Image: Krispy Kreme doughnuts
Chuck Burton  /  AP
Doughnuts don’t deserve all the blame for derailing your diet.
updated 7/7/2010 9:15:41 AM ET 2010-07-07T13:15:41

Doughnuts possess superpowers. They tempt you from the break room. Even though you ate breakfast, their sweet, buttery smell envelops you, urging you to take a nibble. You plan to split a glazed with your cubemate, but before you can say "Krispy Kreme," you've devoured an entire cruller and returned to your desk feeling guilty and stuffed. But baked goods don't deserve all the blame for derailing your diet. They have a partner in crime: your brain.

That's right. Your brain, not your stomach, is what makes you desire sugary, fatty splurges such as brownies and french fries. And recently, the mind-craving connection has become a hot topic among researchers, resulting in new insights into how to resist treats and stay slim.

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The main cravings culprit is a system of interconnected neurons called the reward pathway that evolved over millions of years to encourage prehistoric you to do things that kept you alive, like eating. High-calorie food was scarce and crucial for survival, so your brain learned to flood itself with feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin in response to tastes, smells and even people or places it linked with rich grub.

This effect pushed you to eat when such bounty was available. Water, veggies and other plant food were easy for your cavewoman self to locate, which is why today you're less inclined to pig out on produce, says Nora Volkow, M.D., an addiction researcher and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Maryland. The system worked well until modern times, when high-fat, high-calorie eats became available 24/7.

A better measure of what to consume and when: true hunger, your body's biological request for nourishment, which comes straight from the belly. When you need energy, your stomach dispatches ghrelin, the hunger hormone, to the hypothalamus, your brain's command center for metabolism. As a result, you look for food. Then, when you're full, your fat cells release leptin, which signals that it's time to drop your fork.

But as any chocoholic knows, a desire for dessert can get you to take a bite and keep eating however full you might be, especially if you're stressed or tired. The key to overcoming thousands of years of evolutionary biology and finally kicking your sweet tooth to the curb? Tweaking your habits to outsmart the system that sends you in search of junk. We promise — there's kryptonite for those doughnuts yet.

Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.

Video: Breaking down Big Food

  1. Transcript of: Breaking down Big Food

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: noticed that sometimes when they eat it gets a hook in them, makes them want more of that food, well, there are experts that say that is often by design. And tonight another story about the food business. NBC 's Lisa Myers explains how knowing what America 's big food companies know about you can be valuable and healthy advice.

    LISA MYERS reporting: Long before you crunch a chip, take a bite of chicken or smell those french fries , scientists such as these already have...

    Unidentified Woman: We want to talk about the flavor of this?

    MYERS: ...putting food products through extensive testing before they hit the market. If certain foods seem irresistible and you keep eating even when you aren't hungry, it may not be all your fault. Experts say billions of dollars are spent every year to engineer foods, layering them with ingredients the companies know consumers love.

    Mr. DAVID KESSLER (Author, "The End of Overeating"): Fat and sugar; fat and salt; fat, sugar and salt stimulate us to eat more and more.

    MYERS: Dr. David Kessler , the man who led the government's battle against tobacco companies , now is taking on big food companies.

    Mr. KESSLER: And the way they designed food, constructed food, is literally hijacking the brains of millions of Americans.

    MYERS: And causing those Americans to overeat?

    Mr. KESSLER: Yes.

    MYERS: Some food is constructed so it takes fewer chews and goes down faster. That healthy looking chicken breast ? It may be injected with sugars and oils. Why would anyone inject something into a chicken breast ?

    Mr. KESSLER: To get you to eat more and more.

    MYERS: But increasingly the food industry , driven by fear of government regulation and consumer demand , is making some effort to produce healthier products.

    Ms. GAIL CIVILLE (Sensory Spectrum): They're much more in touch with the end user.

    MYERS: Gail Civille 's company does testing for many big food companies.

    Ms. CIVILLE: Our clients are asking us to help them create products that are healthier and still taste good to the consumer.

    MYERS: In fact, 16 major food and beverage companies have pledged to reduce the total calories they offer by 1.5 trillion by the year 2015 . But one company, Cargill , raised a few eyebrows with its new campaign touting the virtues of salt, one of its key products...

    MYERS: ...suggesting sprinkling salt of fruit, cookies, even ice cream.

    Ms. CIVILLE: I thought it was very poor timing on the part of Cargill .

    MYERS: A Cargill spokesman says the campaign definitely was not intended to get people to add salt to their diet, but to understand how it can be used properly. Lisa Myers , NBC News, Summit, New Jersey.


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