It happens to just about everyone at some point or another during their dieting journey. You stick to your weight loss plan, calorie limitations, exercise schedule, and ingredient restrictions. You’re starting to feel good – or maybe you feel down – and that’s when it strikes: a craving for sweets.
Maybe it’s the deluxe gourmet cupcake in the window at the boutique bakery down the street from your office, or maybe it’s just the decadent new flavor of ice cream at the grocery store. No matter what it’s for, the craving is strong, and it’s hard to resist.
Maybe you give in and can’t help sugar cravings, as everyone is wont to do from time to time, or maybe your will is strong enough to stop the sugar craving and snack on something healthy. Either way, your diet would be a lot easier to stick to without the craving.
Is Suppressing Sugar Cravings Actually Possible?
At the moment, not exactly – though appetite suppressants can be helpful to those looking to curb sugar cravings for now. But a recent study from researchers at Stanford and Columbia Universities and published in Nature indicates that there’s a significant probability that the process is in our future.
In a previous study, these same researchers discovered that the brain coordinates different neuronal behaviors (which is to say, forms a coherent response, like memories or emotions) based on how the flavor was coded by the tongue and processed by the taste cortex. This cortex very clearly divides sweet and bitter sensations.
For this recent study on stopping sugar cravings, they focused on the amygdala, which also clearly divides sweet and bitter tastes. Using rats, they tested what would happen if they tried to make the rats process sweet flavors as bitter and vice versa, as well as what would happen if they “switched off” the connection between the taste cortex and the amygdala. Both their neurological status and their behaviors were observed.
When the responses were switched, the rats behaved as expected – they treated sweet food (which they normally prefer) like bitter food, and treated the bitter food (which they’re normally averse to) like sweet food. They could even stimulate the response of either sweet or bitter when the rats had non-flavored water.
However, the most intriguing part of the study is what happened when they silenced the connection between taste cortex and amygdala without changing the signals in the taste cortex. The mice clearly identified the tastes normally, neurologically speaking, but they did not exhibit the same preference behaviors or aversion for either sweet or bitter.
What This Means for Dieting
The research on stopping sugar cravings in this way is still in its early stages, so how it will ultimately develop remains to be seen. At the moment, two possibilities for altering how we help sugar cravings exist. First, the reaction to sweet is switched to a bitter perception. The cakes, cookies, and candy you normally crave won’t taste good anymore, so you’re less likely to actually eat them.
This will train you out of the habit of eating these foods, allowing you to maintain your diet more easily. Furthermore, you’ll form new habits. Instead of ordering a confection after a dinner at a restaurant, you’d actually enjoy a cup of black coffee instead. Suddenly, a few pieces of 98% cacao chocolate will sound divine. Sugar-free, flavored seltzer will be more appetizing than your favorite soda.
The second is that the emotional ties to sweet goods will be deactivated. You’ll still taste the food in the same exact way, but it separates the food from triggering memories and emotional responses, which will help you manage sugar and other cravings. As the leading author of the study said to Medical News Today:
"It would be like taking a bite of your favorite chocolate cake but not deriving any enjoyment from doing so," Wang says. "After a few bites, you may stop eating, whereas otherwise, you would have scarfed it down."
Consider this thought experiment: When you dig into a slice of perfect apple pie, is it because it sends you straight back to your childhood? Do you feel like you’re helping your grandmother in the kitchen, or tasting that first, delicious bite with just a bit of ice cream?
This emotional tie is extremely comforting, so if you get cravings when you’re stressed, you may turn to that slice of apple pie to feel better. Silencing the neurological reaction would break the taste experience of the food from that comforting memory. When the foods you crave don’t trigger that emotional response, there’s no reason to crave it, and no reason to eat it.
Scientific endeavors constantly uncover new possibilities for how we can promote better health and get fit. While study on curbing sugar cravings in this way is preliminary, the evidence strongly suggests that there are ways we can neurologically change the nature of our relationship with food. Making sweet foods bitter or removing their emotional appeal could be a big step in innovating how people diet.