people have a mindset that it’s ok to have a small amount of junk food daily and it can be hard to stay true to yourself if you are the only person in the room with that goal. So let people know that this time you are not having the cake and maybe you don’t need extra servings.

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