Train Your Brain to Crave Healthy Foods
There are three hobbies I truly love: writing, baking and eating chocolate cake.
OK, so maybe the latter isn't much of a productive hobby. But until recently, I saw no problem with it. Why not honor the decadent treat as much as any vegetable if you only eat a little of it every night before going to bed?
Then, while writing an article about emotional eating, I got my answer: Turns out my nightly indulgence had nothing to do with an altruistic reverence for all edibles. It was just my way of coping with stress. And since it also became obvious I was gaining nothing but extra pounds and heartburn from my chocolate cake habit, I vowed to find better ways to beat stress -- along with healthier nighttime snacks. But how do you train your brain to stop craving something as delectable as chocolate and reach for broccoli instead?
"It's not hard, actually," said Dr. Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University who has conducted plentiful research on cravings, when I turned to her for answers. "We're hardwired to crave foods that give us a rush of calories. It's a mechanism for survival." But the trick to breaking any craving is this, she explained: If you eat something that tastes similar yet has fewer calories, you'll satiate the craving. And once there's fewer calories in the treat, your brain will stop looking for calories there over time, and the craving will evaporate on its own!
The best part: It only takes two weeks to see a marked reduction in cravings, according to Roberts.
To get me started, she provided the following tips:
Make over your treats.
Revamp your high-calorie treats so they taste similar to the original but have fewer calories plus more fiber to keep you feeling full longer. If you have a weakness for apple pie, for instance, switch to unsweetened applesauce with oat bran and a little sugar substitute instead, suggested Roberts. (You'll find more ideas for healthy treat makeovers in Roberts' book, The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep it Off, or simply Google healthy substitutes for specific high-calorie ingredients in your favorite snacks.)
Transform your veggies.
Why not try veggies the next time you crave a treat? Make them delicious so you'll actually want to eat them: Add low-calorie dressings and savory toppings, like 1 teaspoon of grated Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, a dash of olive oil, a handful of fresh herbs, and salt and pepper. Our neurons respond well to calories and variety, so don't be afraid to dress up your veggies, Roberts told me.
Be sure you get at least seven hours of sleep every night. When you're sleep-deprived, your body releases hormones that tempt you to eat high-calorie foods like chips and cookies.
As a parting gift, Roberts shared a real gem with me: a healthy alternative to chocolate cake.
Two weeks later, I'm happy to report it's worked like magic.
Chocolate Cereal Dessert
Makes one serving
1/3 cup high-fiber cereal (e.g., Fiber One or All-Bran)
1 square (about 10 grams) good bittersweet chocolate, (e.g., Lindt Excellence Smooth Dark)
1/3 cup nonfat or 1 percent milk
2 drops mint extract (optional)
Put the cereal in a small microwave-safe bowl with the chocolate on top. Microwave on high power until the chocolate is melted but not bubbling (about 20-40 seconds). Using a fork, mix the cereal and chocolate until all of the cereal is nicely coated. Wait a minute or two for it to cool, and then add the milk and mint extract, if desired.
Nutritional information (per serving)
Protein: 4.7 g
Total fat: 3 g
Saturated fat: 1.2 g
Carbohydrates: 24.4 g
Dietary fiber: 9.9 g
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