Why You Crave Christmas Cookies
Holiday treats got you giving into temptation? Blame the sugar in the cookies, not the fat. A new study shows that despite the fact that our culture has demonized fat, sugar is a more potent source of food cravings.
Researchers tracked the brain activity of 106 high-school students as they consumed chocolate milkshakes. The shakes all had the same calorie count, but with varying levels of sugar and fat content (higher fat, low sugar vs. lower fat, higher sugar, plus two controls).
Although the higher fat shakes activated the brain's reward system, it was sugary shakes the activated the strongest pleasure response in the brain. This suggests that sugar plays a more powerful role in compulsive eating and weight gain.
"We do a lot of work on the prevention of obesity, and what is clear not only from this study but from the broader literature over all is that the more sugar you eat, the more you want to consume it," said Dr. Stice, a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, who commented on the study in The New York Times. "As far as the ability to engage brain reward regions and drive compulsive intake, sugar seems to be doing a much better job than fat."
Unfortunately, many diet foods marketed for weight loss are remarkably high in sugar--like flavored yogurts, diet sodas, and low-fat foods-- since fat is typically replaced with more sugar. Meanwhile, Americans' consumption of sugar rose by 39% between 1950 and 2000, thanks to infusions of high-fructose corn syrup and added sugars into our processed foods. That increased sugar consumption could help to explain the spike in type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Fortunately, a study from Cornell University showed that you only need a few bites to satiate a food craving- so sticking to samples of Christmas treats should do. Filling up on healthier options first and drinking plenty of water before and during your meal can also prevent post-dinner binges.
Stice E, et al. Relative ability of fat and sugar tastes to activate reward, gustatory, and somatosensory regions. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013 Dec;98(6):1377-84. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069443.
Duron A. The low-calorie way to satisfy your cravings. Women's Health.
O' Conner, A. In Food Cravings, Sugar Trumps Fat. The New York Times.
Profiling Food Consumption in America. USDA. http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf.