By Ashton Jackson, RD, LD/N
We all have cravings for specific foods and beverages every now and then. Our cravings are often limited to a specific type of flavor or even texture – sweet treats are irresistible to some while others can’t deny a crunchy, salty bite. Ever wonder what causes these items to have such power over your palate? Curious if it’s just in your head? Well, it’s not – there IS a physiological explanation for your chocolate “addiction,” and having a better understanding of what causes these desires may be just what you need to fight them off.
The Science Behind Your Food Cravings
Humans are naturally driven by positive-reinforcement…the sensation of feeling that we did something “right.” A built-in reward system in our brains actually links the act of doing (eating, in this case) something pleasurable with positive feelings. “Feel-good chemicals” such as dopamine (a neurotransmitter) are responsible for sending these messages of gratification to our brain each time we participate in a positive behavior. Not surprisingly, once an act of doing (eating) is linked with these feelings of joy, our brains want nothing more than for us to repeat this behavior over and over again!
Did You Know?
- Foods which combine sugar and fat provide the greatest increase in dopamine.
- The more multi-sensory (taste-bud stimulating) a food is, the more likely you are to crave it. A salted caramel brownie, for instance, combines fat, salt and sugar… your brain can’t get enough!
- Research has shown that food cravings are physiologically comparable to drug addictions. Individuals who eat too many foods high in sugar and fat have elevated dopamine levels similar to those addicted to cocaine.
- Food cravings are linked to environmental triggers like location, time, or activity. If you consistently pick up your paper at the local coffee house when you get your iced mocha, your brain will eventually pair reading the newspaper with this sugary beverage!
What Should You Do When a Craving Strikes?
For those who are trying to stay on track with lifestyle change, combating cravings can be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. If your palate and your brain are accustomed to enjoying a bowl of chocolate ice cream after dinner, it will take time to break the habit. A great way to stay on track without the need for deprivation is to convert your cravings to an alternate, more nutritious option.
Try a few of these healthy food alternatives to satisfy your most common cravings without expanding your waistline:
For a Sweet Tooth:
|Instead of this…||Enjoy…|
|Ice Cream||Sugar Free Chocolate Pudding|
|Chocolate Candy Bar||1 oz of Dark Chocolate (at least 70% cacao)|
|Peanut Butter Cookies||Puffed Peanut Butter Cereal|
|Banana Split w/ Ice Cream||Banana Split w/ Yogurt|
|Birthday Cake||Angel Food Cake w/ Fresh Strawberries|
|Apple Pie||Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal|
|Milkshake||Skim Chocolate Milk (try blending it with ice!)|
|Brownies||Chocolate-Covered Strawberries or Bananas|
For a Salty Bite:
|Instead of this…||Enjoy…|
|Potato Chips||Low Fat, Lightly Salted Popcorn|
|Tortilla Chips w/ Salsa||Sliced Cucumber w/ Salsa|
|French Fries||Lightly Salted Edamame in the Pod|
|Packaged Snack Crackers||Roasted Chickpeas|
|Take-out Pizza||English Muffin Pizza|
|Mashed Potatoes||Mashed Cauliflower|
If you struggle with understanding food cravings that are threatening to jeopardize your weight maintenance efforts, a consultation with a Registered Dietitian can help.