The Science Behind Cravings

Why we can't resist those fatty foods

It goes something like this: As I eat those fat-laden mashed potatoes, my brain is put on alert and starts to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward. I start to feel really good so I eat even more mashed spuds. (The carbohydrates-rich food also boosts the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin.) But if I give in to that high-fat-potato-craving too often, my brain might actually start to get conditioned to respond to that type of food. That means my dopamine pathway will start to become activated even if I just think about those mashed delights. My brain will also release chemicals called opioidsthat, together with the dopamine, will make me crave those spuds. Researchers have found that blocking brain receptors that sense pleasure actually stops cravings for high fat or sugar-filled foods. (And while the researchers don't admit it, it probably made their subjects—a cadre of rats—pretty ornery too.)

But our comfort-food craving isn’t entirely made up of chemical responses. It also has a lot to do with reconnecting with a more serene time in our lives. Mashed potatoes were always part of Sunday dinner when I was kid. I use the same recipe as my mom. Somewhere in my emotional taxonomy, mashed potatoes is associated with the carefree days of childhood before car payments and taxes. “A lot of eating is done to self-soothe,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, M.A., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. According to her, some of our food cravings have little to do with actual hunger. “You don’t need a whole bowl of mashed potatoes,” says Taub-Dix. “Your stomach doesn’t want that. But sometimes we don’t eat out of hunger. We eat with our heart when we remember how good a certain food made us feel.”

So, is it okay for me to give into my cravings once in a while? Of course. “You can’t deny people something they enjoy; you can’t say something is forbidden,” says Taub-Dix. “I’m a total foodie, and what you have to do is find balance.”

One trick, especially if your comfort food is of the more sugary variety, is to choose complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs usually contain a lot of refined sugar (think candies, cakes, soda). They digest quickly, giving a big burst of energy and a quick serotonin spike. The problem is that you’ll crash and burn quickly, too. “Simple carbs taste great, make people feel good, but don’t satisfy for any length of time,” says Ayoob. “Plus they’re usually fattening.”

Complex carbs are generally higher in fiber, making them slower to digest. You’ll still get that “feel good” glow, while eating something that's actually healthy. Good choices include vegetables, fruits and whole grain cereals.

Right. But I probably won't be subbing carrots sticks for my glorious mashed spuds. I won't have to. Even the potato is a good complex carb, minus the sour cream and butter, of course. I can enjoy my mashed potatoes by skipping the sour cream and by using a heart healthy alternative to butter, says Ayoob. As long as I remember portion control.

Which means this weeks' shopping list may include a bag of Yukon Jack’s and some much smaller bowls.

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