Fascinating new research published in the journal Appetite shows that as humans, we have an inborn “nutritional wisdom”. This wisdom leads us to intuitively choose foods based on their micronutrient profile. Interestingly, we are naturally drawn to select foods based on the nutrients we need to support our health.
Scurvy symptom provides a clear example
There is a clear example of this that predates the research by a few hundred years. Among sailors suffering from scurvy in the 1800s-1900s, one of the very first symptoms was a craving for fruits and vegetables. In fact, these cravings became all-consuming as the sailors’ Vitamin C deficiency worsened. Scurvy didn’t just lead to significant physical symptoms such as anemia, exhaustion, pain, and spontaneous bleeding, but also cognitive impairment and depression.
Food flavor is a key factor
Our brains appear to associate certain flavors with specific nutrients. Researchers note that artificial flavorings added to junk foods may be turning our nutritional wisdom against us.
As Mark Schatzker, one of the authors of the study, notes: “The food industry adds synthetic flavorings to foods such as soft drinks and potato chips. These appear on an ingredient label as artificial or natural flavors. If our brains similarly associate flavors with nutrients, then by adding fake flavors to junk food, we could be imbuing these foods with a false ‘sheen’ of nutrition, thus coaxing us into eating food we would otherwise ignore.”
Gut microbes play a role as well
Our gut microbes also play an important role in helping our brains decide what foods our bodies need. What we eat changes the balance of bacteria in our digestive tract. Choosing minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods is key. These foods reduce the kinds of cravings driven by nutritional deficiencies.
While the science can be pretty complex, the research findings point towards a relatively simple solution. We can support our innate nutritional wisdom and avoid being tricked by synthetically enhanced junk food. The key is to consistently eat a wide variety of whole, nutrient-dense foods.