The Origins and Power of Food Cravings


Suzanne Robin, a registered nurse who writes extensively on medical topics, looked into the research done on, of all things, carrots, and found a childhood obesity connection. Parents are always asking, “How do I get my kids to eat vegetables?,” and it looks like the answer is simple. Moms, eat the vegetables while pregnant, and keep on eating the vegetables while nursing.

Researcher Judy Menella found that when a baby starts on solid foods, carrots (and presumably, other vegetables) will be more palatable if the baby has been prepared for the experience by first getting vegetables translated into breast milk. Robin says:

When you’re breastfeeding, anything you ingest will reach your baby. … [B]abies exposed to carrots in breast milk or before birth were more likely to eat carrot-flavored cereal without negative facial expressions.

You want to watch out for an allergy, and with the carrots there’s a condition of excess called carotenemia. But don’t worry — if the baby starts to turn orange, it’s harmless, and the tint will eventually fade away.

Can kids be born with a craving for carrots instead of chocolate-covered bacon? Apparently so. Susmita Baral also wrote about the Judy Menella research, with more of an emphasis on the pregnancy angle. Obviously, well-nourished mothers pass on a better quality of nutriment to their babies. The prenatal diet can also shape food preferences, and Baral explains how:

… [A]s babies grow in the womb, they begin to ingest up to a liter of amniotic fluid a day. Since the taste receptors on the fetus tongues and nasal openings are developing, the fetus is exposed to flavors that he or she will prefer as an infant… When the babies were five months old… babies who had been exposed to carrot juice while in the womb were more willing to eat carrot cereal.

Mark Clare, whose field is design, is interested in ways to influence human behavior, and that means awareness that cravings can really throw a big monkey wrench into the works. He says:

Cravings are specific and powerful. They have more visceral force than emotions or drive states such as hunger.

Clare keeps track of scientific advances that show some promise of having some influence on human cravings. For instance, he noted research from Brookhaven National Lab, concerning cocaine addiction. Recovering addicts learn to avoid “drug cues” including the places and people that will encourage them to relapse (otherwise known as temptation).

In real life, this is harder to do when circumstances take a person by surprise. But that team of researchers found that even cocaine abusers can be trained to “exert greater cognitive control” and thus resist even unanticipated “drug cues.” Clare says:

So there is scientific evidence to encourage the design of post-cue self control strategies even when faced with something as powerful as the craving for cocaine… This is an important finding because often it is assumed that once exposed to a cue or trigger our capacity for self control approaches zero.

The study, whose lead author was Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, seems to indicate that will power actually works. The experiment involved wiring up addicts to PET devices, and having them watch videos of people enjoying cocaine. The page linked above shows the brain scan pictures.

According to a press release:

When the subjects were told to inhibit their craving while watching the cocaine-cues video (cognitive inhibition), activity in the brain regions shown in blue decreased. The researchers say this deactivation is a way for the brain to ‘tune out’ the cocaine cues and is an indication of their ability to inhibit craving… During inhibition, research subjects also reported lower levels of craving compared with the no-inhibition video condition. Because inhibitory control is crucial for regulating emotions and desires, the findings from this study could have implications for other disorders involving loss of behavioral control, such as gambling and obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Carrots During Breastfeeding,” LIVESTRONG.COM, 12/08/11
Source: “The Science Behind Craving,” Splashlife, 06/09/11
Source: “Brain Scan Study Shows Cocaine Abusers Can Control Cravings,”, 11/30/09
Image by John Morgan, used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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