What causes cravings for high-calorie foods?

‘Cravings’ exhibition at London Science Museum explores what happens in our brains and guts when we indulge in tasty fare

The Cravings exhibition experiment about how combinations of sensory cues affect flavour perception. Photograph: copyright Science Museum, London

What foods can you not resist? Cheesecake, perhaps? Chocolate? Chips smothered with salt and ketchup? Cravings: Can Your Food Control You? at London's Science Museum looks at how our senses feed our culinary desires and what happens in our brains and guts when we indulge in tantalising fare.

Our senses play important roles in how we perceive food, and the exhibition explores how the colour, shape and feel of utensils – including vivid spoons, a fur-lined bowl and a melodic tuning fork – might enhance the sensation of eating.

Visitors can gaze at and sniff exhibits, or pop on headphones to take part in a research project at the University of Oxford on how combinations of sensory cues such as shapes and sounds affect flavour perception.

Eating triggers a flood of responses in our heads and digestive systems. Irish neuroscientist Prof Paul J Kenny carries out research on how high-fat and high-calorie foods can light up reward pathways in the brain. “Consuming food high in fat and sugar, and therefore likely to drive weight gain, stimulates regions of the brain involved in producing feelings of reward and pleasure,” says Kenny, who is Ward-Coleman Professor and Chair at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.


Kenny, who is quoted in the Cravings exhibition, says that the stimulation of these brain regions can – in some circumstances and in certain individuals – drive a preference for this type of high-calorie food, which in turn can contribute to weight gain and difficulty in losing weight.

“Understanding precisely how rewarding foods act on the brain is likely to reveal new strategies to help better control food choices and thereby better lose excessive body weight,” he says.

Encouraging "I'm full" signals from the gut could also help to curb appetite, but what happens when too much junk food goes down the hatch regardless? An imbalanced diet could affect your gut bugs, the trillions of bacteria that live in your intestine, and Cravings takes an interesting detour into how the make-up of our gut microbes could be linked with obesity, and how research is looking at what happens to the gut bugs of astronauts over time in space in order to design more suitable food for space travel.

Cravings offers plenty to chew on, as do many other exhibitions at Science Museum, but if you want to repair to a quieter, more gallery-like space in the building, then head to Revelations: Experiments in Photography.

This exhibition features eye-popping images of scientific photography from the 19th and 20th centuries, including early pictures captured with telescopes and microscopes, mesmerising images of movement sequences as people run, skip and jump, and photographs of magnetism and radiation.

  • The Science Museum in London is free to enter. Cravings is a free exhibition that runs until January 10th, 2016. Revelations runs until September 13th and entry is £8. sciencemuseum.org.uk