If you're like most Americans, you love foods that are high in fat and just the whiff of french fries or Cinnabon makes you crave the taste of fatty foods like fries, donuts, or other fat-filled snack. That's because your gut is speaking to your brain, not the other way around, according to a new study from Columbia University researchers. They found that when it comes to high-fat foods, your gut is in the driver's seat, or specifically the bacteria that live there.

This wouldn't be a major problem unless it can be tied to the bigger picture of Americans' propensity toward obesity, type 2 diabetes, and an overall unhealthy diet, full of highly processed and fatty foods such as fried fast food and other nutrient-deficient calorie bombs. A disturbing fact: Nearly 60 percent of our calories now come from processed or fast food high in fat and sugar and low in antioxidants, fiber, and vital nutrients.

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is now blamed for a rising rate of obesity, heart disease, certain cancers tied to being overweight, as well as prediabetes (suffered by 80 million people in the US alone) and type 2 diabetes.

Approximately 34.2 million Americans suffer from diabetes, a number experts have attributed to obesity and the high-fat Western diet, but now, new research provides more insight into why we as a culture tend to crave fattier foods. For decades, a craving for fatty foods was blamed on taste preferences and even a lack of willpower.

This new research tells us that instead of being so hard on ourselves we can blame our gut bacteria, but in a vicious cycle, the more fatty foods you eat, the more those bacteria rule the gut and your microbiome (essentially the community of bacteria that live in your body) are doing the talking, not the healthier bacteria that thrive when you eat more vegetables, fruit, and high fiber foods in a plant-based diet.

How the Gut Drives Cravings

The Columbia authors sought to understand how fat consumption interacts with the body and the brain, specifically regarding dietary impulses. The study found that when fat enters the intestines it triggers a signal to the brain along neural pathways that increase the body's craving for more fatty foods. Researchers examined how fat consumption impacted dietary impulses when presented with unhealthy options, breaking down the myth that cravings are attributed to dietary preferences. By better understanding the gut-brain connection, the researchers hope to help tackle the problem of rising levels of obesity and diabetes.

"We live in unprecedented times, in which the overconsumption of fats and sugars is causing an epidemic of obesity and metabolic disorders," first author Mengtong Li, Ph.D. said. "If we want to control our insatiable desire for fat, science is showing us that the key conduit driving these cravings is a connection between the gut and the brain."

This research follows previous work on the addictive nature of sugar. In that study, researchers found that glucose initiates a similar gut-brain connection that intensifies our craving for sugar. Published in Nature, the glucose craving study found that the gut is driving both our desire for sugar and our cravings for fat.

How to Break the Cravings for Fat and Sugar

The only way to break the unhealthy fat and added sugar habit is to eat less of both and to add more healthy high-fiber foods that help the gut microbiome become more diversified and shift to so-called "healthy" bacteria that feed off of fiber foods like vegetables, leafy greens, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds as well as minimally processed whole grains.

Healthy fats from foods like avocado, olives, and nuts are a different story and can be eaten in the context of a mostly plant-based diet low in processed foods. So even if you are not "feeling" it for a salad, it could be the first step in overriding the impulse to grab the first donut you see.

"Our research is showing that the tongue tells our brain what we like, such as things that taste sweet, salty, or fatty," Dr. Charles Zuker, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of neuroscience at Columbia's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said. "The gut, however, tells our brain what we want, what we need."

The Gut is Addicted to Unhealthy Fats

Li decided to conduct this experiment to explore how animals (whether it be mice or humans) respond to dietary fat including lipids and fatty acids. The mice were fed bottles with dissolved fats and bottles with sweet substances. Although sweet substances were initially attractive, the mice formed a preference for fatty water instead over a couple of days.

This preliminary work intends to explain how dietary preferences can be formed, resulting in unhealthy habits. Examining the nerve associated with gut and brain communication, Li and her team found a spike in neural activity when consuming fatty foods.

"These interventions verified that each of these biological steps from the gut to the brain is critical for an animal's response to fat," Li said. "These experiments also provide novel strategies for changing the brain's response to fat and possibly behavior toward food."

This study provides a foundational understanding of how the body reacts to high-fat foods. The research will require several follow-ups as well as human examination, but the data shows how fat consumption can alter the brain's cravings. Worldwide, obesity rates have nearly doubled since 1980, making this research all the more urgent.

"This exciting study offers insight about the molecules and cells that compel animals to desire fat," Dr. Scott Sterson, an uninvolved professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, commented. "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."

Eating Plant-Based for Optimal Health 

Currently, obesity affects above one-third of Americans, increasing the risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health issues. However, research has shown that plant-based interventions have proven to help offer relief to reduce body fat. By avoiding unhealthy, high-fat foods such as processed meats or cheese, people suffering from obesity could curb the negative effects and lower the risk factors.

"The overconsumption of cheap, highly processed foods rich in sugar and fat is having a devastating impact on human health, especially among people of low income and in communities of color," Zuker said. "The better we understand how these foods hijack the biological machinery underlying taste and the gut-brain axis, the more opportunity we will have to intervene."

Bottom Line: To Conquer Cravings for Fat and Sugar, Eat More Plant-Based

This recent study is just one more example of the powerful gut-brain connection, and even if your gut is calling out for fat and sugar, the best strategy is to quiet the cravings by eating more plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes nuts, seeds and minimally processed grains. Other research indicates that drinking coffee could help lower your lifetime risk of developing type two diabetes.

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