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June 06, 2009

Why do We Crave What's Bad for Us?

Why do We Crave What's Bad for Us?

There's a theory going around that the reason we seek sugar (chocolate, cake, cookies, ice cream...even alcohol) when we're blue is because of the high sugar content in mother's milk. Sugar is instant comfort, the ready fix. It was that theme - sugar and mother's love - around which I wrote SWEET LOVE.

Sweetlove-photo Growing up in a town like Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where the Moravians used to celebrate the Eucharist not with wine and wafers but with hot chocolate and sugar cookies on Christmas Eve, sugar was a staple in my childhood and one had only to tour the Christmas City Fair to see the result. Aye, yi, yi. Asses were wide, guts huge. Thighs naturally rubbed together. Dentists drove Mercedes.

That sugar reminds us of mother but makes us fat and rots are teeth are yet two more cruelties of life. Why do we crave what's bad for us? Is this some sort of weird test?

Years ago, I read a New York Times bestseller called Plain and Simple by Sue Bender who had some sort of personal crisis and fled to live with the Amish in Ohio whom she treated like they ran a New Age ashram. I didn't like the book because of Bender's self-centered focus and the pervasive attitude of superiority...and yet I read it and remembered it. I'm a sucker for any peek into other cultures, the more cut off the better - polygamists being my preference. 

One of the many things for which she criticized the Amish was their reliance on sugar. During a shopping trip where they bought sugar by the truckload, Sue pointed to a teeny tiny bag and explained, ever so gently, to the Amish woman with her that THIS was how little sugar she ate during the year. The year! The woman looked at her like she was crazy and probably rude. (Bender had insinuated herself into this woman's home, then proceeded to mock and criticize her.) What kind of normal person gets by on a grain of sugar a day?

A little after I read that book I moved to Vermont where I was surrounded by anti-sugar Nazis, mothers whOreoso paled when I casually mentioned that I'd let their precious have a few Oreos. This was the honey-in-tea crowd, people who would buy products not with sugar but with "evaporated cane juice," which always cracked me up. On a side note, they refused to bleach their whites, wear deodorant, shave their armpits,  or let their daughters play with Barbies. Thanks to them I have a career today so maybe I shouldn't complain.

Again, I wrote to free myself from some sort of shackles. In this case, it was the sugar shack(les). I figured a whole book devoted to desserts - the gooier the better - and mother's love would do the trick, right? Kind of like how I couldn't eat a Whopper for years after working at Burger King for one summer. The smell alone would make me sick. 

There were some pretty amazing desserts in that book. Lots of white chocolate and dark chocolate. Tiramisu. My favorites. I made them all and ate them all and still, damnit, I could not kick the sugar habit.

Jackie But I did learn one very important lesson - it's not what you eat, but how much. Jackie Onassis was famous for being served fabulous desserts at the most amazing dinner parties. She never ate more than a bite of each one, carefully putting down her fork, slowly, savoring every freaking molecule in the creme brulee or whatever, and complimenting her host(ess). 

In Bethlehem, this would have been considered a sin, of course. To waste that perfectly good black forest cake? Shame, shame. But that's where Bethlehem went wrong. They ate entire funnel cakes, huge portions, entire chocolate factories. Maybe if everyone in my hometown had just learned to be more Jackie O.....

Wait. I just had a picture of Jackie O in pink stretch pants and an AC/DC T-shirt. Errr, no.

So that's what I'm working on. Not abandoning my cravings, but learning to moderate them. It's not easy - self-control's never been my strong suit - but it is empowering. And it allows me to, dare I say it?, have my cake and eat it, too.

How about you - what's your sugar status? Are you a Jackie O or a Bethlehemite?



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My Mom didn't nurse any of us, so I can't even blame it on that. I just love the sweet stuff.

At this point, I think cutting down could create an imbalance that could lead to felonious events. When the kids start asking if you 'need' a Frappuccino, it's telling.

Sarah, as I read this blog every morning, I'm also usually savoring my square of dark chocolate with a cup of coffee. Dark chocolate isn't too sweet, but it does the job.

Interesting observations. What about the Wall of Chocolate cake they serve at PF Chang's? It's delicious, but it's also as large as a child's head, and could easily serve a six-top of dinner guests, with a portion or two left over. American portions are ridiculous, especially desserts.

I once had the pleasure of hosting several out-of-town business friends at dinner when they were all here for the same event. On my recommendation everyone ordered the local ice cream, which is some of the best in the world. (Seriously, it is. Graeters, in case you wondered.) I was sharing with an older woman, and when our portion came out it happened to be the smallest one. I protested, but the woman I was sharing with said, "That's okay. We don't need more than a bite each, anyway". That blew me away, mostly because she was right.

