Sweets Strategies: the Science Behind Cravings and What to do About Them
Halloween can trip up even the most conscientious dieter. Last year, this happened to a client who had lost and kept off 20 pounds successfully. The Halloween trap caught her by surprise. She bought several bags of Snickers, her favorite candy bar, and began a binge that didn’t end until the candy was gone – long before Trick or Treating even began! That brought her up a couple of pounds. The holidays came and before she knew it, she had gained almost ten pounds before winter was out.
With Halloween passed and holidays looming, it’s important to determine your strategy for dealing with the temptation of sweets: what you eat, what you bring in your home, and what you serve others. My philosophy is that all foods can be enjoyed in moderation. But there are special challenges posed with some foods, particularly sweets, which have been confirmed by solid science – it’s not just in our heads! Understanding the science behind sweet craving and overeating can help us eat in a more moderate and healthy way.
People have an inborn attraction to sweets. If you don’t believe it, simply watch an infant’s response to something sweet versus, say, a vegetable. There’s an automatic acceptance, even joy, after eating something sweet. On the other hand, vegetables are an acquired taste, which may take 10 to 20 tries before acceptance. This is partly explained by evolution. We’ve been eating naturally sweet foods such as breast milk and fruit for millions of years. They contain life-sustaining nutrients, and a love for those foods helped keep us alive. Also, during evolution, an attraction to scarce calorie-dense foods, such as sweets and fats, improved our chances for survival.
But there are other explanations. The research surrounding our attraction to sweets has stepped up in recent decades. Scientists are grappling with understanding the calorie imbalances causing the obesity epidemic, which is partly fueled by eating too many sweets.
Our brain chemistry holds an important clue. Research shows that sweets, like many antidepressants, increase the brain chemical, serotonin, which helps regulate mood and appetite.
“Without carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin,” says Judith Wurtman, the director of the women’s health research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Clinical Research Center in Boston. “Eating carbohydrates profoundly improves mood; which is why a handful of candy corn will make you feel better.”
When we are stressed, anxious or depressed, serotonin levels can drop, and one way people modify their moods is by eating carbohydrates. But Halloween and holiday sweet cravings may be uniquely influenced by seasonal changes, too. Studies show that as days get shorter and we are exposed to less sunshine, serotonin levels drop and this leads to increased carbohydrate cravings in susceptible people.
“It’s seasonal. If they sold Halloween and Holiday candy in July, people wouldn’t be as interested,” says Wurtman.
Women are particularly vulnerable to sweet cravings because their brains have less serotonin than men, according to Wurtman.
There have been other explanations for women’s reported increased sweet craving and indulging. Some researchers attribute the difference to the female hormone, estrogen. It’s been reported that sweet cravings change according to where a woman is in her menstrual cycle—circumstantial evidence that estrogen may play a role. But the findings are inconsistent, as some report increased cravings during menstruation, while others report higher cravings as a premenstrual symptom, a time when serotonin levels may be low.
But the bottom line is clear: “Females overeat sweets compared to males,” says Lisa Eckel, assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Eckel completed a study on rats, published in the American Journal of Physiology, which found that female rats ate more rat chow when it was sweetened, compared with males.
“In animals, having high levels of estrogen is associated with eating more sweets,” says Eckel. Yet this theory has yet to be proven in humans.
Cravings and overeating are difficult to study because they can be so subjective and multifactorial. Other researchers stipulate sweet cravings are mainly determined by culture, or by psychological and behavioral factors, rather than physiology.
In some cultures, people don’t crave sweets because they haven’t been exposed to them as regularly as Americans. A study of chocolate, for instance, found that American women crave chocolate significantly more than Spanish women. And while a large percentage of American women reported increased chocolate cravings surrounding their menstrual period, Spanish women did not.
Other studies confirm that exposure during childhood is the major determinant of what we crave and are susceptible to overeating.
I copied my mother’s love for sweets and baking; it was a fun activity we did together. In college, to combat loneliness—and just for fun—I over-indulged my love for sweets (as the pounds went up and up). I would regularly bake my favorite chocolate chip bars and caramel popcorn, both of which I made in childhood. Study after study shows the importance of parental modeling on a child’s preferences.
Availability and proximity are two of the most important factors science has found that influence what we crave and overeat, and they probably trump all of the other reasons combined. When tasty foods, such as sweets, are around, we simply eat more of them.
Chances are, a combination of factors is responsible for cravings and overeating sweets at Halloween and the holidays.
“Holiday sweets are novel, they only comes around once a year. It comes in small pieces so you fool yourself into thinking you’re not eating as much,” says Wurtman. “You put it in bowls around the house and eat it mindlessly!”
Wurtman says if you have a strong desire for sweets, it may be a sign that you’re depressed, anxious or stressed. But she insists you don’t have to indulge in sweets to raise your serotonin levels or to feel good. Exercising, stress management and spending time with loved ones are activities which will also help reduce depression, anxiety and stress (My client discovered a psychological basis for her binges, which she is successfully averting these days).
Using candy to feel better is not a great solution for your waist line. It is so high calorie, it doesn’t take much to overeat and forget your weight loss plans. For the same calories in a candy bar, you could eat four apples—or maybe you couldn’t. And that’s the point!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not urging you to be a Halloween Scrooge. I believe it’s possible to have fun with Halloween, and even eat Halloween candy, but still avoid some of the excesses that many of us have fallen victim to in the past. Here are a few suggestions.
• To reduce the possibility of seasonal cravings, make sure you’re getting 30 minutes to one hour of sunlight each day by taking a walk in the mornings or at lunch. You may be able to “catch up” on the weekend if you didn’t get enough rays during the week.
• Eat plenty of healthy carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, to keep serotonin at optimum levels and reduce cravings of less healthy carbohydrates, such as refined sugar.
• If you feel “driven” to eat sweets, it may be a signal that you’re depressed, anxious or stressed. Reduce tension and anxiety by exercising, meditating or talking with loved ones. It’s important to understand the core of the problem, and for that you may need to seek help from a professional.
• If you want to lose weight, keep your candy – or other “extra” calories - to no more than 10% of your daily calories (that’s 200 calories for the average 2,000 calorie intake, or 150 for 1,500 calories). You may even get away with one big splurge on Halloween. But if you splurge for two or more days, it will probably effect your waist line negatively.
• If you can’t resist eating too much candy, wait to buy it on the day of the party or event (or, don’t buy it). This way, the candy won’t be sitting around as a constant temptation
• Buy only what you need for the event and buy your least favorite candy. Give away the remaining candy at the end of the evening so that there’s nothing left.
• Try fun and healthier alternatives to sweets to have around your home and serve to family and guests, such as popcorn, roasted pumpkin seeds, sliced apples and fruit with nice dips
• Most importantly, if you do find you overeat, lighten up, don’t dwell on the negative and get over it! Analyze objectively what you can do differently next time. With awareness and good planning, you can have your sweets and eat them, too!
Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D. custom-designs nutrition, diet and wellness programs. You see her interviewed regularly in the media, on CNN, CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, NPR, POLITICO, Newsweek and others. Katherine@KatherineTallmadge.com (202)833-0353