Few people can resist a cup of ice cream, some buttery bread or a thick piece of prime rib. For those watching their weight, it’s typical to blame their taste buds for those cravings.
Now, scientists have a new culprit in sight: It may be the gut-brain connection that drives our desire for fat-laden “comfort” food. At Columbia University, scientists studying mice found that fat triggers a biochemical signal as it enters the intestine. That signal then makes its way through nerves to the brain, prompting a desire for fatty foods.
The researchers’ work builds on prior work, which found a gut-brain connection involving sugar that can lead to cravings. Now, the same pathway seems to be involved in fatty food cravings.
Their research notes distinct roles for various parts of the body. The tongue tells us what we like, such as the salty taste of French fries or the rich umami [oo·maa·mee] flavor of cheese or cooked meat. But the gut tells the brain what we want and need.
To establish that, the researchers gave the mice one source of water that contained dissolved fats. Another water source had dissolved sweeteners. In just a few days, the mice developed a strong preference for the fat-enhanced water — even after they were genetically modified to take away their ability to taste fat. That led the scientists to a conclusion: Specific, fat-sensitive cells in the gut activate brain circuits that drive a specific response — in this case, cravings.
The researchers noted that understanding the source of cravings is an important step toward controlling them.
But until there’s a pill to curb cravings for fatty foods, willpower will have to do.