The Real Reason We Reach for Junk Food Instead of What’s Good for Us

Some of the problems we associate with the brain may be a result of poor signals between it and our gut — here's how to fix this

by Shawn Talbott | Updated 07 May 2018 at 9:06 AM

You may have every intention to eat better. But when your stomach starts to growl — all bets are off.

You give in to those cravings for chips and soda yet again.

Why is this happening? The 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut are “telling” your brain what they want to eat. And they want junk food.

What the gut tells the brain, and vice versa, is part of what scientists call the gut/brain axis. I’m fascinated by nutritional biochemistry, the idea that what we eat changes the biochemistry of our bodies and influences how we look, think and feel. We’re learning that this connection influences everything from our moods and how we eat to our overall well-being.

What we’re discovering is that some of the problems we associate with the brain may be the result of faulty signals between the brain and the gut. The underlying problem may start when our gut is out of balance. If it’s not sending the right signals to the brain, it may lead to feelings of stress, fatigue and anxiety.

This may be why we crave corn chips instead of salads. Think of the gut as a garden. If we feed the bacteria in our gut corn chips, we're preferentially "growing" the ones that thrive on corn chips. When they get hungry, they send a signal to the brain to send more corn chips. That's why we get the cravings; but if we start eating more fruits and vegetables instead, the "corn chip" bacteria will starve.

Our cravings will change. Soon the good bacteria in our gut will ask our brain to supply more of that healthier food.

Related: Eating Well to Live Longer and Better

There are several things we can do to balance our gut/brain axis so that we feel better physically and emotionally. My best tips are as follows:

Bring on the fiber. There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble is like nature's broom. We don't digest it, and it carries toxins with it as it exits our bodies. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps to normalize digestion.

It can also act as a prebiotic, which means it feeds the good bacteria in our gut. I like soluble guar fiber, available over the counter as Sunfiber, because it has been shown in more than 120 clinical studies to support digestive health without the uncomfortable side effects. It also triggers the release of satiation-inducing hormones, so we may not feel as hungry.

Related: The Top Seven Pantry Staples for Every Kitchen

We need to add fermented foods to our diet. Kimchee, yogurt, kefir and kombucha all help to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria.

Amino acids are used by the body for many physiological functions. One amino acid found in matcha (a finely ground powder), called theanine, has been shown to promote relaxation without causing drowsiness, reduce nervous tension, and help prevent the negative side effects of caffeine. It's a great brain nutrient. L-theanine is available over the counter as Suntheanine.

The concept of taking care of the gut and brain simultaneously may seem confusing. We're going to see more natural nutritional products coming to the market to help people nourish their guts and brains, which is a good thing. One of the first is Amare Global's The FundaMentals Pack, which includes a product called MentaBiotics, for gut support and improved mental wellness.

What we didn't understand until recently is that our feelings don't always start in our heads.

Trust our gut. Much of what science is confirming about the gut/brain axis has been known since the beginning of time. We talk about having butterflies in our stomach when we're nervous and about having a "gut" feeling. These phrases are part of our language because they describe real and physical phenomena.

Related: The Stress Fighters That Can Save Your Life

But what we didn't understand until recently is that our feelings don't always start in our heads. Communication signals go from gut to brain as well as brain to gut. And we can learn how to maintain a stronger balance between the two for better overall health and well-being.

Shawn Talbott holds an MS in exercise science from the University of Massachusetts and a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry from Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and the American College of Nutrition. He is the author of hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books on nutrition and fitness.

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