There’s a reason some of us crave gooey desserts when we’re feeling low: They’re rooted in happy associations, explains Susan Bowerman, RD, assistant director of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition. “These kinds of cravings come from long-established patterns,” she says, “like memories from when we were kids and were soothed with cookies or rewarded for doing well with ice cream.” Tastes, textures and aromas that summon these positive personal memories all have the ability to make us smile, and sweet treats—especially chocolate—are top happiness triggers.
Going too far in indulging nostalgic cravings can backfire: A new study from Harvard Medical School suggests that eating high-glycemic foods that spike your blood sugar can cause strong cravings for more just hours later. And it isn’t a mild kind of hankering, either: Researchers at Yale University demonstrated with MRI scans that the same reward circuits were activated in the brains of women shown pictures of milk shakes as those seen in addicts craving drugs or alcohol.
To get your sweet fix without getting trapped in this cycle, opt for fragrant treats with lots of flavor but less sugar, plus fiber or protein to slow digestion for maximum staying power, Bowerman says. Try a bowl of strawberries dipped in two squares of melted dark chocolate, a cup of low-fat yogurt with a tablespoon of honey or cinnamon-spiced tea with skim milk.