The Science Behind Cravings

Why we can't resist those fatty foods

I crave mashed potatoes. For me, an entire bowl is just about right. My recipe? Heart healthy it's not. Mashed potatoes made with butter, milk, salt and sour cream is my personal nirvana. What’s behind my yen for that fluffy goodness? As I lick the fork, I often wonder. Is it the carbs? Fat? Salt? By the time I start to see the bottom of the bowl, I ask myself for maybe the thousandth time: why, oh why, can't I resist these darn potatoes?

It turns out the answers are fascinating. When it comes to fats, blame evolution. A yen for fatty foods probably protected our ancestors from losing too much weight—it caused them to chew the last bit of blubber when food was scarce. And salt? It's the original food additive, dating back more than 4,000 years ago to China, where it was used not only to preserve foods, but to enhance the flavor. The ability to taste sweets—another common craving—actually occurs before birth; even three-day-old newborns show a preference for sweet-tasting fluids over plain water.

While most everyone's favorite munch-out falls in those broad categories, researchers know that the specific foods we crave—I like mashed potatoes but many people favor chocolate or chips—has a lot to do with what we perceive as pleasurable. And those food preferences are laid down very early in life, says registered dietitian Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. What you come to know as pleasurable when you’re a very small child—be it Mallomars or Doritos—often carries over into adulthood.

That's why we eat them. But why do we overeat them? Why isn’t one serving of mashed potatoes enough for me? Why can't you eat three chocolate confections instead of an entire box of Valentine’s Day sweets? And who among us has been able to eat a single salty BBQ potato chip?

For people who have epic cravings, some researchers believe, foods containing fat, salt or sugar actually kick off a cascade of chemicals in the brain associated with reward, memory and pleasure. Their food craving is akin to a smoker craving a cigarette or a drug addict craving cocaine.

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