The Science Behind Your Food Cravings

Written by

It's a familiar pattern: you spend a night out splurging on indulgences only to roll into work the next morning with continual comfort-food cravings (chocolate cake, anyone?).

Turns out, there may be a scientific explanation for the hankering that takes over your belly—and your brain. A recent study in BioEssays indicates that it might actually be the bacteria in your gut that's wreaking havoc on your snacking self-control, your digestive system and even your mood.

Specifically, it's that imbalance among any of the billions of good and bad bacteria in your gut can produce toxins that can create an irritable mood. And a cranky mood is, let's face it, often the root of our poor food decisions. (Again, chocolate cake, looking at you.) These same bacteria can also produce changes in our taste receptors, which may make certain foods seem more desirable than others. And according to one study, these bacteria can "hijack the vagus nerve," which is what the gut and the brain use to communicate.

More: 9 Skinny Detox Recipes

What this all adds up to are intense, often barely controllable food cravings that we can't stop ourselves from indulging in, which then turns into a vicious cycle of poor eating—and poor eating habits.

But you can fight these cravings—they're not uncontrollable. Your secret weapon: good bacteria, like probiotics, and prebiotics. While probiotics are live bacteria that is found naturally in foods like yogurt, prebiotics, found in foods like whole grains and some fruits and veggies, are actually non-digestible foods that act as food for the probiotics.

Consuming these probiotics and prebiotics daily will help promote a variety of good bacteria in your gut that may not only help to reduce negative food cravings, but also promote immunity, good mental health and a healthy digestive system. In one study, participants reported a drastically improved mood after they supplemented their diets with Lactobacillus casei, a probiotic, or "good" bacteria.

More: 3 Reasons Why Athletes Need Probiotics

And the easiest way to get your dose of good bacteria is through fermented foods, which contain both kinds. A few examples:

  • Sauerkraut or Kimchi: As you probably already know, sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage and kimchi is the slightly spicier Korean version. They both make a great topping for sandwiches or stirred into a soup.
  • Kefir: Kefir is a fermented type of milk. You can find it in lots of different flavors and in most grocery stores. It has a creamy, smoothie-like consistency.
  • Kombucha: Another way to get your good bacteria fix in liquid form, this fermented tea is also easy to find in grocery stores and is a great healthy sub for soda since it has a light fizziness.

Plus, a recent, separate study supports the idea that you can alter your gut bacteria in just 24 hours by working these foods into your diet. So instead of blindly blaming bad days, stress or even PMS, now you can make a little more sense from your cravings. Kinda liberating, isn't it?

More: 5 Ways to Detox With Kale

Active logo Stay healthy with our nutrition guide.