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Food Cravings: The Science Behind Them


Food Cravings:

The Science Behind Them

Animals will work hardest to get foods that combine sugar and fat. These foods provide the biggest increase in dopamine, which focuses our attention. The more multisensory a food is, the more likely a person is to crave it. An example is combining a cold food such as ice cream with a warm sauce such as hot fudge, and topping it off with smooth Reese’s® peanut butter cups and crunchy heath bar pieces. Salt also makes a food craving more likely. Any combination of fat, salt, and sugar will lead to a greater desire. People generally crave high-calorie foods.

Emotions and food cravings
If you reach for chocolate or potato chips every time that you have a stressful day, your brain will eventually begin to scream, “Stressful day…get the chocolate, get the chips—hurry!” In one study, 24 hours after activation of the chronic stress system, glucocorticoids prompt rats to engage in pleasure-seeking behaviors, such as eating high-energy foods. These animals also developed abdominal obesity, and the chronic stress response system became blunted.

The fat deposits themselves may inhibit the stress system. Food literally puts the brakes on the stress response. This could explain why people with chronic depression or anxiety are more likely to binge. This also might explain why losing weight often is so difficult, because dieting is stressful and stress increases cravings for high-calorie foods.

Similarities between food cravings and drug cravings
Brain studies have proven that when a person is craving food, three areas of the brain are activated—the hippocampus, insula, and caudate. These same three areas have reported involvement with drug cravings. As with someone addicted to cocaine or amphetamines, dopamine levels can stay chronically elevated if you eat many foods that are high in sugar and fat.

Individuals most likely to have food cravings
According to Dr David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, a subset of people have loss of control when faced with appetizing foods, are not able to feel full or satisfied, and think about food more that other people do. These people react strongly to the sight or smell of foods, and the amygdala region of their brain become activated and remains activated until the food is gone.

Triggers of food cravings
Anything can trigger a food craving—a location, a time of day, a place, or an activity. The more often a particular stimulus is associated with food, the stronger the craving. If you always stop and get a cheeseburger and fries at the mall, you will set your brain up to strongly advise you to continue getting this meal any time you are at the mall.

Food cravings differences between men and women
Women are more likely to have food cravings and are less likely to have the ability to resist their cravings. The brain areas linked to food desire actually are not as active in men as they are in women.


References and recommended readings

Center for Science in the Public Interest. Why we overeat. Nutrition Action Healthletter. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2009:3-6. Study reveals how food cravings in the brain could lead to obesity solutions. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2009. 

MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Dr. Kessler delves into the mysteries of food cravings. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2009. 

Press TV. Women cannot resist food cravings. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2009. 

ScienceDaily. Comfort-food cravings may be body’s attempt to put brake on chronic stress. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2009. 

ScienceDaily. Links between food cravings, types of cravings, and weight management. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2009.


Review Date 12/09


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