Mmmmmmm. Funnel cake.

I am an absolute sugar addict, inherited from my father, the sweet tooth. I love baked goods, chocolate, ice cream. Love them. Chips? I can stare at them all day and feel nary a temptation. Put a single oreo anywhere in the house, and I'll sniff it out like a bloodhound.

So don't ask me to give it up. It ain't gonna happen. Therefore, I, too, am working on the portion issue. And trying to exercise more, solely to be able to have a sweet allotment.

I'm moving to Bethlehem.

What a silly question. You have only to look at my cookbook collection: fully half of them are for desserts, and half of those are cookie cookbooks. Too bad just looking isn't enough. And at last count, I had six kinds of sugar in my pantry: granulated, confectioners, demerara, light brown, dark brown, extra dark brown. Plus molasses, treacle, and honey. Oh, no, I don't have a sweet tooth. (P.S. I used to live in Pennsylvania.)

This is a great topic and it happens to be very timely for me, because after gaining an unhappy amount of weight in the past two or three years, I have finally gotten my act together and lost most of it. There are no secrets. There is only the very sad truth that unless I control what I eat very carefully and exercise a LOT, I will gain weight to the point where I'm depressed and unhappy. This means I can't eat rich desserts, like, ever. Well, maybe once a month. Some people may be lucky and have the metabolism to eat without consequences, but I'm not one of them. For me it's a pretty stark choice between being able to eat what I want and feeling/looking good. Doesn't that suck?

Yeah. I'm still on the eat what I want side of the equation.

I'm trying, I really am. I like the Jackie O concept of smaller portions of really good chocolate/dessert/sweets as opposed to just snarfing the jumbo dark milky way bar.

It's also nice to know that my desire for a glass (or two . . . ) of wine at the end of the day can be traced back to good old mom.

Soooo....Sugar (da-da-da-dada da-da) Awe Honey Honey (da-da-da-dad da-da) You are my candy girl...and you got me loving you!
We all grew up with colored sugar filled straws and a years worth of Halloween candy. It was normal. We also have more silver in out mouth than in our jewelry box. Crest kid or not!
It was a treat and a reward. And there was no reward better for eating your lima beans than a piece of Key Lime pie.
The cartoon Cathy character is always having a decision about over eating. I mean OVER eating. We called it pigging out.
My problem was I never got the eating disorder that goes with that. (Well that and my grandmother's thighs.)
I love desert. I am not ashamed to say that it can be the whole meal. And let us all conclude here that a Luna bar for breakfast is actually a cookie/candy bar disguised as a nutrition packed healthy choice. Give me a Famous Amos and a Centerum Silver and I'm out the door! And happier!
Want some candy little girl?
Yes...thank you!
Just saying.

Yesterday I finished my book. I hadn't been to the grocery in weeks. For breakfast: Pretzels. For lunch: Pretzels with peanut butter. For afternoon snack: Pretzels with melted chocolate chips. For dinner: My husband brought me a calzone. We shared a gob for dessert. If you don't know what a gob is, you're not from Pennsylvania.

Today: Lettuce

I didn't know what a gob was, had to look it up. Apparently, on this side of PA, they're called Whoopie Pies, which I DID recognize. They're yummy.

Of course, I'm not a native Pennsylvanian. I come from Central NY, where they have AWESOME half-moon cookies, which in NYC are called the unimaginative black and white.

This is making me very hungry. Fortunately, I just picked up our haul for this week from the CSA farm, and can eat crunchy snap peas and fresh picked (by me!) strawberries, instead of the cookie I'm now craving.

Nancy, kudos.

You can keep your bread products and your salty snacks and for heaven's sake, your meat & potatoes. Give me sugar. The words, "this is too sweet/rich for me" have never issued forth from my lips. There is no serving too big.Since I was born in Pennsylvania, maybe I'm actually Amish and was left on my parents' doorstep.

The anecdote about Jackie O. is more amazing to me than almost anything else in her amazing life. When I grow up, I want to be able to eat a bite of dessert, habitually.

If you are what you eat, then I'm fast, cheap and easy!

I love dessert. My sugar tooth is totally out of control most of the time. Remember Pixie Sticks? Pure sugar. Candy cigarettes? sugar.

But I blame estrogen for my sugar addiction. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Does anyone else remember candy lipstick? That was my favorite, before I went over to the dark side (chocolate) permanently.

Sheila, my recipes are also more than half desserts, and 90% of those incorporate chocolate in some major way.

My grandmother subsisted almost solely on Pall Malls, coffee and sweets, and most of my (large) family followed her suit. I fight that tendency hourly.

