If you’ve never craved for some late-night snacks, you’re lying. Now do me a favour and try to recall the food you default to craving on those nights, try to recollect what your tongue longed so much for after dinners. Most probably, it’s something sweet.
Sweet treats pervade our culture — from the presence of desserts, widely-used slang terms such as ‘sweet-tooth’ (I don’t hear salt-tooth anywhere), and humongous stores dedicated solely for our sweet cravings (I’m looking at you Candylicious).
But have you ever wondered why? Why do sweets taste so good? Are cravings and the association with sweets just a coincidental phenomenon? Or were we conditioned this way? Is this a question of nature or nurture? Both, actually.
When it comes to sweet-tooth cravings, both biological (nature) and psychological (nurture) aspects are intertwined and it can be quite difficult to distinguish between the two. But science and research have two unique hypotheses that may be able to explain the contributions of both nature and nurture in separate.
Biological dependency towards sugars
Long before we developed agricultural settlements, we were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors relied heavily on nature and the seasons, which naturally meant food supply was almost always scarce. We had to hunt wild animals down and forage for whatever seasonal produce was available.
Hunting — that’s sexy. We’ve read stories about mammoth hunting and prehistoric fishing, but gathering isn’t quite as sexy.
We’re talking fruits, and veggies, and nuts, and grains. Whatever was available. And we couldn’t complain, we had to make do. Here’s where things take a turn for the interesting.
Animals taste relatively the same as they age — veal and beef don’t taste so different, especially if they aren’t cured and seasoned. But it’s different with fruit. An unripe fruit may contain more undigestible material, reducing its nutrient content. An unripe fruit is also less sweet.
Somewhere along the way, our ancestors have figured out that sweet fruits were the right way to go; they provided more bang for their pluck — that’s how we were able to distinguish fruits that were unripe and less nutritious from their riper and more nutrition-optimal neighbours. And that ability was passed on via genetic linking through generations by the virtue of natural selection.
This can be worsened by chaotic eating behaviours, such as high-carb, low-fat, low-protein diets, which are quick to digest, and therefore accelerates hunger cues. Not eating enough, such as during fasts, can also trigger your body to look for fast fuel sources to catch up with the lack of calories. I must however, disclose that current research on intermittent fasting contrastingly show that they may actually be able to reduce sugar cravings through dynamic hormonal mechanisms.
So our natural fondness towards sweets is a byproduct of evolutionary biology. We have genes in our body that cause the release of neurotransmitters — happy hormones — whenever we indulge in a sweet treat. This may have been useful for our ancestors, and yet potentially destructive for us.
Psychological conditioning towards sweets
I remember playing the reward and punishment game with my parents as a kid. Well technically it wasn’t a game. It was simply a conditioning practice set up by my parents (like most parents, for that matter) in order to reinforce positive and negative behaviours into my subconscious.
Do A and you’ll get a reward. Fail to do A and you’ll get punished. It’s simple stuff.
As kids, we have pretty low standard for rewards. We didn’t care for money or video games or books, at least not yet. Toys are too expensive, and constant trips to the playground can be too much of a hassle. Pop quiz. What’s cheap, convenient, universally available, and kids treasure? Sweets.
We’ve been conditioned from a young age to receive candy as a form of reward. Do something good and you get a lollipop. Do something bad and you don’t get a lollipop, and perhaps an extra ass-kicking. Just like punishments negatively reinforce unflattering behaviours, rewards positively reinforce righteous behaviours.
And so psychologically, it feels good to eat a candy because we’ve associated it with the sense of accomplishment. It’s almost like the story of Pavlov’s dog — who salivated at the sound of a bell — after being conditioned to associate the bell’s sound for a treat that it was about to receive.
I must admit, this article is an oversimplification of why humans resort to sweets and sugars, more so than fats and salts and other food groups for that matter. There are probably various other underlying complex mechanisms intricately weaved into this phenomenon. But the facts here are undeniable.
And let’s also not forget the myriad of health reasons that comes with overconsumption of sugars and carbohydrates — from obesity to heart disease and cancers. In fact, this article showcases 146 ways that sugar can damage our body.
If anything, this should be a wake-up call for everyone. For parents especially, to be extra mindful of the treats we inattentively feed to our children. Sugar addiction is a real thing, so let’s prevent feeding our kids into this destructive positive feedback circuit.
But for the rest of us as well, understand that our society’s sugar problem is something that we can control. Biology does play a sizeable role in our desire for sugary snacks, but at the end of the day, it’s we who decide the food that goes on our plates.