Wishing you could control certain food cravings is a common fantasy, and feeling guilty after not being able to do so is a common consequence. The guilt comes from the assumption that you should be in complete control and are to blame if you’re not.

However, recent research suggests that food cravings might not be entirely about us. After studying eating behavior and the microbes in the human gut, some researchers have argued that certain organisms in our bodies are partial to certain nutrients and, as a result, influence our eating behavior through our cravings. For example, particular microbes grow best on carbs while others seem to prefer fiber. Scientists even suspect that such microbes can influence our eating by affecting our mood through the secretion of hormones. The research in this area is not conclusive, but it certainly is interesting.

Perhaps, in addition to psychological reasons, there might be physiological reasons why people don’t need to be so hard on themselves if they don’t have absolute control over their cravings. This is not to say, however, that we are powerless when it comes to cravings or that we don’t bear any responsibility for our eating and health.

The body is a complicated machine, with no one system having total control over the others. The better we take care of the machine by keeping everything in balance, the more harmoniously the systems function together. That’s why knowing that certain microbes might influence our cravings is interesting but not reason to fear or give up.

In the course of therapy for eating and weight problems, for example, people improve their health and eating, and recover from eating disorders by approaching the problem from different angles at the same time. Cravings can diminish over time by doing a number of things: becoming less perfectionistic, reducing anxiety and stress levels, improving self-esteem, becoming more active, getting better nutrition, getting better sleep, working on long-standing resentments and emotional pain, becoming less rigid about life, getting rid of toxic relationships, drinking more water, working on drug habits, being more compassionate with oneself.

John reported that he got rid of his daily sweet cravings by learning to reach for the sweetness in life instead of in food.

As a child, John felt that he wasn’t good enough, no matter how hard he tried. In adulthood this evolved into anxiety and fear about achievement, a belief that money is everything, and anger and bitterness about life. Every night John would have intense cravings for something sweet, something he felt powerless against. It was the only thing he felt he couldn’t control, and he was resentful. As he addressed his approach to life and started to let go of self-defeating expectations, building on the tangible parts of a healthy life with nutritious food and exercise, his cravings began to wane. The “sweetness in life,” as John put it, satisfied his cravings, and he didn’t need so much sugar anymore.

There is more than one way to tackle food cravings, but trying to stop eating the “problem” food cold turkey is the least effective. If the research about our microbes influencing our cravings is correct, such a method clearly wouldn’t work well. And if, like John, what’s really missing is a sweeter life rather than a pastry, going on a “no sweets” diet is not going to hit the spot either.

With the upcoming holidays there will be many opportunities to practice a different approach to cravings (sweet or otherwise). Try these:

1. Take a step back and look at the big picture.

2. Consider the complexities of life and the human body.

3. Seek the taste you might be looking for in things other than food, and enjoy life.

Previously published in The Tampa Bay Times