I'm with Harley. I am in awe of people who can control desert portion sizes. Me, I need to keep all baked goods and candy out of the house. I control my after-dinner urge for desert with a carton of Stoneyfield fat-free Chocolate Underground yogurt. Yes, it's 170 C and lots of sugar, but it satisfies me as well as a larger serving of a much less healthier option (such as, a nice sleeve of Thin Mint cookies, a pint of Ben and Jerry's, a huge piece of cake, etc.).

I'm also with Michele. The only way I can keep my weight even close to in check (I'm a good 10 pounds over at the moment) is to exercise like a maniac and be very careful about what I eat.

Thank heavens I have an understanding hubby who gives up some of his own favorites to keep temptation out of the house . . .

"Some people may be lucky and have the metabolism to eat without consequences, but I'm not one of them. For me it's a pretty stark choice . . . "

True, that. And for some of us, a very ugly truth.

Nancy, big congratulations.

Sarah, thanks.

Kerry, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks the whole sleeve of Thin Mints is considered one serving.

Oh the irony....I am reading this just after I baked some delicious Ina Garten Ginger cookies....so you guess which one I am! Oops. My tea water is ready...see 'ya

Sleeves of Thin Mints!!! Listen to Brian Regan's take on serving sizes on labels of foods! Hilarious! Unfortunately probably really true as well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBko_3wT44Q

I live next door to Bethlehem.

I am another one who will eat an entire dessert and even scrape up any stray crumbs or syrup until my plate looks as though it just came from the dishwasher.

These days I no longer bake or buy desserts because if they are here I'll eat them.

I indulge my desperate sweet cravings with one square of dark chocolate with my evening coffee. That is unless my best friend appears at my door sometime during the day with one of her delectable desserts. I'm weak, I can't resist them if they are in front of me.

Over the two years since I moved in with Stephen I've been adjusting my salt and sugar intake downwards. He cut salt out of his diet four years ago and he doesn't have a sweet tooth. It has taken every day of those two years for me to get here, but I now am using very little sugar or salt. My body is thanking me by fewer [sorry] yeast infections and less plaque on my teeth. I also have a square (or two!) of dark chocolate after a meal unless there is some perfectly ripe fruit. We've also cut out most starches because we feel better. Feeling better and more energetic is beginning to mean more than giving into my sweet cravings.

Having had a small portion of chocolate pudding for dessert after breakfast today, um I know where I fit in!
I am pretty good a portion control and grain allergies took care of about 90 percent of the sweets I like. So dark chocolate and candied ginger chunks, yum. Flourless nut cookies and ice cream . . .
I generally buy small one small container on weekends and walk a lot.
I am about 10 pounds over where I would like to be and only get stressed about that during PMS.
Now I am going to have my one treat meal of the week, fresh cut french fries and a creamsicle milkshake.

"Are you a Jackie O or a Bethlehemite?"


I can go for weeks without desserts. Oatmeal for breakfast, Pass up the chocolate and have a salad instead. And then, my body says, "You know what we need? A good steak and a pint of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream." The sad part is that the weeks of heathy eating do not make me skinnier, but the ice cream inflates me like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. Probably Underdog.

It's still worth it.


Okay, waaaay late to this discussion due to a disgustingly hectic weekend.

Desserts? Count me in...especially if chocolate is involved.

But, can I resist? You betcha. My doctor had advised me that it is okay to treat myself to small portions, as that is better than denying myself until I caved to temptation and overindulged.

In two out of four cabinets in my cubicle, I have stashes of chocolate (straight up), Wilbur buds, M&M's, Harry & David truffles, cookies, chocolate bars, and many other varieties of emergency snacks. And some of it has been there for an unknown while.

Why? Because it is there, and available when I want it. Therefore no cravings permitted. :)

Of course, we cant talk about this without mentioning the brownies, can we? Those who have partaken have noticed the portion size, I am sure. And Jackie O would probably also approve...just a sample, one bite, is enough to provide you with the taste and full enjoyment of whatever drunken concoction I may have decided to make.

So, no excuses for passing them up...unless you cant have alcohol. In which case, warn me in advance, and I will make some virgin varieties. :)

Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! I'm very happy to leave my comment here, and hope that your blog will become more and more color!

There is no exact definition of the word happiness. Happy people are happy for all sorts of reasons. The key is not wealth or physical well-being, since we find beggars, invalids and so-called failures, who are extremely happy.

I hope everyone who visitis your blog has a good time here as much as I do.

It makes perfect sense, Sarah! So that's why we feel like there's this special connection between humans and desserts. LOL! So we shouldn't deprive ourselves of sweet treats. But let's not forget that moderation is the key.

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