Throughout my life the idea that we should follow our food cravings has been presented to me in a positive light. I don’t know what evidence there is to back this, but I’ve heard that we will naturally crave different foods to satisfy different nutritional needs. For instance, if we’re lacking a vital nutrient, we’ll begin to really get a hunger for a food that supplies that particular vitamin or mineral. Seems to make sense. But as for how true this is, I couldn’t tell you.
What I do know is our bodies learn to crave what they are used to getting. Just because we crave salt and sugar and fat, does not mean that we should indulge these desires all the time. Being unable to resist eating ice cream does not mean that it’s good for us. Reading about the way our gut microbiome influences our food cravings completely reshaped my idea of the importance of following them.
Over the years, I’ve learned firsthand that cravings, no matter how overwhelming or pervasive they may seem, can change. Everyone’s first comment when considering the idea of going vegan is, “I could never give up cheese!” I assure you every person that HAS gone vegan once said the same thing. I know I did. This isn’t a coincidence either or proof of how delicious cheese is or that our bodies need something in it. This is a chemical dependency. The casein in cheese releases casomorphins that stimulate dopamine production in our brains, similar to the way opioids do. Cheese is literally addictive. And just like with other addictive substances, once you detox, the physical cravings go away.
Despite knowing the immense torture, death, and subjugation involved to produce it, my mouth would still water dramatically whenever my roommates would order pizza during my first few vegan years. I truly believed that would be an urge I would have to fight forever. It’s a hard thing to accept, and it does make a lot of people believe they couldn’t be vegan. But now cheese doesn’t even appear like food to my brain. I have no desire for it at all. Quite frankly, it disgusts me. It is moldy bodily secretions from cows. What about that is appetizing? It’s bizarre to think I ever willingly put such a substance into my body, let alone did it with such fervor. Yet billions of people still do every day. That is the power of food craving.
Getting back to the gut microbiome, this also plays a pivotal role in the foods we find most appealing. When you change your diet, eventually the bacteria inside your gut also change. Not only can this affect your health, it affects your food cravings. If you would have told me ten years ago that I would vastly prefer my own healthy, green, vegan, veggie dinners over fast food at every opportunity, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it’s true. If someone offered to buy me an impossible burger and fries from Burger King so I didn’t have to cook later, it would be the easiest thing in the world for me to turn that down. My body doesn’t crave garbage food anymore because I don’t ever eat it.
The fact that food cravings can change so drastically really makes me question if we should be putting any weight behind them. It also seems criminal to me that this truth isn’t talked about more. Perhaps I wouldn’t have believed it when I was younger, but I still wish someone would have told me that eating healthy, plant-based, whole foods would become just as delectable as eating the most greasy fatty foods used to be. Changing your diet can definitely be hard and take a lot of will power at first. However, I think anyone is capable of doing something that’s hard for a limited period of time, especially if it means vastly improving their long-term health and current quality of life. It’s that overwhelming sense that every day from now on will be just as difficult, that we’ll have to live in a constant state of self-denial, that puts people off. It’s so important that everyone knows that it isn’t forever. Not only will it get easier, eating healthy will become just as enjoyable as eating unhealthy. I enjoy food even more now because there is no guilt. I’m not harming other beings, and I’m not harming my body. Not to mention, you feel a lot better immediately after eating fresh veggies than you do after eating fried chicken.