Trust Your Gut: Why You Should Respect Your Cravings

A new study published in PLOS Biology found that the bacteria in our guts tell us what to eat in order to maintain a balance in their various populations, thereby keeping us in working order. In the study, explained in plain English in Scientific American, researchers found that when flies were fed diets lacking in certain essential amino acids (which the body cannot make itself but needs to create the proteins necessary for growth and tissue repair), they followed their cravings to make up the difference.

Basically, when their bodies lacked certain nutrients, they intuitively knew what to eat in order to restore balance.

Though the study was done in flies, this has implications for us as well. You might have heard the stomach described as the “second brain.” This is because of the strong connection between our emotions and mental health and the various powers that be in the gut: namely the enteric nervous system and the microbiome. The enteric nervous system controls our gastrointestinal system and is connected to the brain by an intricate system of hundreds of millions of neurons. And within that GI system exists a world unto itself known as the microbiome, which consists of trillions of bacteria that are as unique to each of us as our fingerprint.

That there is “wisdom” within these trillions of organisms is an incredible nod to our intuitive ability to choose what, when, and how much to eat. Traditionally, as part of the diet culture, we are taught to be suspicious of our cravings and to see them as things to resist, distract from, and substitute. But what if on some level our cravings are guiding us toward exactly the foods we need to restore balance in our guts, thereby influencing our emotions and mental and physical wellbeing?

As intuitive eaters, we should always be paying attention to our internal signals of hunger, fullness, and what we find personally satisfying and have enough options for meeting our emotional needs that don’t involve food. This study tells me that perhaps that “gut feeling” to have a cheeseburger or salad or ice cream cone or tall glass of lemonade is just another internal signal my body should heed.