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Scientists May Have Figured Out Why We Can’t Stop Craving Fatty Foods

Can’t tell where your impossible-to-deny cravings for fat are coming from? It’s not you – it’s the food you’re eating.

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If you’ve long struggled to fight cravings for fatty foods, good news: It’s a craving that’s out of your control. Well, to some extent. Research now suggests that this particular kind of food craving isn’t tied to your tongue, taste buds, or even an innate preference for fatty foods. Rather, it’s thought to happen as the result of what’s happening inside the gut, which in turn influences the brain.

Fatty Foods Change the Way the Gut Works

Those cravings for fatty foods may happen simply because you’re eating them. According to scientists from Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, who published their results in Nature, simply consuming fatty foods may alter the way the gut works, creating cravings that make you think you need more.

In their study, the researchers examined how mice responded to dietary fats. The mice were given bottles of water with dissolved fats (like soybean oil) and bottles of water with sweet substances. Over just a couple of days, the mice developed a clear preference for the water with dissolved fats. Even with intervention – in the form of genetic modifications to their ability to taste fat – the mice still developed a strong fat preference.

The researchers figured that the fat present in the water must be activating certain areas within the brain to make the mice crave more fat. So, they started measuring brain activity when the mice were given fat.

It turned out that when the mice drank the dissolved fat water, the neurons in the caudal nucleus of the solitary tract – a region of the brainstem – lit up. The researchers traced this activity to its source, which turned out to be the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the line of communication along which the gut and the brain “talk” to one another, sending signals back and forth that control hunger, hunger hormones, and even cravings.

In fact, when the mice had fat present in their gut, the researchers noticed that the vagus nerve itself even lit up with activity.

Changes – and Cravings – Start in the Cells of the Intestines

According to the researchers’ findings, a preference for fat may begin in the cells of the gut. Specifically, their work discovered that when the mice consumed fat, a particular set of cells (the endothelial cells found in the lining of the intestines) would send signals to the vagus nerve when fat was present.

The scientists tested this signaling by blocking the activity of those endothelial cells in the intestines with drugs. The drugs prevented the neurons of the vagus nerve from responding when the mice consumed fat. When this happened, the mice lost their appetite for fat – and they experienced no cravings for fat or fatty foods (or, in their case, fatty water).  

This suggests that there may be a way to “turn off” cravings for fat by targeting the cells responsible for sending those cravings signals from the gut to the brain. 

As Scott Sternson, PhD, professor of neuroscience at University of California, San Diego, told Science Daily, “This exciting study offers insight about the molecules and cells that compel animals to desire fat. The capability of researchers to control this desire may eventually lead to treatments that may help combat obesity by reducing consumption of high-calorie fatty foods.”

So, How Do We Avoid This Cycle of Craving and Eating Fatty Foods?

While the researchers’ findings hold promise for the future and may ultimately, later down the road, lead to innovations in how cravings for fatty food are curbed, right now there’s not a whole lot that can be done. However, it is helpful to know that those insatiable cravings you might get for fat-rich foods aren’t exactly within your control. In reality, the simple act of eating something fatty can ignite cells in the gut that make your brain signal a need for more of those delicious foods.

Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT and founder of ShawSimpleSwaps.com, points out that the findings of this study are interesting, but not necessarily applicable to humans just yet: “The gut is a HOT area of research because we’re finding it really is a powerhouse in the body that plays a role in much more than keeping our system regular! While I love to see research evolving, I always advise consumers to use caution when evaluating the results of an animal based study and interpreting its results to humans.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to combat or curb any cravings you might experience. “With that said, there are some simple tips you can implement to help ensure your body is receiving proper nutrition on a regular basis that may help prevent intense cravings for foods,” Shaw says.

A Dietitian’s Tips to Keep Cravings in Check

“First off, eat a well-balanced diet on a regular schedule! Yes, it sounds too simple to be true, but believe me when I say there’s a reason nutrition experts recommend eating a variety of foods, including complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats to keep you satiated and satisfied,” says Shaw. “A 2020 study even found that short-term food deprivation can lead to more intense cravings, supporting the fact that you need to have access to the foods you want to decondition yourself to control your cravings for them (it may sound complex, but ask any dietitian and I promise you, they will support providing your body with access to all foods to learn to incorporate them in a balanced and moderated way!)” 

“Second, consider the type of fatty food you’re craving and if there’s a “simple swap” to satisfy that craving while making it a tad bit healthier for you,” Shaw suggests. “I often hear clients saying they crave the fast food fare of french fries and chicken tenders, etc, that can honestly be prepared in a very healthy way using an air fryer! So, while they are satisfying their craving for this traditionally higher-fat food fare, they’re actually making it in a way that results in a lower fat and calorie option.”

Your brain – and mental wellness – should also be considered when you’re facing cravings. “And last but certainly not least, remember that your gut is also connected to your mood and emotions!,” Shaw notes. “So, if you’re experiencing a stressful situation and feel those cravings for fatty foods bubbling up, take a few minutes to really check in with yourself and see if you’re truly hungry or perhaps eating to cope with those emotions. More often than not, you may find that a brisk walk or some movement helps manage those emotions!”