Healthy alternatives for unhealthy cravings

graphic by Andrew Friedman

According to the Wall Street Journal, food cravings activate the same reward circuits in the brain as cravings for drugs or alcohol. This discovery was uncovered in a series of functional MRI scans, tests that measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

Brain researchers have documented that when people continually bombard their reward circuits with drugs, alcohol or high-fat, high-sugar foods, many of the dopamine receptors in the system shut down to prevent overload. With fewer dopamine receptors at work, the system craves more and more.

“Pretty soon, one cupcake doesn’t do it anymore. You have to overstuff yourself and you still don’t get that reward,” Physician and Author of “The Hunger Fix” Pam Peeke said. She notes that food addiction creates changes in the prefrontal cortex, which normally override impulsivity and addictive urges.

Chocolate is the number one craving in North America. Surprisingly though, only one percent of Egyptian men and six percent of Egyptian women report having the urge to eat chocolate. While sweets are consistently at the top of the list for cravings in our society, a recent study indicates that Japanese women are more likely to crave sushi. This report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that food cravings are not merely about individual preferences, but also encompass a mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues.

In addition to chocolate, cravings such as salty snacks and other types of sweets consume the eating lifestyle of many people across the United States. But why exactly do foods like chocolate, potato chips or soda cause such an uproar for our taste buds? What can we do to stay healthy, while still eating foods that satisfy?

Chocolate: According to, dark chocolate is full of magnesium, a mineral that contributes to more than 300 chemical reactions in our body. Magnesium is necessary for our muscles and nerves to function correctly.

Other good sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Sweets: Nutrients found in sweets include chromium, carbon, phosphorus and sulfur.

Other good sources of these nutrients include grapes, chicken and beef, eggs, cranberries and other fruits. In addition to eating in moderation, it is important to be mindful about how much natural sugar is in each serving of fruit.

Salty snacks: According to a 2007 article in the journal Brain Research, low levels of sodium in your body can increase your appetite for salty foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults consume between 1,500 and 2,400 mg of sodium daily.

Chloride, the nutrient found in many salt substances, is also found in seaweed, rye, tomatoes, lettuce, celery, olives and many vegetables. Salt cravings may also be satisfied by raw goat milk, fish or unrefined sea salt.

Soda: A carbonated drink craving may be quenched with a calcium-rich alternative.

Other good sources of calcium include mustard, turnip greens, broccoli, kale, legumes, cheese and sesame. For healthy beverage options, people who crave soda may opt for flavored water, milk or a milk substitute, green tea or a low-sodium vegetable juice.

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