The Neuroscience of Cravings

Research explains why people have intense urges for specific foods — and reveals ways to train our brains to resist them

Illustration by Haein Jeong

“Cravings were a good thing for evolution to give us in the face of food scarcity. Now, in this special time of food plenty, it’s not a good thing. It’s why most of the population is overweight.”

Virtually every scientist who has studied cravings comes to the same conclusion: What people desire is food that packs in a relatively large number of calories per bite. Blame 500 million years of animal and eventually human evolution, approximately 99.9999% of which featured the constant threat of starvation. In that circumstance it makes sense that evolution favored a drive to gobble first and ask questions later when presented with a chance to score a day’s worth of precious calories in a package that can be swallowed in 30 seconds. Hunger was irrelevant to this picture — an extra glob of high-energy food could be stored as body fat for the once inevitable days when food wouldn’t be available.

David is a Boston-based science writer. The most recent of his five books is WRONG, about the problems with medical research and other expertise.