Does your brain crave something sweet?

Are you a “can’t keep a carton of ice cream in the freezer because I’ll finish it” kind of person?

Or can’t you really be bothered about sugary treats?

There are reasons for the differences!

And there’s been research on it, too.

  • Part of the answer is genetic. Based on research of identical and fraternal twins — who share 100% and 50% of their genes, respectively — scientists have learned that genes account for about 30% of people’s reactions to sweet tastes.
  • Some people have variations in genes that affect their taste buds, making sugar taste sweeter to them. Unsurprisingly, those people also typically report eating more sugary foods.
  • Another study found that a gene that controls the levels of a hormone produced by the liver influences people’s preference for sweets. Your liver releases the hormone after you eat sugar or carbohydrates, which are converted to glucose in the body. The hormone signals to the brain that it doesn’t need any more glucose, resulting in you feeling satisfied. However, some people have a genetic variant where the default level of this hormone is lower than normal, leaving you constantly craving cookies.
  • Other research has found that people who eat more sweets carry a gene variant that’s associated with obesity. However, this gene doesn’t have anything to do with taste perception; it’s linked to impulsivity. Specifically, people with the genetic variant have less activity in a brain region implicated in self-control. Interestingly, this same area has also been found to be underactive in people with drug addiction.
  • Along these lines, there’s an argument that sugary, fatty foods could be a type of addictive substance because they activate the same reward circuitry in the brain as drugs of abuse. Both cause the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and opioids, which, in addiction research circles, are known as the “wanting” and “liking” chemicals, respectively. Dopamine prompts feelings of anticipation and desire while opioids are associated with blissful pleasure and satisfaction.
  • When you bite into a candy bar or even just look at a piece of cake, your brain’s craving and reward circuitry lights up, just like a drug user’s does when they view pictures of their substance of choice. (Broccoli and spinach do not have these same effects on the brain.) It’s important to note, though, that this overlap doesn’t mean that we are “addicted” to sugary, fatty foods. Rather, drugs of abuse hijack the neural circuitry triggered by natural rewards that are evolutionarily reinforced, like food and sex.
  • Humans evolved these hyper responses to foods high in fat and sugar millennia ago when calories were harder to come by. Our brains and bodies want the most bang for their buck, so our brains desire and prioritize highly palatable, calorie-dense foods that, if we’re suddenly forced into a famine, will sustain our bodies for longer.


Try this to tame your cravings

Most of the time when we crave something sweet or salty, it’s not prompted by a spontaneous urge within ourselves but a trigger from our environment, like an advertisement for McDonald’s or a box of chocolates sitting on the counter. If you’re trying to conquer your cravings, the best thing you can do is avoid the trigger — i.e., don’t buy (or let your spouse buy) those sweets, or change your commute so you don’t pass your favorite fast-food outlet every day.

If that isn’t an option, Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University, recommends tapping your forehead and counting backward from 100 when cravings strike.


“Cravings tend to happen in shorter-term memory,” she explains in an Elemental article on the neuroscience of cravings from last year. “You can push them out by focusing on a task.” 100, 99, 98, 97…

[Based on an article in Elemental, by senior writer Dana Smith}

How do you deal with cravings? Have YOU found a way to overcome them? Do share your thoughts with all of us!