Visions of Sugarplums

Fighting hard not to give in to your food cravings? A new study says a little of what you fancy keeps you from pigging out. As the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune reports in a story that originally appeared in The Washington Post, the study found that trying to restrict food (particularly carb-y foods) too severely can backfire:

Rather than ‘eating in moderation all along, you end up rebounding,’ and consuming more calories, notes Jennifer Coelho, lead author of the University of Toronto study, published in this month’s Appetite journal. ‘It’s better to try to find a balance.’

The story notes that cravings for foods like broccoli or radishes are rare. Instead, cravings for french fries or ice cream are de rigueur, as are cravings for familar “comfort” foods:

‘Think of food cravings as a sensory memory,’ notes psychologist Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. ‘You remember how good it felt the last time you had that food. You have to have experienced eating it before.’

Whether it’s possible to learn to crave healthy, lower-calorie foods is not known. ‘In theory, you ought to be able to learn to crave carrot sticks,’ Pelchat says. ‘But 95 to 97 percent of the foods that people report craving are energy-dense.’

In the brain, food cravings activate the same areas that are affected by cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes and even the pleasure of buying lots of shoes, notes Pelchat, who in 2004 published the first brain images of food cravings.

This doesn’t surprise me. When I give in to my Snickers bar yen, I resemble nothing so much as one of those rats pressing a bar to get cocaine.

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