The Addictive Properties of Junk Food
We can all relate to this feeling: you’re sitting casually watching TV and all of a sudden you have an urge for a late-night junk food snack. It starts small and you tell yourself that you’re not really hungry, that you really don’t need anything else to eat tonight. Then it gets stronger, almost as if the potato chips are screaming at you from the pantry. Ultimately you give in, finish the bag of chips and promise yourself that this won’t happen tomorrow. You may attribute this behavior to a lack of self-control… but did you know that these cravings have an evolutionary component and, in some cases, junk food manufacturers have actually exploited these properties to make them more addictive?
Before we go into the science of junk food addiction, let’s define what I’m talking about when I say “junk food.” Basically, junk food is a food that is high in fat or sugar and low in other nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber. Examples could be potato chips, ice cream, pastries, etc.
Now let’s go back to a time where there wasn’t a fast food restaurant on every corner and humans spent most of their days hunting and gathering food. In this era, there was a type of reward system that developed in our brains when we did things to encourage survival. For instance, a neurotransmitter called dopamine was released when we ate, creating a feeling of pleasure throughout our bodies. This let us know that what we were doing was good and encouraged us to keep doing it. Food that was high in fat provided more calories and long-term energy storage and food high in sugar was dense in short-term energy. These types of food were some of the most important for our survival so they released even more dopamine and made us feel even more pleasure.
Today, even though the average American is not at a loss for calories we still have this reward system, causing us to choose higher fat and higher sugar options. Unfortunately, we are no longer choosing foods in their natural state that also have vitamins and minerals and fiber. Instead we are choosing processed food that is actually manufactured to be higher in fat and sugar so that it releases extreme amounts of dopamine in our brain and creates an almost addictive state.
These junk foods cause a hormonal response in our bodies, which causes us to gain fat and ultimately leads to diseases like Type 2 diabetes. Moreover, although high in calories, most junk food is void of other essential nutrients. So even though we may be eating more food than our bodies need, we are starving our bodies of the important vitamins and minerals that keep us healthy.
The good news is it typically takes just three days to break the initial junk food craving. That is not to say that all of a sudden you will think that ice cream is gross! The cravings will just be more controllable. Start by keeping whole foods in the house so you are not temped by junk food. Make sure that you are still eating foods that you enjoy or else you may feel deprived and end up seeking that pleasurable dopamine. Finally, when you are going to indulge, make sure it is make with whole ingredients that you can understand and pronounce. So, if you want something savory, make some quick and easy Popped Kettle Corn rather than getting a bag of chips. Or if you want frozen yogurt, try this recipe for Banana Soft Serve instead.
Remember, your love of junk food didn’t happen overnight so don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes time to break. Focus on choosing foods that make you feel good long-term rather than foods that just give you the initial dopamine rush. You’re going to do great at making healthier choices and quitting your junk food habit!