Best of Molly Kimball: Nutrition columnist Molly Kimball will be on leave until Aug. 6. While she is away, we are revisiting some of her best-read and most popular columns published by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. This column was originally published in 2019.
Research confirms what many of us have suspected for years: Decadently rich foods actually stimulate the brain in much the same way that drugs like cocaine and amphetamines do.
Experts agree the combination of sugar, fat and salt activates certain parts of the brain that increase our desire to eat more.
Specifically, the combination of sugar, fat and salt activates certain parts of the brain that increase our desire to eat more. Most commonly craved foods (think French fries, pizza and chocolate) have at least two of these three.
It makes sense when you think about it. A hunk of butter on its own: not so tasty. But combine it with sugar, salt, vanilla and flour to make cookie dough? Now you’re talking. And the more textures and flavors that a product has, the harder it is to resist.
Food makers know about this weakness of ours, and they use it to their advantage. How else do you explain the evolution of ice cream flavors? One popular brand offers a flavor dubbed “Chubby Hubby, ” featuring fudge-covered peanut butter-filled pretzels in vanilla malt ice cream, with ribbons of fudge and peanut butter swirled throughout. That’s far more intriguing — and addictive — than plain chocolate or vanilla.
But we can’t blame our cravings entirely on the food industry; we must accept responsibility for our own behaviors. So what is it within us that makes these cravings so powerful, giving them such a hold on our otherwise rational minds?
One school of thought is that food cravings are a sign of nutrient deficiencies. If we crave cheese, the thinking goes, we must need more calcium; if we crave a juicy steak, we’re possibly low on iron.
While this theory may make us feel less guilty about our cravings, there is no research to back it up. Nor does it pass the logic test: If food cravings were truly linked to our need for nutrients, then why don’t more of us crave Brussels sprouts or kale?
The more credible theory posits that our cravings are an acquired habit. Though strong cravings might feel very primal, researchers are finding that they’re actually influenced by our environment and experiences. Certain places, sights, sounds, smells, even memories or the time of day can subconsciously trigger cravings.
Going long periods of time without eating can also cause cravings. When our blood- sugar levels drop, we often reach for high-calorie foods, instinctively looking for a quick boost of energy.
I’ve written about the hunger hormones that are released when several hours have passed between meals. These hormones can also trigger cravings: some specifically for high-fat items, others for carbohydrate-rich foods.
These hormones are influenced by fluctuating estrogen levels (helping to explain the cravings often experienced during pregnancy or premenstrual syndrome), as well as sleep deprivation and stress.
So, no, you’re not just imagining it: High levels of stress can increase your cravings for high-fat, high-calorie foods. These foods temporarily might help reduce stress hormones, and the rush of “feel-good” chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins can further perpetuate the brain’s association of food with pleasure.
Fortunately, it is entirely possible to develop strategies to help manage your cravings.
First, try to pinpoint where your cravings are coming from. Recognize what events or emotions are triggering these seemingly irresistible cravings.
Are you bored, looking for a distraction? Perhaps you’re tired, looking for a pick-me-up? Or it might be entirely situational: Every time you stop by your parents’ house, you forage through the fridge and pantry because, well, that’s what you’ve always done at your parents’ house. Or every time you head into the French Quarter, you’ve suddenly crave beignets.
Once you realize where your cravings are coming from, they’re easier to manage.
Next, add a sense of structure to your day. Think ahead to what your day will be like, where you’ll be, and what you’ll be eating for meals and snacks. Anticipate how you’ll handle situations when you encounter certain foods you crave.
Make sure to eat foods that you love and incorporate a variety of tastes and textures to avoid nutritional burnout. And avoid labeling even your most-craved foods as off-limits — this only adds to their allure.
If a snack attack does sneak up on you — despite your self-awareness and preparation — try to wait it out. If your craving is still strong after 20 minutes, try seeking out a healthier option that satisfies you but doesn’t increase your drive for more: Think veggies with Greek yogurt dip instead of polishing off a bag of chips; a chocolatey high protein, low sugar nutrition bar in place of a candy bar. Still not cutting it? See if you can get by with a smaller portion of the real thing, such as a snack-size bag of chips, or a square or two of extra-dark chocolate instead of a full-size Hershey bar.
Fighting your cravings doesn’t have to be a losing battle. Pay attention to what foods help to stabilize your blood-sugar levels and keep you feeling fuller longer. Set yourself up for victory by preparing for the inevitable temptations and anticipating how you’ll respond. Stock up on healthy alternatives or smaller portions for your favorite foods so that you can quiet your cravings while maintaining your healthy habits.
Editor’s note: Registered dietitian Molly Kimball offers brand-name products as a consumer guide; she does not solicit product samples nor is she paid to recommend items.
Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MollyKimballRD on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Check out her weekly podcast by searching “Molly Kimball” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app.