Have you ever wondered why we are so drawn to certain foods, particularly foods that are not exactly good for us, like pizza, doughnuts, chocolate, and ice cream? Some experts have said a lot of our cravings are the result of sugar addiction, but now, another potential logic has emerged. Many of our so-called “comfort foods” have just about a 1-2 ratio of fat to carbohydrates. Studies are emerging with answers for why we crave this combination so fiercely.
In 2018, Yale University published a study concluding that the 1-2 ratio of fat to carbs has a synergistic effect on our brains, meaning that the combination rather than just fat or just carbs is what attracts us far more than just one or the other separately. We value this specific ratio in our food so much that it seems we will pay three times more for it than foods with just fat or carbs alone. so says the study.
Why is this ratio so magical?
There is only one food found in nature with this specific ratio: human breast milk. Breast milk has three to five percent fat and around seven percent carbohydrates, which is about a 1-2 ratio of fat to carbohydrates. Scientists are thinking that babies who are breastfed start to crave a similar composition of food later in life because they have a physiological connection to it. Breast milk provided them with their best nutrients during the period of life when they were most comfortable and highly impressionable.
Breast milk is the first form of food we get in life, and that is a powerful thing. At a young age, the youngest age in fact, we learn that this food, breast milk, is rewarding because it makes us feel satisfied. It makes sense then that we continue to crave the same ratio of fat to carbs in our food throughout our lifetimes.
Every human brain has what is called the reward pathway, where we get pleasure by way of our brain releasing dopamine to promote behaviors that are biologically beneficial. The dopamine (pleasure) is the reward for eating this food, which in turn makes us want more of it. We are actually taught to want more of it because of this system of reward our brains provide.
What happens when you don’t get foods with this ratio?
This 2-1 fat to carb ratio in our food is not the only thing that triggers a release of dopamine in the brain. Drugs like opioids, nicotine, and alcohol provide a similar effect. This explains why not allowing ourselves to eat those foods can cause negative emotional reactions not so different from drug withdrawal.
The reason why drugs are so addictive is because of this system of reward our brains created initially to promote biologically beneficial eating behaviors. The 2-1 fat to carb ratio can be seen, then, as a sort of drug. We are beckoned by our very genes to eat foods with this ratio because of the pleasure our brain provides when we do.
Even more, the fact that foods with this ratio, like pizza and ice cream, are so readily available and in our faces makes it that much harder to resist them. Just seeing the foods trigger the memory of eating them in our brains and the reward circuit is already queued up, creating a craving. It’s a powerful and profound force indeed.
Worse, when we are vulnerable, for instance in a state of anxiety or depression, we crave the dopamine release we get from the fat-carb combo even more, causing us to eat these foods when we are not even hungry. This then can easily lead to overconsumption.
Luckily, in addition to the reward pathway, our brain is also equipped with a “self-control” mechanism. Now, we just need to learn how to put it into action when we need it most.